17 September 2009

Jane Austen and zombies: 'tis as good as a lord.

At length quite exhausted by the attempt to be amused with her own book, which [Miss Bingley] had only chosen because it was the second volume of his, she gave a great yawn and said, "How pleasant it is to spend an evening in this way! I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!"
"Spoken like one who has never known the ecstasy of holding a still-beating heart in his hand," said Darcy.

Two years ago around Halloween, I attended a production of "Twelfth Night of the Living Dead," a combination of Shakespeare's classic comedy and the George Romero movie often credited with bringing the idea of zombies into mainstream popular culture. Instead of joining Illyrian society, Viola and Sebastian infect it, and no one looks awry at them for not being able to walk upright or stop drooling. By the time suspicions are raised, enough of the courts of the Duke Orsino and the Lady Olivia have been bitten that the rest of the play is washed out in groans, and an epic amount of stage blood.

I didn't peek ahead in Seth Grahame-Smith's PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES to see if the last 10 pages were composed of "Graaaaaaaaahhhhh. Braaaaaaaaaains." But by definition a zombie novel has to draw out its readers' attention for longer than a 90-minute play, and for me P&P&Z did that. If this were a simple copy-and-paste job, it wouldn't still be flying off the shelves (as of last week, #9 on the NYT paperback bestseller list).

The notion of a family attempting to go about its business while England is besieged by hordes of the "sorry stricken," a figure that is so delightfully period appropriate I kept racking my brains (braaaaaaains) to see if I had heard it before, is fully integrated into Austen's original text. For example, Grahame-Smith doesn't leave his Bennet sisters alone and defenseless; they are all Shaolin masters who have trained rigorously and painfully and can fend for themselves against zombies. So right there, you aren't dealing with just zombies, but zombies and ninjas. (Other characters in turn get added dimensions, and might I say, never have I liked Lady Catherine de Bourgh so much as in this book.)

At the same time, he makes some alterations to the plot which will only be funny to people who have read P&P before -- if there are people out there who would pick up P&P&Z without having read P&P. (Not recommended.) The back half of the book is flavored with the salt of comeuppance, which Austen would have used sparingly if at all, to some piquant results.

I'm sure I would have gotten more of the jokes had I read P&P more recently than about five years ago. (Do I have to turn in my lady badge for that?) On the other hand, I was happy enough to be reunited with these characters, albeit in such an unorthodox way. I realized, for example, that I had no idea why Wickham and the other military officers were stationed in the country when they met the Bennets; having them there to train against a zombie invasion almost made more sense, if that makes any sense. Interestingly, the author of the next book in the series, SENSE AND SENSIBILITY AND SEA MONSTERS, wrote in Slate that his version will be about 60 percent Austen as compared to 85 percent for P&P&Z -- so if you felt it wasn't original enough, you might be less bored. (Hat tip to the Hawaiian office for that.)

In giving its heroines (particularly Jane and Elizabeth) the warrior talent, P&P&Z provides them with both an obstacle as far as their marriageworthiness and an opportunity to do more than sit at home and write letters. There's a great jab where Elizabeth is looking at Mr. Collins and feeling ill because he's barely accustomed to slicing Gorgonzola, much less dead rotting flesh. As you might expect, she meets her match in a Darcy who at no point jumps in a lake with his shirt on.

1 comment:

ap said...

I've gotta read both of those still.