Zombies are scary because, of all the iconic monsters, they’re the most alien. Vampires talk, werewolves are rabid animals, and ghosts are memories that won’t stay forgotten, but at least all three operate on some wavelength their victims can relate to, if not exactly appreciate. Zombies, though, aren’t life in any comprehensible way: They’re machines clad in rotting flesh and familiar faces, nothing more than mechanisms that shuffle, tear, and chew. There’s no consciousness to connect with, to plead with for mercy. Robin Becker’s new novel, Brains: A Zombie Memoir, tries to buck the trend by creating a walking corpse with an intellect and a will, and the concept seems misguided from the start. If you take away an idea’s defining characteristic, doesn’t that just mean you have a different idea?
Brains doesn’t really work, but it’s undone more by execution than by premise. Professor Jack Barnes gets bitten and joins the undead, sharing their poor motor skills and hunger for human flesh, but still retaining the large part of his cognitive functions. This doesn’t stop him post-transformation from devouring his beloved wife, but it does give him the one thing the hordes of rotting cannibals that surround him lack: a plan, and a way to see it through. Jack gathers other gifted and talented zombies, including Ros, who can talk, Annie, who can shoot, and Guts, who can run. Together, they aim for the big time, an assault on Chicago and the creator of the zombie plague, to try and get the message across that this new iteration of humanity demands its own kind of uncivil rights.
While Becker’s premise betrays one of the genre’s most essential requirements, she’s sensible enough to never let her heroic monsters get themselves too much under control. Jack’s aspirations are routinely undercut by his and the others’ need to murder and devour any living tissue they come across. This gives the novel an uneasy intensity in some spots, but also makes the characters strangely passive, for all their autonomy. The jokes circle endlessly around bad pop-culture references and empty sarcasm, and the occasional moments of empathy are undercut by a basic nihilism that’s more tedious than chilling. What could’ve been a blackly comic raspberry at an overused genre is instead a shambling mess of rotting ideas and tossed off one-liners, with no heart.