“What a massive responsibility, being a moral creature” – R, the zombie protagonist of Marion’s “Warm Bodies”
Isaac Marion’s debut self-published novel “Warm Bodies” is a horror romance novel, or as Seattle Post Intelligencer referred to it: “a zombie romance”. While most of the plot does focus on a potential growing love between a human woman and a male zombie, there are other themes featured in the novel, such as morality, art vs. practical work, what measure is human or non-human and what it means to live a life without depth. “Warm Bodies” is despite its themes a pretty light, fun read with decent characterization and solid characters.
The protagonist of the novel is R, an easy-going zombie who can barely speak and occasionally eats humans when hungry. In the first chapter the reader is introduced to his life by learning of his friend, the sexually vivacious M, and witnessing him getting married to a nameless zombie woman he has known for a few hours and the following day adopting two zombie children, all the while wondering in ghostly airports and empty eerie lands, preying on the helpless humans in this bleak landscape. Already from the first chapter Marion paints an ever familiar scenario which is played with: that being the chaotic and near dead world where zombies are constant killing machines. But from the very first page, Marion turns all expectations on their head by giving R, one of the undead killing machines and protagonist of this tale, a distinctively robust human side and positing the post-dead M as a foil of fine comic relief. R tries to improve his speaking abilities and speculates on what his life may have been before the era of the reanimated dead. He frets over having two unplanned children, due to his suspicion of whether he can take care for them or not. R is a zombie no doubt, but instead of being mindless he is quite relatable.
The Zombie’ obsession of eating brains is also explained with the fact that by devouring human brains, they inherit and live through the human’s memories. M, for instance, enjoys eating young women’s brains since he finds their memories especially titillating.
After R devours a suicidal teenager’s brains, he also consumes the teenager’s memories and most importantly his intense feelings of love for another teenager, Julie. R becomes so wrapped up in the experience that he at once becomes obsessed with Julie. He finds a way to take the frightened Julie back to his home, there to protect and hide her from his ravenous zombie friends.
The novel is told entirely from R’s point of view, where he laments on his inability to feel anything. The zombies are shown as creatures that despite forming marriages and families, very rarely get attached to anything, harboring only thinly vacuous emotions. After devouring the melancholy teenager, R is introduced to an entirely different world filled with high and powerful emotions, filled with deep relationships, which motivates him to starts a desperately search for a world he lost once he became a zombie. Through R Marion cleverly illustrates a host of questions revolving around what it means to be human and what matters in life. R after this human meal and the memories foisted upon him by it becomes fairly unhappy with his state as an undead once he is reintroduced to the vast emotions humans are capable of. He desperately wants something else than the motivation to survive and eat, but how he will be able to attend these new wishes is the question.
Even if “Warm Bodies” is described as a romance novel, the love story between R and Julie isn’t just a romance played straight. It is never really clear whether R really falls in love with Julie, or if he is just clinging to her because she’s his ticket to becoming more humane. She is a clear motivation, but R even wonders himself if he is really fond of Julie or if she just symbolizes something that R wants to become a part of. This makes his motivations ambiguous, which nicely subverts the all too common and overly romanticized “love stories” between a human women and non-human men in modern days written in the realms of the paranormal fiction.
Through the memories R devours the reader is also introduced to the post-apocalyptic lives of the humans, where it is constantly discussed what is useful in a nearly-dead society and what isn’t. Debates of whether literature and gardening is worth anything in the post-apocalyptic world appear various times in the flashbacks and intellectual meanderings which R has throughout the novel. Not surprisingly Marion sides with the arguments for art in a desperate world, but with good reason: it is made clear that humans should always express themselves, since documenting ourselves as well as expressing our human selves is one of the finest traits we have, along with the capability to form meaningful relationships. So “Warm Bodies” straight out states that culture is what makes humans human. As Marion, through his character, states: “Writing isn’t letters on paper. It’s communication. It’s memory.” The fact that culture is human memory and individual memory seems even more important while reading through the barrenness R feels (since he has no memory of who he was) and even the zombie’s nature of compressed and secondarily acquired memories cannot fill this vacuum of experience.
Despite some interesting elements, the novel has also quite a few problematic plotlines. For instance, the main female lead Julie is cast in a typical distressed damsel trope with her existence hinging continually in the need of the male protagonist. Though one may give this some leeway as, granted, it may be justified by her being human and surrounded by zombies.
The ending of “Warm Bodies”, additionally, comes across as forced and felt very contrived, especially given the strength of the beginning of the novel. There won’t be any spoilers in this post, but rest assured that the novel’s characters go through mayor changes which sources are never explained properly. With Rules of the reanimated and undead clearly set up within the novel there is suddenly a dramatic suspension of the internal consistency of these rules. This sudden suspension seems to be only so the novel can achieve a happy ending. Needless to say this is unsatisfactory to the lineage of the novel and ruins what has developed before.
All and all, for those who want to read a horror novel within the realm of the zombie apocalypse that is a little different, “Warm Bodies” is a fast and highly entertaining read.