Zombies do not appear to be promising narrators. According to Isaac Marion's first novel, however, the groans of the living dead are primarily a problem of expression, not cognition. Details such as names may slip away—Marion's narrator is known only as R, which may have been the first letter of his name—but, albeit in a somewhat frustrated fashion, "the rusty cogs of cogency still spin" (p. 4). It looks like enough of a cheat that gimmickry seems inevitable, but the first thing that's clever about Warm Bodies is that R's improbable present-tense fluency sets up more than just a funny mismatch of expectations and reality (though it does do that). It sets up tensions between the human and the monstrous, and between the metaphoric and literal, that Marion usefully elaborates over the course of his story.
Whether or not you think this is a good thing, of course, depends on how you take your zombies. Those who prefer the dials all the way over to one side—literal monsters—may find Marion's take frustrating. But it's not like it's a dramatic break with tradition. There's certainly a sense in which Warm Bodies extends the Romero zombie-as-metaphor-for-social-condition approach: indeed, the novel's opening movement is a tour of a zombie society that comes perilously close to functioning only as metaphor. Holed up in an airport terminal after the apocalypse that his kind may or may not have caused, R finds himself locked into a grey reenactment of the values conventionally ascribed to suburban America, complete with a zombie wife, two zombie kids in zombie school, trips to zombie church, and occasional visits to see his zombie slacker friend, M, to goof off and get high. Time passes, but nothing changes; R doesn't experience past or future, only the present, "and the present isn't exactly urgent" (p. 5). What jolts R out of this rut is, inevitably, knowingly, a girl: younger, warmer, more vivid, caring, smart, and so forth; a shock of color in the gray.
Which is to say, returning to the literal level of the story, a living girl. Marion's zombies are not wholly un-monstrous. They still feel hunger—"a sinking, sagging sensation, as if our cells are deflating" (p. 6)—and they still hunt and eat living people. They'll consume the vitality in any human meat, but brains are the delicacy, because they offer brief flashes of memory: "parades, perfume, music . . . life" (p. 7). On one raid, R happens to ingest the experiences of one Perry Kelvin, and as a result finds himself unwilling to kill Perry's ex: he remembers how much she meant. So, instead, he saves Julie, smuggling her back to the airport and stashing her in an abandoned jumbo jet while he tries to work out what to do next, and while Perry's memories and feelings become increasingly, addictively intertwined with his own sense of self. At this point you're reminded that if zombies are unpromising narrators, they're surely even less promising candidates for romantic comedy; and yet:
My muted sadness, my vague longing, my rare flickers of joy. They pool in the center of my chest and seep out from there, diluted and faint, but real.
I press my head against my heart. Then I reach slowly towards Julie, and press against hers. Somehow, I manage to meet her eyes.
She looks down at my hand, then gives me a dry stare. "Are. You. Fucking. Kidding me." (pp. 44-45)
This sarcastic-beauty-and-the-sentimental-beast stuff is fun, and Marion has fun with Julie's metaphoric position as mistress (the kids attack her), but before long it starts to feed into the third and greatest tension that shapes Warm Bodies. Julie, and the changes Julie's presence and Perry's memories are inducing in R, represent more than just a threat to a zombie family; they represent an existential threat to this zombie society. At the top of the tree in the terminal are the zombie elders, "little more than skeletons with clinging bits of muscle, dry as jerky" (p. 5). It's these Boneys who consecrate R's marriage, in a grim parody of church; the Boneys who organize the schools. And it's the Boneys who recognize the threat that Julie and R represent, and move to kill the couple, in the process revealing themselves as the novel's true locus of horror:
One of them steps forward and stops in front of me, inches from my face. No breath wafts from its hollow mouth, but I can feel a faint, low hum emanating from its bones. This hum is not found in me, nor in M, nor in any of the other flesh-clad dead, and I begin to wonder what exactly these dried-up creatures really are. I can no longer believe in any voodoo spell or laboratory virus. This is something deeper, darker. This comes from the cosmos, from the stars, or the unknown blackness behind them. The shadows in God's boarded-up basement. (p. 66)
The difference between the two quotes I've pulled out here is not simply one of tone, though the difference in registers is notable and the movement between them is something Marion for the most part manages very well. Nor is it precisely a difference between the metaphoric and the literal, although the comedy in the first quote and the horror in the second do arise from different ratios of those competing perspectives. (And when Marion does stumble, it's mostly in moments that jerk the metaphor/literal dial too far in one direction, as when R winces at Julie's lack of awareness of "the sensitive cultural connotations of the word 'corpse'" (p. 42); a too-pointed parallel that makes little literal sense.) The most significant difference, I'd argue, is that of scale, between the personal and the cosmic. It's a difference that R articulates at the mid-point of the novel, after he and Julie have escaped the terminal, and Julie has left R to return to what's left of human society, and R is no longer able to deny the changes taking place in his consciousness—and, it seems, in some of the other zombies around him. Hence a call to arms: "If these staggering refugees want to help," he thinks, "if they see something bigger here than a boy chasing a girl, then they can help, and we'll see what happens when we say Yes while this rigor mortis world screams No" (p. 104). This tension—the question of whether R and Julie stand for more than just another round of Montagues versus Capulets—is the primary shaper of Warm Bodies's second half, and if it's a bit scrappier than what has come before, it's ultimately more moving.
After-the-zombie-apocalypse stories are relatively common nowadays—see, just in the last year, Mira Grant's Feed, Alden Bell's The Reapers are the Angels, and in some ways Tricia Sullivan's Lightborn. Even zombie romance isn't the unique selling point you might think it is, although the most obvious immediate comparison to Warm Bodies, Amelia Beamer's The Loving Dead, is more about sex than love, extrapolating the insatiable hunger of zombies in a carnal direction, where Marion makes a point of showing that for his zombies lust is as faded as every other passion. But the combination of the two makes Warm Bodies distinctive, the unabashed romanticism of the foreground contrasted with the intense horror of the background; Marion indulges in some plot handwaves, and in one objectionable moral handwave, to enable the story he wants to tell, but imbues that story with a rare strength of emotion.
So: in search of Julie, R sets out for one of humanity's enclaves, a heavily fortified stadium in the ruins of a nearby city. Tricking his way in by "playing living," what he finds is an authoritarian state that's pretty much as soul-crushing as life under the Boneys. For us, having read other post-apocalyptic stories, this is not really a surprise, and were it not for R's naked disappointment—he expected utopia—the increasingly underlined questions about what life can mean in such a society could feel somewhat rote. We learn that Perry Kelvin faced despair, and succumbed to it, giving up his dream of being (no kidding) a writer to join the station's Security force because he wants to live only in the moment, to forget that there's no longer anything worth saying. We learn that Julie is struggling to resist this revelation, and come to suspect that she's drawn to R as much for the fact that he seems to represent a possibility of change as for his personal charisma. Our heroes escape, but find themselves facing a Boney army of sudden power; they return to the stadium to set up a final, epic showdown.
I can imagine other readers finding that this climax unleashes the excesses Warm Bodies has toyed with throughout its length. The consummation of R and Julie's relationship is sentimental, arguably to the point of unenlightened cliche; and the stadium's leaders become villains who might appear narratively devoid of plausibility, not just symbolically devoid of humanity. And yet it's one of the most transporting endings I've encountered recently, and not in spite of its "stupid sticky rawness" (p. 229), but because of it. Partly I'm willing to forgive indulgence done with elan. Mostly, I'm captured by Marion's plain sincerity, the forcefulness with which he insists his readers look beyond the personal in his story to see something bigger than a boy and a girl finding love. Something bigger than their own lives, in fact. Warm Bodies asks what sort of fantasy we need to believe in our personal political agency. It's about waking up, and making our choices mean something. It's about making us believe the dead can come back to life.