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Sunday, August 23, 2009

Breathers: Worth a Read. Not Worth the Hype.

Amidst the rash of zombie fiction now flooding bookshelves, perhaps no other offering has been more aggressively marketed than S.G. Browne's Breathers: A Zombie's Lament. I approached it with high expectations, and although I enjoyed it very much at times, I walked away from it feeling that my expectations had most certainly not been met.

For example, the last zombie novel I read before Breathers, Jonathan Maberry's Patient Zero, I enjoyed even more, despite the fact that it is far less visible. I also thought World War Z was superior. Breathers is a fine piece of writing, but one that would have worked much better as a short story or novella.

The novel's central conceit, that the dead are returning to life in a world that shuns them and treats them like second-class citizens, is a clever one. Browne's zombies are sentient--they think, feel and speak, and are not the single-minded, ravenous cannibals of the movies, although that element comes into play later.

Our main character is Andy Warner, a particularly mangled ghoul who is unable to speak thanks to the car accident that killed him, damaging his vocal cords in the process. Andy "lives" with his parents--or more accurately, is hidden away in their basement, where he subsists on a steady diet of wine and TV repeats. He also regularly attends a zombie support group populated by some very memorable and well-drawn characters.

Along the way, we learn what it's like to really be a member of the undead, unable to properly interact with the living, devoid of rights, longing to be able to once again enjoy the simple pleasures the living--the "breathers"--take for granted. It can at times be quite moving, at other times quite funny.

Where Breathers falters, however, is in stretching this admittedly brilliant but also slightly flimsy gimmick to full novel length. We are treated to repetitive scenes in the zombie support group, or of Andy butting heads with his parents, and so forth. We are introduced to the completely obvious and predictable plot element of the mysterious jars of oh-so-delicious "venison" which renegade zombie Ray introduces to the group, and which begin to heal the zombies' unhealable posthumous wounds. This miraculous meat and its appeal to the zombies is hammered home in hamfisted scene after scene. I'm not spoiling anything here believe me, but--surprise! It ain't venison... Duh.

There's also the problem of the humor, much of which hinges on the irony of the novel's juxtaposition of the horrific zombie elements and the mundanity of the world in which the story takes place. For example:

"While it's true that being embalmed can get rid of crow's feet and laugh lines and take fifteen years off your obituary, it can also leave your face as hard and fake as a porn star's breasts. Plus the whole process is pretty invasive."

Funny, yes? Witty, no? I agree. But when it comes to humor, the book is a bit of a one-trick pony, and this shtick gets old once you get about 100 pages in. I found myself calling the punchlines before I even got to the end of them, which is never a good thing. OK, Andy, you're a zombie and these gross and normally terrifying things are totally normal to you. We get it. Can we move on, please?

Our hero Andy falls in love with fellow corpse Rita, and it is their relationship from which the novel derives most of its charm. Browne really gets us to feel for these two, and we're right there with them as they try to find love in this bizarre world of the living and the undead coexisting side-by-side so very uncomfortably.

And the other characters in the group are a hoot as well. Jerry, the aging hippy/stoner zombie, steals every scene he's in, and is the source of much of the truly funny stuff to be found here. There's the jaded Naomi, who has the most off-putting habit of putting her cigarettes out in her empty eye socket. And Tom, the sad sack zombie who is forced to attach a completely mismatched arm to his body after his original one is torn off by drunk fraternity pledges.

This is one aspect in which Breathers succeeds where Patient Zero fell a bit short--the characters. From the outset, it's clear that Breathers is more of a character-driven work, while Patient Zero is much more plot-driven. Breathers is the kind of novel that intentionally draws more intention to its tone and style, that you enjoy more for how it's written than what's actually going on. And Browne's writing is solid for a first effort--I just think there wasn't enough meat here (forgive the pun) to cover 310 pages, that's all.

The hype machine latched on to this book and went full bore, playing up its uniqueness--a sophisticated, post-modern take on the zombie subgenre. Unfortunately, this is a case of style over substance, and at least in the case of this reader, the overachieving marketing machine led me to expect a lot more substance than what I actually got.

Furthermore, while the character development and interaction are among the novel's strong suits, both are in the end sabotaged by an ultra-violent and graphic finale that felt very forced and tacked on, almost as if Browne added it to appease the hardcore zombie fans he figured would be picking up the book. Yet, it just doesn't ring true as something we would expect these characters to do, after getting to know them over the course of the novel. Even worse, it follows a scene that, although heartbreaking (especially after much of the light-hearted stuff that preceded it) would've been a much more effective note on which to end things.

While Patient Zero makes no aspirations to "literary" fiction the way that Breathers does, it also delivers on what it promises--a hard-driving action pot-boiler. Whereas Breathers, in the end, falls short of its goal to present us with a rich, well-rounded, bittersweet and quirky zombie romantic comedy.

If you come in with more realistic expectations, Breathers will no doubt be an enjoyable read. I also firmly believe it will make a much better movie than novel, once its Diablo Cody-produced film adaptation hits theaters in 2011. Whereas most movie adaptations butcher their source material by cutting out so much, in this case I think the material will be helped along by cutting away so much of the extraneous stuff and giving us a leaner, more streamlined story.

I firmly recommend Breathers: A Zombie's Lament to those eagerly following the zombie fiction trend. There's nothing else like it out there. But just don't make the mistake of thinking that just because it's the best advertised zombie novel, that it's the best zombie novel.

4 comments:

Stuart Conover said...

While I completely agree that it isn't "book of the year" it's not quite that often you can find zombie fiction that is mainly there for humor. S.G. Browne definitely knows how to use social networking to market his book and is quite honestly a genius at it. I just think he should have marketed it more as humor them a great change to zombie fiction.

Now don't get me wrong I completely enjoyed it and agree the movie adaptation should be amazing. The ending... didn't feel right. I wouldn't say forced, it was just far darker than the rest of the novel. If he plans on making a series out of this it could end up being played off perfectly but I don't believe his next novel from the brief description he mentioned will have anything to do with the undead.

B-Sol said...

I'm glad the majordomo of all things zombie stopped by to leave a comment on this one! I think we're on the same page, in that I also think the book was marketed a bit wrong, and it's actually pretty darn good/unique. It set me up to expect something...that it didn't quite deliver. And that ending...don't wanna spoil it for those planning on reading it. But it was almost like he felt he had to go there, since it was a zombie novel. But it just felt wrong.

chris zenga said...

WWZ is extremely hard to top, only one thing does........the WWZ audio book! I'm going to have the pleasure of meeting Max Brooks this weekend and I'll tell him just that!

Later days,
Christopher Zenga
thedayaftrart.blogspot.com

Ms Harker said...

I agree it not high end literature, however the relationships and characters. I loved the support group scenes and had a soft spot for Naomi's cigarette antics! I also liked the step away from the ravenous zombie hordes!

www.musingcontinuum.com

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