Saturday, March 9, 2013

Warm Bodies: Exhuming Humanity

“Once you’ve arrived at the end of the world, it hardly matters which route you took.”

Isaac Marion's Warm Bodies has been a surprise recent hit. Though this zombie romance book (?) was originally written for an adult audience, the recent movie targets a YA crowd. If you are tempted to dismiss the story as yet another sign that we are staggering toward cultural annihilation, you might want to reconsider. Warm Bodies gives a sobering, concise and (I’m afraid) largely true warning about the trajectory of a humanity consumed by the worst parts of its own nature.
“What happened to the world was gradual… A smoldering dread that never really caught fire till there wasn’t much left to burn. Each sequential step surprised us…The abandoning of quests, the surrendering of desires, the settling in and settling down that is the inevitable fate of the Dead…

It didn’t take much to bring down the card house of civilization. Just a few gusts and it was done, the balance tipped, the spell broken. Good citizens realized the lines that had shaped their lives were imaginary and easily crossed. They had wants and needs and the power to satisfy them, so they did. The moments the lights went out, everyone stopped pretending… 

I can no longer believe in any voodoo spell or laboratory virus. This is something deeper, darker. This comes from the cosmos, from the stars, from the unknown blackness behind them. The shadows in God’s boarded-up basement… I think we crushed ourselves down over the centuries. Buried ourselves under greed and hate and whatever other sins we could find until our souls finally hit rock bottom of the universe. And then they scraped a hole through it, into some… dark place.”
This is a zombie apocalypse in which no one is to blame but the collective, growing decay of humanity. The zombies were just the inevitable product of a civilization full of people who were already dead. The plague just removed the facade. 

Even as one of the undead, R realizes less has changed than he might have hoped:
“We recognize civilization, but we have no role in it. We are just here. We do what we do, time passes, and nobody asks any questions…We may appear mindless, but we aren’t…We grunt and groan, we shrug and nod, and sometimes a few words slip out. It’s not that different from before… I’ve never thought of these other creatures walking around me as people. Human, yes, but not people. We eat and sleep and shuffle through the fog, walking a marathon with no finish line, no medals, no cheering… We view ourselves the same way we view the Living: as meat. Nameless, faceless, disposable.”
Nameless, faceless, disposable people. Sound familiar?  We live in a culture that increasingly treats people as meaningless commodities that exist for our pleasure and use. Why wouldn’t we? Popular philosophers describe us in terms of mere chemicals or meat; reality shows take a pound of flesh for a fame increasingly based on debasement.  R notes that “the new hunger demands sacrifice. It demands human suffering as the price for our pleasures, meager and cheap as they are.” Maybe it’s not so new after all; it’s just honest, and it can’t be hidden anymore. All hungers have a price.

When the story begins, R has begun to recognize that something is wrong. He should be different – maybe even better.  For reasons he can’t fully understand, he is trapped behind “a gap so wide my feelings can’t cross it. By the time my screams reach the other side, they have dwindled into groans.”

R’s path back to life gains momentum in a moment that captures the horror of who he is and the potential of who he could be – and wants to be. When he and some others attack a group of the Living, he hesitates when he sees Julia:
“I approach the girl. She cowers before me, her tender flesh offering me all the things I’m accustomed to taking, and my instincts start to reassert themselves… But then she screams again, and something inside me moves, a feeble moth struggling against a web. In this brief moment of hesitation… I make a choice.”
And so begins R’s reclaiming of his humanity. Not the humanity he had before, but an identity grounded by exercising his will in order to protect and care for others. As he and Julie slowly get to know each other, R finds that Julie may be among the Living, but she is not unfamiliar with death:
 “I did a lot of drugs when I was younger. Started when I was twelve and tried almost everything. I still drink and smoke pot when I get the chance. I even had sex with a guy for money once, when I was thirteen.  Not because I wanted the money – even back then money was pretty worthless. Just because it was awful, and maybe I felt like I deserved it. All the shitty stuff people do to themselves…it can all be the same thing, you know? Just a way to drown out the voice. To kill your memories without having to kill yourself.”
In the movie, R keeps assuring her, “I will keep you safe.”  It’s an odd promise coming from a guy who should want to feast on her, but he's already safer than the men who have been nibbling away at her innocence and dignity in ways that were more socially acceptable (or at least more easily concealed). R has enough of a memory of his former life to realize that she fears him because "she thinks I’ll try to take things from her. That I’ll slither over and try to consume her.” His ongoing promise is timely and comforting: “I will keep you safe.” 

As he begins to regain life, he becomes increasingly aware of what he has lost - and what he can gain. “I have some kind of soul, shriveled and impotent as it may be…Maybe there’s something worth salvaging.” Part of his plan involves being honest about the kind of person he has become. When he is at Julie’s house, he pulls the classic Gray’s Anatomy off the bookshelf.
‘Why am I doing this? Why do I want to know the names and functions of all the beautiful structures I’ve spent my years violating? Because I don’t deserve to keep them anonymous. I want the pain of knowing them, and by extension myself: who and what I really am. Maybe with this scalpel, red-hot and sterilized in tears, I can begin to carve out the rot inside me.”
There is something inexplicable about the friendship between Julie and R. Other zombies have been staggering in the footsteps of R, walking toward life even though there nature calls them toward death.  When Julie and R finally kiss, something fundamental changes in the world. The Bonies (the zombies too far gone to turn back) are defeated; the hearts of the remaining undead begin to beat with greater power than before. Love and trust are bringing the dead back to life. As R says,
"We will exhume ourselves. We will fight the curse and break it. We will cry and bleed and lust and love, and we will cure death. We will be the cure. Because we want it.”
In some ways, it’s a very compelling story. I was impressed by the clever way in which the author addressed philosophical issues, as well as the way in which a story originally written for an adult audience was morphed successfully into a decent movie targeting teens.

As much as I like the big picture of the story, I have two cautions about the story. 

First, I am uncomfortable with stories where the good girl saves the bad boy by the power of love.  It’s a real world scenario that usually ends badly, but fiction has a way of cleaning it up.  It’s why I don't like movies like the Twilight series and Knocked Up. Granted, R does not want her to become like him, and he seeks to be a part of her family and community. That’s an important distinction between Warm Bodies and the other stories I mentioned. But as a guy who works with teens, it's a plot line that still made me uneasy. 

Second, the book has a very confusing position on the nature and potential of humanity. When Julie explains to R what had happened while he was staggering around and groaning, she explains it this way: 
“We cast our votes and raised our leaders, charming men and women with white teeth and silver tongues, and we shoved our many hopes and fears into their hands, believing those hands were strong because they had firm handshakes. They failed us, always. There was no way they could not fail us – they were human, and more importantly, so were we…”
Are we good or not?  On the one hand, we are so bad we devolve into zombies. On the other hand, we are so good we can bring ourselves back to life. So humans always fail, and yet they can exhume themselves? It's a confusing message. 

Why would we think humans who cannot help but fail – and who, in fact, fail so badly that they bring about their own extinction event – can still somehow bring themselves back to life? Yes, love is powerful. Wasn’t it powerful before, too?  What changed? Nothing, as far as I could tell. When Julie and R kiss something mystical happens that effects the entire world, but nobody really knows what happened or why R and Julie made it so.

I think it’s the best a strongly humanist story has to offer. Isaac Marion is not a fan of religion, and his book reflects a world that relies on people to save themselves. I liked that he wasn’t naïve about the ugly side of human nature. I was impressed by his critique of our shallow culture. And if I had to choose something that people do to change the world, I would vote for genuine love and compassion too.

Having said that, I was frustrated by an ending that could have brilliantly pointed to a much bigger Savior, but settled for an emergent force that somehow resurrects us from our own nihilistic path. That’s the dead part in a story that otherwise felt oddly alive. Perhaps that a place where those of us who believe in Resurrection can explain what a different ending looks like. 


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  2. Not much to say, I thought it was good fun. It is not for those looking for some critically acclaimed movie to give an in depth analysis in their review. So I will just say it was fun to watch and kept me entertained.