Like everyone else, when Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was announced, I eagerly awaited its release from Quirk Books this April. I was amused by the concept it was unleashing: Monster Lit.
The main idea of Monster Lit is the “what-if” mash-up: What if Regency England fought zombies while looking for love? What if the mill on George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss was fueled by human sacrifice? What if Catherine from Wuthering Heights was a gaki? What if Jane Eyre’s Rochester had more than an insane wife in his attic? The possibilities are endless, and the works public domain, So no wonder in the wake of PPZ’s hype, publishers are gobbling up these ideas. So far, only PPZ has resulted, and if it represents what we are to expect of Monster Lit, most of these amusing ideas are better left unrealized.
The whole PR behind this book is that Jane Austen is boring, and why would anyone want to read her? On the back of the book it gloats: “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies transforms a masterpiece of world literature into something you’d actually want to read.” Quirk Books’ press release says PPZ “features most of the original text and includes all-new scenes of flesh-eating zombie action. Readers will shriek for more gore rather than yawn at the stuffy, slow-paced decorum of it all.” Give me a break. If anything, Grahame-Smith’s additions slowed the pacing down to a pre-Romero crawl, butchered Austen’s language by trying to replicate it with awkward phrases like “exercise moisture,” and the gross factor was pretty tame. If you are looking for a way to read a classic without actually reading it, your time would be better spent on Spark Notes or Wikipedia.
Pride and Prejudice is one of my favorite novels, and I was curious to see what zombies would add to Austen’s themes and her beloved characters. I thought the zombies would somehow enhance the original themes of Pride and Prejudice, but it ridiculed them. Likewise, Austen did nothing for the zombies. If anything, the mash-up proved the undead are a pretty tired device, a metaphor at its expiration date.
So, what is the story? It seems for 55 years, England had been stricken with an unknown plague that made their dead into flesh-eating “unmentionables.” England’s children were shipped to the East, the more prosperous to Japan (Darcy and de Bourgh), the more frugal to China (the Bennets), to learn kung fu and samurai training. The Bennet sisters were more equipped than most in Meryton, and not only enjoyed the reputation of being their village’s beauties, but fiercest warriors. There are dojos in the finest houses, and the aristocracy, as represented by Lady Catherine de Bourgh, judge their status on the number of household ninjas they have rather than menservants. As a result, Darcy’s respect for Elizabeth isn’t only her wit and fine eyes, but that she can kick as much ass as he can.
When you write it out like that, it sounds like the entire novel has been changed, but all of the above was merely inserted—plugged in where Grahame-Smith saw an ambivalent hole he could manipulate. The extent of societal effects zombies have on the book are in the background. While zombies pop out in unlikely places, Regency England’s manners and customs are unchanged, and there is little of the rebuilding seen in most post-apocalypse literature. There were some scenes that made me laugh. For instance, Elizabeth’s reaction to Darcy’s insulting proposal is a drop kick in the face. I also liked what Grahame-Smith did with Elizabeth’s friend Charlotte, who was turned into a zombie but not immediately dispatched. She deteriorates throughout the plot, leading to a few hilarious scenes, one of which is the only “gross” scene in the book.
But overall PPZ was something I’d expect an insolent fifteen year old to produce. There was no real unification between the two disparate parts. There were a surprising amount of fart and vomit jokes (Wickham becomes a loose-bowled paraplegic, and Mrs. Bennet’s nerves express themselves with constant vomiting), and asinine innuendos about balls and fine British packages. The majority of Grahame-Smith’s additions were redundant uses of “unmentionables,” “dark arts,” and “Shaolin.” There were plenty of zombie skirmishes, but they became tiresome and further dragged down the pacing.
I know this book isn’t supposed to be taken seriously. However, it is setting a trend that I’ve already grown weary of. If Grahame-Smith had taken the Pride and Prejudice storyline and written his own Austen-inspired book where he could more integrate the issues zombies bring up, I’d be less concerned. But he took the lazier option of merely inserting it into the text itself. Which, seeing as that literary lethargy was rewarded with New York Times Bestseller status, makes me think that’s what the other Monster Lit pastiches will be like.
I also want to point out that all the targets for Monster Lit are women writers. No one is threatening to recast Great Expectations or Vanity Fair, male works just as stuffy, sentimental, and marital as their female counterparts. The majority of nineteenth century women writers did treat marriage and love more, but what underlies each work is a championing for female independence that the twenty-first century (even with Chick Lit) is taking for granted.
When we rewrite a text, even if it is to insert gag jokes, we have to consider what we are changing about the context. What are we saying when we take the madwoman from the attic and turn her into a homunculus, or whatever god-awful thing the new writer has in store for her? The beauty of Wuthering Heights was that memory could be more haunting than an absurd gaki. In Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Elizabeth’s intelligence, an attribute that makes her an equal in the original, isn’t enough, she has to resort to male violence to hold her own among the classes.
There are a lot of mixed messages here that Monster Lit is not taking into account. In fact, despite its seeming literary bent, the only thing it seems to be considering right now is profit.