Literacy 2021: Book 15: Devolution

Max Brooks applies his World War Z style to Sasquatches instead of zombies

Devolution: A Firsthand Account of the Rainier Sasquatch Massacre by Max Brooks

After an eruption from Mount Rainier wreaks havoc on the Seattle and Tacoma area, residents of an experimental village of self-sufficient homes find themselves completely cut off from the rest of civilization. Their story is recounted via interviews with people familiar with the incident, and the found journal entries written by one of the residents.

According to the acknowledgements, Brooks had conceived of and pitched this as a movie, but then reacquired the rights and released it as a novel. That’s evident, since this is 100% plotted and paced as an action horror movie, but delivered in the more introspective oral history style.

Smart and confident in its tone and its level of research. Has a strong message about human arrogance and hubris, and the folly of seeing ourselves as set apart from nature. Also has a strong message about over-reliance on, and confidence in, technology. Captures how 21st century tech culture combines a lot of societal failures: over-reliance on convenience, lack of understanding of the supply chain and its consequences, the cult-like worship of prominent figures in technology, and the arrogance of businessmen who act as if they’re saving the planet. Exhaustively planned and plotted, with convincing explanations for almost every single detail and event.

Brilliantly paced in the build-up to the point at which the action first breaks. I had to stop reading before bed and finish the book in the daylight, but even at mid-day, I felt my heart racing and my palms getting sweaty, even though I knew pretty much exactly what was going to happen. It’s so good at reproducing that feeling of terror and vulnerability that came from watching the In Search Of… episode about Bigfoot in the 1970s, that I knew instantly that Brooks must be the same age as me. (He’s one year younger than me, as it turns out).

The oral history format just doesn’t work for this story; instead of adding a sense of verisimilitude, it just draws attention to how false the format is. The protagonist’s long passages quickly start feeling less like journal entries and more like a novel, both in tone and in level of detail and memory. And that would’ve been fine, except by repeatedly mentioning that this was a journal, it just drew more attention to the fact that it’s clearly not. One of the characters, whose “interviews” make up a significant chunk of the books, is written in an affected trying-too-hard-to-sound-casual voice that comes across as jarringly clumsy compared to the other voices. None of the characters are likable, which is probably to be expected in a horror movie in which most of the characters will die, but frustrating when it seems that the book wants me to like some of these characters a lot. Needlessly and excessively fat-shaming of a character who we’re supposed to despise for being weak, selfish, and gluttonous. Two characters’ descent into insanity is bizarrely over-the-top and unbelievable in a story that’s otherwise so grounded.

My biggest gripe is actually the tone of arrogance and nastiness that’s always lurking in the middle of a well-paced and well-researched story. It often feels like a doomsday prepper pitching a monster movie to you. It’s weird, because it’s too intelligent, well-written, and inclusive to be lumped in with other testosterone-heavy B-movie action stories. But I still couldn’t shake the feeling that if it had the option, the book would sneer at me and call me a pussy.

One of the most well-crafted books I’ve read this year, perfectly capturing the feeling of a well-made horror/action/monster movie. But I’m also glad it’s over, because I can’t shake the creepy sense that if I spent more time with it, it’d start trying to sell me on crypto-currency or libertarianism, or drag me into an argument over the failings of electric vehicles.