bioephemera

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This week is zombiefest! Why? Because I finally had a chance to finish my reviews of two zombie-themed books. Up today is the third in the series spawned by the mash-up Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (P&P&Z), the new Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dreadfully Ever After.

The original P&P&Z was perfectly absurd – a slapdash collage of Austen with starkly anachronistic B-movie violence. As I noted in my review at the time,

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.

The pleasure of P&P&Z, at least for me, was thus purely meta: it wasn’t a good book, or even a coherent book, but that wasn’t the point. It was about juxtaposition and absurdity as (unintended) metaphor for latent class and gender conflict. (Yes, sorry, I was an English major as an undergrad). So what happens when Quirk Books gets a new author (Steve Hockensmith replaced Seth Grahame-Smith on the 2nd and 3rd books in the series) and continues the story past the bounds of Austen’s novel, with an original plot? Can it still work?


I fear the answer is “not really.” My attention wandered within the first twenty pages, and I couldn’t get it back, ever. It’s not that the book is abysmal – that would have had its own fascination, a la “Friday.” It’s rather that it’s just okay.

The plot begins “when poor Mr. Darcy is nipped by a rampaging dreadful.” Can he be saved? The fact that we’re even asking shows that this book is hardly canonical zombie literature. Much as it chills my blood to imagine Darcy (played as always by a youthful Colin Firth, sigh) transformed into a dead-eyed fiend, I quickly got over my anxiety. It’s just not that interesting to read about becoming a zombie. In P&P&Z, the transformation of Lizzy’s friend Charlotte was played as slapstick; her peers’ stubborn refusal to acknowledge the horror of her condition was a crude but effective indictment of polite society. Darcy’s descent is instead played for silliness (he moans with carnivorous pleasure when he eats sushi! yes, anachonistic! don’t ask!) and/or sympathy – but it’s not remotely psychologically interesting. That’s why the author spends most of his time with the Bennett girls, who in this series are a force of deadly martial artists.

The best thing the book has going is its proto-feminist vibe. This video trailer for the second book in the series, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dawn of the Dreadfuls, pretty much says it all:

P&P, however we reframe it, is not a strongly feminist novel. Lizzy is a strong character, but in the end, she simply has to acquire a man (and his mansion) to have any hope of security. Turning Lizzy and her insipid-to-annoying sisters into femininjas is a pretty awesome, fun move – like this trailer.

Unfortunately (and again, like this trailer) it’s a move that amuses briefly, but can’t carry a series. And the other feminist elements in the books are troublingly heavy-handed:

Mary reached into her reticule, careful to avoid the pistol inside lest she be tempted to make use of it.

Once book and coin had changed hands, Mary said, “Do you also have in stock Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman?”

The shopkeeper nodded, half-smiling, as if her question answered one of his own.

“Indeed, I do. Two shillings. But wouldn’t the young lady prefer a nice frothy novel, instead?”

Mary put her coins on the counter. “I’m not buying the book for myself,” she said. “Be so kind as to give it to the next young lady who comes in looking for a nice frothy novel.”

The problems with this exchange are several. First, Wollstonecraft’s novel is a weak stand-in for feminism – she wouldn’t have described herself as a feminist, and her views would hardly support the education of femininjas. But okay: I get the point. This exchange is simple wish fulfillment, devoid of character or subtext. Most women have been in demeaning/awkward situations, and wished later that we’d told off the smug and condescending man responsible, right? On the other hand, we generally wish that we’d done so, um, more cleverly than Mary does. Perhaps the author was thinking that too, because just a few pages later, Mary is confronted by a man who underestimates her, wishes she could think of something witty, and then spits said witty (sort of) comeback out after defeating him in combat. (I felt several times that I was seeing the plot coming in this way – not a good sign.) The point is made repeatedly: Mary is tough. But that doesn’t change the fact that we’re reading about her in a nice frothy novel. Cognitive dissonance, anyone?

Mary needs to lighten up (at least her character’s consistent with the original P&P’s Mary!) Frothy can be a lot of fun, especially on airplanes. But something frothy that strains so mightily to convince me it’s got an important message of female empowerment is not so fun. And that’s the sad part about this book: I got tired of the unsubtle message. Yes, Lizzy’s going to pull out all the stops to save Darcy (reversing his “rescue” of her by proposal!) Yes, Lizzy and her sisters will defy social expectations to do it, acting in all respects like thoroughly modern femininjas. Yes, virtually all characters of any significance or power in this book are female. But because the world they inhabit is only very loosely Austen’s, their rebellion isn’t all that impressive or inspiring. It’s just a plot, rolling along.

Sadly, I cannot recommend this romp; even though it’s better written and more coherent than P&P&Z, it lacks the unexpected juxtapositions that made the first remix a meta delight. It’s not that this book is any worse than the vast run of fiction, really, but I’m afraid that simple escapist fiction doesn’t do it for me anymore. Jane Austen traditionalists will certainly hate it. Jane Austen reboot fans may like it, or may not – there’s very little romance here, which is the focus of most Austenverse fiction. In the end, the readers who like it best will probably know next to nothing about Austen at all. There’s no need, as the world torn apart by zombies isn’t Austen’s.

Despite what Mary says, there’s nothing wrong with steampunky/frothy/silly novels. They’re just not my cup of Earl Grey. So I’ll take a pass – but a gentle one.

Stay tuned for my second Zombiefest book review: Theories of International Politics and Zombies by Daniel Drezner.