In his best-selling debut novel, Warm Bodies, Seattle author Isaac Marion offers a new take on zombie lit. Unlike the narratives you typically find in the genre—humans trying to survive a zombie apocalypse—this one is told from the perspective of an undead dude who experiences an existential crisis.
R is certainly not your typical zombie lit protagonist. He lives among his grunting and shuffling brethren, yet also apart in a 747 where he collects mementos of the living and listens to Frank Sinatra records. He feels shame when his primal instinct drives him to hunt and kill the living, though he does achieve glimpses of enlightenment and a flash of what it means to be alive when he eats his victims' brains and gains their memories. But then he has an attack of conscience that blooms into a sense of responsibility, and eventually love, for the human girl whose boyfriend he devours head first.
If you've seen Hollywood's oversimplified film adaptation of Warm Bodies, which transforms an amusing and disgusting yet rather poignant and poetic novel of self-discovery into a zombie rom-com for young adults, you know how the rest of the story plays out: Boy saves girl from zombie horde, boy helps girl get home, boy misses girl and sets out to find her, boy spreads gift of consciousness to other zombies on his journey, and then, finally, boy and girl find love that transforms him from zombie to living being. Fin.
In this year's sequel, The Burning World, R discovers that recovering from being a corpse for so many years is not so straightforward or easy. Transitioning from death to life, regaining painful memories, living among people who don't believe the walking dead can fully assimilate to human life, and even just developing a sense of self isn't a cakewalk for his zombie kin, either. But the problem for these characters isn't all internal. The real threat in the book is a corporation with a well-equipped army staffed by blank-faced, tie-sporting "ambassadors" who stand ready to exploit the newly emerging, not-quite-undead population.
"With Warm Bodies, it was very much a one-person show," Marion explained in a recent phone interview with The Stranger, conducted while he was in Portland promoting The Burning World and shortly before his UK book tour. "It was about this little personal drama, and a lot of the time was spent exploring the novelty of the premise. But then once that's done, and I'm continuing the story [in The Burning World], it's like, okay, we get it—he was a zombie. But now we're moving on to—what is the bigger implication of this world where zombies can exist, where there's sort of this metaphysical fluidity to reality? [We're] into less jokey and more complicated territory."
Warm Bodies was Marion's way of using pop culture and the zombie mythos to work through his personal struggles with apathy and depression. For him, these emotions seemed related to the zombie archetype of a creature that doesn't understand itself or its purpose but goes through the motions of existence anyway. He said his first novel was simpler than his new novel because it was about one individual's internal process of pulling out of depression and reengaging with life.
If the challenge for Marion and for R in Warm Bodies was finding some kind of personal resolution, the challenge in The Burning World is trying to decide what to do for society with this newfound sense of self.
As a result of this broader concern, The Burning World is itself larger in scope and more complex. Marion allows himself to dive deeper into the "us versus them" theme, corporate abuses of power, theories of social responsibility, and also the necessity of accepting your past, no matter how ugly it may be. All of it points to the idea that ignoring a problem, or running and hiding from it, isn't the answer. Indeed, confronting problems, no matter how seemingly insurmountable, is vital to your sanity and survival.
Marion had his own problem to solve when, about three weeks before the February 7 release of The Burning World, he triggered several Twitter storms after a fake Trump tweet he created was overwhelmingly interpreted as authentic. The tweet read: "Low-selling author Isaac Marion wrote an 'apocalyptic' novel that's clearly an attack on me. Biased and very boring. Not a good writer!"
As Marion explained, "Trump is infamous for doing these petty online attacks, usually of important people who are actually threatening to him. I thought it would be funny to create an imaginary feud with me, a relatively obscure author of zombie novels."
That original tweet was the first in a series of tweets that got increasingly ridiculous, but it was taken out of context, re-tweeted more than 21,000 times, and reached a national audience that included outraged activists and Trump haters rallying to his defense. Marion insists the tweet wasn't meant to be a marketing campaign, but a joke—a failed attempt at parody. "Which is the problem with parody in general at this point—you can't really make something ridiculous enough for it to be obviously a joke. Because every day, [Trump is] doing things exactly like that."
But not all of Marion's pranks have gone haywire. His fake hotline, website, and traffic signs warning of the plague, which Stranger magazine editor Christopher Frizzelle discovered and wrote about recently on Slog, were successful, playful ways to promote The Burning World. "For once, something actually went right with my jokes," he laughed.
Marion is hesitant to admit to putting up the signs for fear of legal redress, but he said, "Someone created this phone service line. It's basically a fake customer-service line that's part of the world of these books. It's a relic of the pre-apocalyptic government." These signs are like hatched Easter eggs from the book; you can actually call the number on them and cycle through a pseudo customer-service menu. Though he had posters and other legitimate ways to tease the book, "the traffic signs were one of the more unconventional ways. I just kind of put them up and waited to see what would happen."
Though The Burning World and Marion's promotional pranks share an undertone of rebelliousness, the mood of the book feels more serious than the efforts to market it. By the end, R has confronted his demons and committed to action, but we won't know whether he succeeds or fails until we read the last book in the series, The Living, which Marion hopes to release this winter.