August 14, 2009

JUNIOR ZOMBIE WEEK: Generation Dead (Review)


Generation Dead

By Daniel Waters

Hyperion: 2008



4.5 / 5 zedheads

"Don't you think the whole Gothic thing doesn't really make a lot of sense today? I mean, why would you walk around pretending you're dead when you could actually be dead and walking around?"

In Generation Dead, dead teenagers in America are returning to life. They're not flesh-hungry ghouls, but they are dead. Their hearts don't beat. Their lungs don't breathe. Yet, they live. Called zombies by those who hate and fear them but called the "living impaired" by those who wish to integrate them back into society, these persecuted living dead teens are more than just a shallow metaphor for racism and homophobia. Waters uses the premise in both overt and subtle ways to enrich the true complexities at the heart of the story: the love triangle between Phoebe (a goth girl), Adam (a foot ball star), and Tommy (a zombie).

Don't let the easy labels fool you; these characters are much more than stereotypes. Phoebe is a creative young woman whose interests run towards the dark and spooky, but she's not a morbid, depressed, or twisted person. Likewise, Adam (Phoebe's best friend) may be a muscular football star, but he's not an idiotic jock. He's no genius either, but he's on a path of self-discovery and self-improvement to become a better person. These changes are motivated in no small part over guilt for some past actions and his unrequited love for Phoebe. Then comes Tommy the "living impaired" kid. Although a living impaired, he's not a withdrawn, angst-ridden emo kid. Tommy, like all zombie teens, suffer from various degrees of rigidity, slow movements, and difficulty in speaking and communicating, which leads them to appear withdrawn. However, as much as his condition allows, Tommy is a strong-willed leader and well-spoken advocate for the living impaired. Phoebe begins to develop undeniable feelings for Tommy. As a result, Adam is caught between supporting his friend and denying his own heart. Through this highs school love triangle, Adam, Phoebe, and a few of their friends find themselves drawn into the lives, so to speak, of the undead kids at school. Not everyone approves. There are dangerous people at work who are compelled by their own fear and guilt to hurt the "living impaired" and the few living people who love them.

After reading Generation Dead, I can't help but feel there's no justice in the world when shitty teen-lit like Twilight rises to such gaudy levels of popularity while work such as Daniel Waters' fantastic Generation Dead has not attained the same fame. Generation Dead is a truly surprising, touching, and heart-felt yet funny and insightful teen drama that uses its zombie themes not as a gimmick or for cheap laughs but as useful device and metaphor to describe the struggles of being a teen. Generation Dead is surprising not only because it manages to deftly avoid many of the pitfalls of bad teen fiction (such as overwrought drama or overly simplistic conflicts) but also for how it manages to be a fairly accessible story for all readers. At the same time, be prepared to go to some dark places. It's not a horror book, but it deals with some dark themes about life and death. Some truly horrific things happen to some characters, and you can't deny that the novel flirts with the disturbing themes that a romance between a living girl and dead boy automatically bring to mind (don't worry -- the story is not a very sexual one, but the tension is there).

Waters, however, picks his moments to be shocking and makes these moments count because he's taken the time to breathe life into his characters, even the dead ones. I appreciate that his teen characters aren't all portrayed as frivolous or stupid. Just as in life, some teens act frivolous and stupid, but you don't see enough of the kids with good heads on their shoulders depicted in entertainment. You do in Generation Dead.

I really enjoyed this novel. There are only two reasons it doesn't get a perfect grade from me. First, the book is very "talky". Little happens in terms of plot. This is not a bad thing in itself (I like all the dialogue -- it feels real and sincere), but some characters who we are introduced to as antagonists fall by the wayside in the middle of the book because they are not part of these well-written and character-developing conversations. Their absence undermines some of the novel's conflict, and then when they're re-introduced, the conflict seems rushed. Second, the ending is surely moving and tense if you love the characters as I did, but there's a twist that, while consistent with the themes in the story, feels a bit like a cheat that robs the ending of some of its emotional impact and gravity.

And yes, there is a sequel: Kiss of Life. I can't wait to pick up to see where the story goes.

Despite the title, this book is a lively read. Go pick up a copy of Generation Dead already!