Melanie, The Reluctant Zombie
By Ryan Joe
Like cell phones, every zombie iteration requires some kind of new feature. The 2002 film 28 Days Later gave us zombies that sprint – which is now de rigueur. And the 2013 video game The Last of Us – likely haunted by a segment from the BBC’s Planet Earth – introduced the fungus zombie.
Entering the mix is M.R. Carey’s The Girl With All The Gifts, also about a fungal outbreak that turns people into zombies – though pop culture seems to agree that the word is too corny to accommodate our 21st century edginess. They’re all “walkers” or “the infected” or, in our present instance, “hungries.”
Because Girl came out only six months after The Last of Us, it’s probably unfair to compare though I’m having a hard time not because the two have such similar beats. Both feature a zombie apocalypse caused by an outbreak of the cordyceps fungus, a perilous roadtrip to “safety” during which initially hostile characters learn to trust and love each other, and a young girl whose brain is the locus of a possible vaccine – which of course is only accessible by dissecting her.
Despite being a video game – a format not exactly known for tight plotting or solid characterizations – The Last of Us does a better job telling this story than Girl, because its characters behave in ways that actually make sense. There’s an inherent truth to everything that they do, so when someone is forced into a hard decision, it resonates emotionally.
By contrast, Girl often undermines its brief spurts of originality with moments that feel completely artificial, where characters make decisions not because of any internal logic, but because of Carey’s need to drive the plot in a certain direction.
Example: Late in the novel, a young soldier named Gallagher abruptly goes AWOL. Carey tries to support this. In a previous chapter, there’s passing mention of Gallagher’s anxiety: “He tries to shake off the mood of despair. He tries to look and feel like a soldier.” After he vanishes, we learn the catalyzing incident might be the threat of some nearby bandits, called Junkers.
But that fear, that crippling nervousness that causes Gallagher to flee in a panic, has not to this point been endemic to his character, despite there being chapters written from his POV.
So why does he flee?
Why does anyone flee in a zombie story?
Because they need to be eaten.
And this is an issue that occurs throughout the novel: Characters make decisions that they wouldn’t make, simply to jack up the drama, if only temporarily. Early in the novel, one of the main characters, a teacher named Helen Justineau, rips open a tank full of tissue cultures for the given reason that she has “an intense desire to assert herself…” But it’s an over-wrought gesture that serves little purpose other than to capstone a lengthy passage of expository dialog.
Much later, Justineau dramatically fires a flare to get the title character Melanie to return to her – even though such an action risks the attention of both zombies and Junkers. As with the fishtank incident, shooting the flare has no purpose and it has no consequence. Enemies are not drawn to the location. Nor is there any reason for Melanie to return so urgently, and she eventually does on her own and at her leisure.
Which is why these moments feel so artificial. I wonder if these narrative decisions stem from Carey’s background as a writer of superhero comics, a genre where characters tend to react in the most dramatic way possible – usually because it’s conducive to a strong visual.
And I haven’t even addressed the title character, Melanie the half-zombie, the reluctant zombie. A sweet, intellectually curious child who goes into an uncontrollable feeding frenzy whenever she smells live human flesh.
Yet, while the book’s beginning is largely written from her point of view, she pretty much vanishes a third of the way in. She becomes a non-entity in her own novel, and that’s Carey’s biggest missed opportunity.
Because if she’s battling against her internal nature, Carey certainly forgot about it. Her character operates on a pretty simplistic level: She wants to do right and, until the very end, she has a pretty easy time doing it. She insists on being locked up and muzzled when she’s around people she cares about. But her nature makes her the most immediate threat – a bomb that could go off at any moment. It’s a situation primed for tension and yet, Carey never does anything with it. Melanie is a good kid, and if I absolutely had to hang out with a zombie, I’d want to hang out with one just like her.
Because she’s innately heroic and ultimately boring. She has none of the conflict that would make her interesting. After tasting human flesh for the first time (She’s protecting Justineau by killing some unequivocally bad dudes), she realizes how much she likes it. Perhaps it’s something she’d choose to seek out again. But that temptation, to the extent Carey ever shows it, never comes into dramatic play again.
Only at the end – the very end, such that there’s no time to really ponder the consequences – does she make a morally difficult decision. By then it’s too little too late.