Saturday, November 21, 2009

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

Miss Bingley's attention was quite as much engaged in watching Mr. Darcy's progress through his book, as in reading her own; and she was perpetually either making some inquiry, or looking at his page. She could not win him, however, to any conversation; he merely answered her question, and read on. At length, quite exhausted by the attempt to be amused with her own book, which she 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 her hand," said Darcy.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is Jane Austen's literary classic, now infused with elements of zombie fiction courtesy of Seth Grahame-Smith. I would estimate that about 90 percent of the text is Austen's work exactly. But in Grahame-Smith's alternate England, the land has become beset by "unmentionables" produced by a strange plague. Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy are now master zombie slayers, though combating the menace seems more a hobby than an active occupation.

Sprinkling in the zombie elements throughout, Grahame-Smith does not alter any of the crucial details or events of the story. He doesn't really even add any subplots--fans specifically of zombie fiction may be disappointed to find that the zombie story goes nowhere and has almost no impact on the main plot. Mostly, Grahame-Smith takes the bits of trivialities and small talk throughout and expands or replaces them with the here similarly mundane matters of zombies and ninjas. Where, for example, Darcy previously asked Elizabeth's opinion of books, he now asks what she thinks of "Orientals," with only minor changes to the details of the dialogue. The regularity of these references adds a new ambiance to the story, although they are never exactly subtle or organic. You would think the zombie menace would override all other concerns, but the passing references to the damned invariably give way to much fuller passages about marriage proposals and incomes. Considering all the awful things they witness, it is alarming how readily the characters' thoughts turn to dances and handsome soldiers. Speaking of which, the zombie angle does surprisingly add a bit of context that a modern reading of Austen's original work lacks--namely, it provides a prominent and reasonable explanation (well, reasonable assuming you've already accepted the presence of the undead) for why there are so many soldiers stationed in town.

Considerably rougher are the brand new action scenes that interrupt virtually every carriage ride with short sequences of zombie violence.
Suddenly engulfed, the zombies staggered about, flailing wildly and screaming as they cooked. Jane raised her Brown Bess, but Elizabeth pushed the barrel aside.

"Let them burn," she said. "Let them have a taste of eternity."

Turning to her cousin, who had averted his eyes, she added, "You see, Mr. Collins . . . God has no mercy. And neither must we."

Though angered by her blasphemy, he thought better of saying anything on the matter, for he saw in Elizabeth's eyes a kind of darkness; a kind of absence--as if her soul had taken leave, so that compassion and warmth could not interfere.

The gritty speech befits a well-traveled warrior who has witnessed too many atrocities, but it sounds nothing like the self-assured, witty young woman depicted elsewhere throughout the book.

As much as I adore Jane Austen, the details of the characters' lives can seem remote to me now, such that, especially in today's economy, it can almost feel like wish fulfillment escapism to read of characters who, seemingly with no professions or duties whatsoever, somehow end up with "incomes" that leave them at such leisure to think only of seeking wives or husbands. A story such as Pride and Prejudice could simply not exist today. Yet the details do not matter any great deal; the work endures because of Austen's penetrating realism in her depictions of characters and social interactions. When the zombies arrive, however, Grahame-Smith's concern is something altogether different, and none of that keen insight of Austen's is left evident. What we're left with instead is a schizophrenic narrative exhibiting an erratic grasp of its own characters.

But is that not the idea? Frankly, I'm not sure how even to assess such a project. I have read all of Austen's novels, but I know nothing of Seth Grahame-Smith. Without any greater context to consider, it is hard to judge how well his effort matches his intent, whatever that may be. Am I to applaud him when occasionally he is able to blend his material into the original to produce an almost convincing Austenian zombie novel? Or does the humor increase, the more conspicuous the non-native segments are, the more deadpan the original Austen material consequently becomes? Indeed, expectation of the latter was what drew me to the book in the first place, albeit I clearly did not think it through that this gag might be hard-pressed to endure for 300+ pages. Perhaps that the effect is inconsistent, with the best parts being the easiest, can leave me only unimpressed with his writing overall, which may again have been the point.

Most likely there isn't so much a point to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies as just a directive to have some fun, which I did. But, then again, why wouldn't I have? It is, after all, mostly just Pride and Prejudice, one of the greatest and most enjoyable novels of all time, and a personal favorite of mine, which I was happy to have an excuse to read again.

In all fairness, the joke, thin as it may seem, does yield consistent humor for the duration of the book, and Grahame-Smith's contributions actually do get better as it goes on and he weaves in more dramatic additions. When one of Elizabeth's friends falls victim to the plague, that naturally reshapes all subsequent scenes involving the character. Yet somehow the words remain 90 percent Austen's, and the general obliviousness of the other characters to her nine-tenths dead condition is the funniest running gag in the book. I also admittedly found myself newly looking forward to the final "confrontation," which this time promised to be more than just an exchange of warnings and wit.

I do have to question the real merit of such an endeavor. It is a funny joke, yes, but is the gag made truly any funnier by the production than it already had been in the suggestion? Or, rather, the joke is that Pride and Prejudice and Zombies exists at all, that Seth Grahame-Smith and his publisher saw this absurd whim through. But is it necessary to read the result in order to get the punch line? I honestly don't think so, but neither was the humor ruined for me in doing so. No, leave it to the sequels and followups to turn the guffaws to groans.

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