February 13, 2010

Breathers: A Zombie's Lament (Review)

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Breathers: A Zombie's Lament (2009)

By S.G. Browne

Broadway: 2009


3.5 / 5 zedheads

In George A. Romero's Land of the Dead, Dennis Hopper's character utters the famous line: "In a world where the dead are returning to life, the word 'trouble' loses much of its meaning." While this line refers to the unexpected troubles humanity must face during a zombie uprising, the same line could be said to describe the troubles zombies face in  S.G. Browne's dark comedy Breathers: A Zombie's Lament. If you thought you knew what trouble was when you were alive, just wait until you're a zombie!

In the novel, we are introduced to Andy Warner -- an average guy of sorts who has found himself in a world of trouble. He and his wife are involved in a fatal car wreck that takes both their lives, but only Andy reanimates as a zombie. In the world of Breathers, many people dying violent deaths are inexplicably rising from their graves into a world that hates and fears them. Andy is disfigured and unable to speak -- an aware mind trapped in a dead and broken body -- so he is forced to live in his parent's basement as a social outcast. Even walking on the streets means he'll be pelted with garbage, food, and threats of violence. If he fights back or in any way provokes the police, he'll end up imprisoned in a dog kennel. Zombies aren't even worthy of jail in this society; instead, they get sent to the pound like stray dogs. If no one claims Andy from the pound, he'll be sent away for medical research.

To help cope with the loss of his old life and the prejudice he faces in his newly acquired necrotic existence, Andy enrolls in a zombie support group: Undead Anonymous. There he meets and falls in love with Rita, a young suicide victim. Together, with a cast of other colourful zombie characters, Andy and his zombie friends find themselves on a gruesome path of self-discovery when they stumble upon a taboo remedy for preserving and reparing their dead and broken bodies.

Despite the interesting premise, there's some spark missing in Breathers. To be sure, it's well written, darkly amusing, and full of unique and memorable characters, but like the zombies Browne portrays, the story is missing some intangible spark of life.

This was a book that I could put down for days at a time without feeling an urgent compulsion to pick back up, as much as I liked the characters and story when I was reading it. The plot is structured so that the real driving force of the narrative does not become a factor until almost half-way into the novel. The first half of Breathers drags on with character setup and descriptions of zombie persecution. I really loved the detail and tongue-in-cheek description of the hardships zombies face, but there was no momentum in the plot to drive the story forward. Not until about half-way through the story, once all the characters and situations are in place, does the plot start to get moving.  I guess you could say that the story shambles along. Not until the characters find a reason to live does the story start to get animated, but they don't find that reason soon enough. Fortunately, Breathers is not very long. Unfortunately, the book is not very long, meaning there's little space to expand the plot once it really starts cooking.

Regretably, I lost my connection with the characters in what is left of the story. Despite its shambling pace, the first half of Breathers firmly establishes Andy as a likable and sympathetic guy. He has to suffer some awful experiences, and I fully related to his life experiences and struggles to make is voice heard. However, he and his zombie friends make a monstrous choice about how to live their (un)lives in the second half of the novel. This decision is telegraphed from the very beginning of the book, but I just couldn't maintain my emotional connection with the characters once they finally took that step, as logical as it is in keeping with the story's zombie theme. I think Browne struggled with making his zombie characters sympathetic. On the one hand, if characters are slow and weak like zombies, they can do very little in terms of plot. On the other hand, the device Browne introduces in Breathers for the zombies to regain their life and energy is based on the characters eating like zombies eat, if you get my drift. As a result, you have a group of characters who are ineffectual yet likable but then become active yet despicable.

There's also an out-of-place plot development that sees Andy briefly become a pop-culture media darling. This brief segment comes across as excessively satirical in contrast to the more subtle and successful undercurrent of dark humor in the rest of the novel. Within the framework of the story, this sub-plot also seems rushed and undeveloped. These two elements (the choices the zombies make and Andy's pop-culture stardom) just didn't connect with me.

In short, Breathers has some narrative flaws. It will make for some fine summer reading between periodic afternoons of lounging on the beach, but it's not the type of story you can really get invested in. Yet, despite these structural flaws, Browne's skill as a writer of character and dialogue certainly does shine. He's an author I'd read again!

Breathers is currently being developed into a feature film by Fox Searchlight Pictures with Diablo Cody as a producer.

Check out Breathers' official web page: UNDEAD ANONYMOUS