Devolution | Author: Max Brooks | Publisher: Del Ray | Genre: Disaster, Horror | Year: 2020
Since reading Max Brooks’ terrific World War Z, I’ve since acquired a house of my own and personally experienced those challenges associated with rebuilding a life in the face of adversity. And what’s more, I’ve discovered that cupboards don’t fill themselves! Those odd jobs and not so odd bills are ten times more draining on your soul when it’s only you responsible for them.
Is it any wonder that those of us who get stuck in this circle of modern life look for so many opportunities to make it all just a little bit easier? To escape and not consider the many terrible things that could sunder our cushy existence in a heartbeat. For many of us, Covid-19 has been the ultimate awakening moment, and it’s just the sort of frightening situation that has allowed Max Brooks to worm his way into our affections once more.
Saying that, Devolution isn’t concerned with a viral pandemic, but it does share the ‘world in collapse’ concept that we’re growing more familiar with as 2020 rolls on. Devolution is a page-turner that’s just as addictive as Brooks’ previous works, with similar themes that are less epic and yet a lot more intimately explored.
The plot concerns a killing that has occurred in the eco-centric community of Greenloop, which hides in the wilderness near Seattle. As was the case in World War Z, there’s a narrator/reporter looking to find truth amid the tragedy by interviewing people who were close to the victims, and reviewing the journal entries of Kate Holland; a woman who stands at the centre of the rapidly escalating conspiracy involving a lot of death and maybe even supernatural creatures.
If you were one of the unlucky people who found World War Z too impersonal, then Devolution may be the novel for you. Much of the book feels like it’s trying to answer that common criticism. In Kate Holland, readers will find a sympathetic character of flawed American sensibilities and untested potential for life as a budding survivalist.
Brooks’ trademark brand of fear (in the early stages anyway), doesn’t come from any flesh-eating monster, but rather the realisation of how utterly in denial society can be when faced with disaster. The author breaks down the persona of a human who has grown too comfortable with the trappings of modern life; the sappy individuals who are used to having their iPads and smart homes provide everything they could ever need. It’s that same humbling realism and Brooksian satire at work again.
A natural disaster throws the community of Greenloop into disarray quite early, and it almost hurts to read the descriptions of how poorly prepared everyone is at coping with the situation (the US government included). If the allusions to real life America don’t have you shaking your head in agreement, then maybe the near parodic descriptions of overturned delivery trucks and hovering drones — on the look out for social media pictures, of course — will surely fare better.
“But what happens when the delivery trucks don’t come? What if they can’t?” says Brooks; the bastard even taking a shot at our one-click online delivery. Dirty pool, man!
Once again, it’s easy to read about the fictional side of Brooks’ looming disaster and find it uncomfortably realistic, and indeed, this novel feels like another throughly well-researched effort. It may be a fictional story, but that doesn’t stop Brooks from presenting some potent real world history that will have F-6 numbskulls like myself shamefully looking up things on Wikipedia like the Siri-dependant protagonist from the book itself.
All this occurs before any serious mention of a Sasquatch is made. The book starts out as a realistic piece of disaster fiction before gradually descending into a fantastical horror tale. This odd structure is reminiscent of House of Leaves in how the terror slowly builds, and how the horror is administered with the aid of well-reasoned scientific explanations. It’s much scarier than you’d think at first, though the House of Leaves comparison may extend a little further in how the horror material kind of masks something resembling a love story hiding underneath.
That comparison may be a long shot because if Devolution is intended to be a quasi romance story, then it’s certainly not one with a happy and/or particularly satisfying ending. The narrative turns into a Spec Ops: The Line style descent into madness towards the end; a tonal shift that will delight those looking for a proper exploration of the book’s title.
There’s a disappointing absence of certain characters towards the end though. Greenloop’s slimy power couple, Tony and Yvette, are the perfect (read: hilarious) introduction to everything that’s wrong with the community in question, and yet it’s not really explained what drives the pair to remain absent from a large chunk of the story.
There is a feeling that Devolution doesn’t quite live up to its own potential by the end. The narrative remains tense throughout, but the final few chapters feel a little too hurried and the characterful moments abruptly fall away in line with the central motif.
Nevertheless, whether it’s to be considered a straight horror novel; a metaphor for Covid-19; or a piece of rather obvious satire; Devolution is a still a thrilling read while it lasts.