Brains: A Zombie Memoir is the testament of Jack Barnes, Contemporary American Literature professor-turned-zombie. Professor Barnes is bitten during the outbreak of a virus that creates zombies, and learns upon waking to his unlife that he is not mindless like his fellow undead. Indeed, he has retained the ability to write, though he cannot speak.
Jack decides he must meet and “speak” with the creator of the zombie virus, Howard Stein, to show that not all zombies are simpletons who live only for the pleasure of eating succulent brains. In his travels to meet his creator, he finds other zombies who have retained previous human abilities. There is Joan, a former nurse who has the ability to stitch failing bodies together with any handy object; Guts, a boy who can move at human speeds; Annie, a teen girl with the aim of Annie Oakley; and Ros (short for Rosencrantz, so named by Jack) who has, amazingly, retained the ability to speak.
“Go ahead and sympathize,” Jack tells the reader. “Construct me as the other.”
It is a offer Jack extends early on, and taking him up on it becomes difficult the longer we follow him on his journey. Like Frankenstein’s monster (who Jack pointedly references), he is “other,” a creature not human, but he has the very human desire to communicate and be understood.
It is a demonstration of Robin Becker’s writing ability that about halfway through the novel I found myself looking past Jack’s narcissism and messianic complex, two traits almost guaranteed to make me dislike a character, to actually enjoy his endless literary and pop culture references and his single-minded determination to declare himself the zombie messiah. In his memoir, Jack desperately wants the reader to understand that in living death as in life, he is an intelligent being, not a mindless creature ruled only by id. He throws in references to the Bible, literature, movies, philosophy, and pop culture, anything to remind the reader that he is, compulsive need for brains and flesh aside, part of our culture. He is smart. Aware.
In addition to being a rare sentient zombie, Jack is also delightfully unrepentant about killing and eating (or deliberately biting and turning) the humans he comes across. He is who he is: a brain-craving walking corpse who stashes body parts in his pockets for snacks later on. He isn’t interested in being human, recapturing his humanity, or slotting back into his old life. His goal is to travel across the country with a handful of other self-aware zombies and plead a case for equal treatment and equal rights with the scientist who created the virus that spawned them.
A self-appointed zombie messiah making a pilgrimage to meet his hallowed creator (god) to make the case for zombie equal rights, and collecting or making other “smart” zombies along the way, sounds ridiculous. It is ridiculous. It is also funny, gory, and touching. Robin Becker, through Jack and his rag-tag group, asks the question any self-respecting writer of speculative fiction asks: What does it mean to be human? Jack, like any good literature professor, repeatedly hits us over the head with this question until we get the point. His memoir is his answer: Humanity involves more than simply being human.
Thank you to Eos Books for the ARC to review.