I’ve been as eager as a brain-starved zombie to get my hands on Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the Jane Austen mash-up concocted by Seth Grahame-Smith for Quirk Books. It sounded a like Regency Buffy: zombie-slaying Lizzy Bennet indulges in arch quips while skewering zombies and ninjas with her Katana, all in time for the Netherfield ball. The obvious question was, could this conceit actually work for the length of a novel?
The answer: yes – sort of. P&P&Z is no Buffy. But it will be entertaining for a particular type of reader: those who are familiar with the original novel, yet not so passionately attached to it as to be offended by absurd irreverence. Jane Austen devotees may get the joke, but most likely won’t enjoy seeing their favorite novel sliced, diced, and stir-fried with cheesy B movie violence. At the other extreme, individuals unfamiliar with the original P&P – or familiar with P&P only through popularizations like the Kiera Knightley film – may not find P&P&Z funny enough, because a surprising amount of the humor comes from sly subversion of our expectations about the original novel.
Grahame-Smith has left much of Pride and Prejudice intact, though abridged, and if you’ve read Austen’s novel a few times you may feel a distracting buzz of deja vu. Except for one subplot, which goes off the rails in a hilariously morbid way, the changes are minor: occasional simplifications of the plot for the modern audience, and zombie references slipped here and there into paragraphs of Austen’s own prose.
At first I was unimpressed, thinking this has to be the laziest Austen rewrite ever! But the surprise is that the weird mash-up works, mainly because the disjointed style of the book perfectly reflects the disjointed society in which it is set. In Grahame-Smith’s reimagining of Austen’s England, everyone tries valiantly to support the norms of genteel society as if the “zombie menace” isn’t there. It isn’t polite to speak of zombies, much less dwell on them – when your entire household staff is devoured inconveniently in the midst of serving dessert at a party, don’t mention it to your guests. (It’s not like servants got any attention in Austen’s novel anyway). Even the omniscient narrator seems uncomfortable with the topic: the origin of the zombie plague is never explained, nor are the obvious cultural adaptations Britain has made to deal with it; the scenes of “ultraviolent zombie mayhem”, while recounted with a certain relish, hastily segue into descriptions of scenery or small talk. This is a Regency England in deep, deep denial.
Fortunately for Grahame-Smith, British literature has a hallowed tradition of repression, so the premise works. P&P&Z reminded me of a film set in wartime London, in which everyone maintains a dogged facade of civility despite constant air raids and crumbling buildings. The difference is that Grahame-Smith’s mashup milks this tension for laughs, rather than tragedy, drama, or meaningful insight into how human beings cling to the institutions of the past when their civilization starts to collapse (if that’s what you want, go watch Battlestar Galactica).
At other times, P&P&Z reminded me of a Victorian vampire tale in which female sexuality is the subversive and unacknowledged theme. (Has anyone written Pride and Prejudice and Vampires yet? If not, I volunteer*). I have to admit that Grahame-Smith manages a clever, if simple, twist on gender roles. Lizzy and her sisters are proud, skilled warriors – yet between zombie attacks, they are expected to flirt and embroider and dance their way to wealthy husbands (Bingley’s assertion that all young women are remarkably accomplished has even more weight in P&P&Z). Once married, however, women are expected to lay down their weapons without a peep. The patent unfairness (and impracticality) of this double standard should resonate with my fellow frazzled twenty- and thirty-something professional colleagues, who may find themselves torn between checking their lethal Blackberries and plucking their eyebrows before happy hour (no, you do not always have time for both).
In some ways, Lizzy and Darcy have a remarkably modern romance. The tension between them is the tension of wary equals making baby steps toward vulnerability. So it’s not a stretch at all to imagine them as warriors circling, pouncing, and pummeling the heck out of one another. Grahame-Smith even offers us a little wish-fulfillment as Lizzy finally gets to pummel her social adversaries with sword, fists, and intimidating lace-up boots. w00t! I don’t love the illustrations – they seem a little too Dickensian or faux-steampunk-Victorian to fit the Austen context – but the grrrl power theme they portray is fun and lighthearted. (The illustrations are supposedly in the style of C.E. Brock; keep in mind, Brock was not a contemporary of Austen – his P&P illustrations date to about 1895 – and I’m not sure I’d grant that P&P&Z’s illustrations capture his style anyway.)
P&P continues to resonate with modern audiences, though the dated language and confusing intricacies of manners and class can pose certain challenges. Grahame-Smith tries to clarify some of these intricacies, explaining why, for example, it is inappropriate for Mr. Collins to introduce himself to Darcy. Delightfully, inserting ultraviolent zombie mayhem into an episode often makes it more plausible to modern audiences, not less. It may be hard to understand why Bingley’s sisters are so critical of Lizzy walking several miles by herself – except now, she’s walking several miles by herself through hordes of the undead. Yikes! And how on earth does Lady Catherine think she can possibly intimidate Lizzy into renouncing Darcy? One word: ninjas.
Unfortunately, P&P&Z‘s novelty wears thin by the end of the book; like many a recent humor film, it devolves into gore and the regrettable humor of copious bodily fluids. I was expecting more innovation in the resolution of Lydia’s subplot, followed perhaps by an apocalyptic zombie attack on Longbourne, but I was disappointed. Perhaps Grahame-Smith ran out of ideas – or ran afoul of his deadline. But there is a bonus Easter egg tucked away in the very back of the book: a reader’s discussion guide, which revels in the absurdity of the whole enterprise. The guide skewers book clubs, Jane Austen worshippers, and the tropes of literary criticism, but clearly the main target of its mockery is P&P&Z itself, which it labels a “towering work of classical zombie literature.” Uh-huh. And that made me finish the novel on a warm note of generous indulgence, and in the end recommend it – at least as a fluffy distraction.
Verdict: A solid poolside or beach read for unrepentant Goths-at-heart – even if all you do is throw the book down on your towel, the cover art is sure to disturb and confuse passers-by.
*Pride and Prejudice and Frankenstein has been done already, as commenter HP pointed out on a previous post: Pride and Prometheus by John Kessel is a nearly seamless remix of the novels by Austen and Mary Shelley, throwing in an Erasmus Darwin reference to boot. Clever, and not as unapologetically silly as P&P&Z.