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"Brains" humanizes misfit undead

By Megan Carey
On August 30, 2010

Robin Becker must have been using her head when she noticed the soaring popularity of zombies and chose the shuffling, living dead as the basis for her debut novel "Brains." While it is true that during the past year zombies have been a tad overdone, her novel takes the once misunderstood and hard to relate to race, and attempts to make them human. In this daring and crazy attempt, I think Becker was a wild success.

The novel revolves around middle-aged professor Jack Barnes, who is forced to join the infected masses that contracted the zombie virus created by scientist Howard Stein. When Barnes regains consciousness after his transformation, he immediately starts to write. Granted, the word he writes is ‘Brains!' but it is this event that is Professor Jack Barnes's first clue of his sentence. He is different. He is special. His goal soon becomes to travel from his home state of Missouri to Chicago, Illinois to confront the maker of zombies and show Stein how special he really is.

The first aspect of the novel that caught and held my attention was the immediate and oft placed media references. Some of them were so obvious anyone could understand them, such as the first association on page four of George Romero, who is practically the Father of Modern Zombies (in film at least). Then a remark will throw me for a complete loop where I actually have to put my book down and look it up on the Internet. For example, on page 151 Becker references a story and an author I have never heard of, Shirley Jackson and her 1948 short story "The Lottery." Scattered in between these two references is a score of allusions from Frankenstein to remarks on books I have heard of and meant to read but never had, like Kurt Vonnegut's novel "Galapagos." In my opinion, these references throughout the novel add to Becker's credibility as an author.

Against all odds, and my expectations, Barnes's ragtag team of zombie misfits become verifiable and relatable characters, which prompts the reader to care about them. They are more advanced than their fellow brethren in a variety of ways. Joan, nurse of the zombie-human war, can fix any zombie situation, from reattaching a detached, decaying digit, to stitching up some guts with a needle, thread and duck tape. Guts is a young boy who never does the zombie shuffle and can actually run. Annie had a mean, quick draw while alive, and after death, becomes the first and only zombie who can handle a gun and hit her target every time. Last, but certainly not least, is Ros, short for Rosencrantz, who beyond all expectations can talk and understand words.

What seemed impossible before reading the book becomes plausible at the end as the zombies seem more human than the monstrous humans set against them. These zombies set out on a quest with a goal in mind and put aside their zombie instincts to achieve what they wanted. Sure, they fell off the wagon a few times, their human chauffeur was kind of jerk and deserved to be eaten, but what human being doesn't mess up? They are human, or as close to human as zombies can get, and the ride to this realization is enjoyable and mysteriously hopeful.  

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