Pontypool Changes Everything (1998)
By Tony Burgess
ECW Press: 2009
3.5 / 5 zedheads
Reading Pontypool Changes Everything is as close as I ever want to come to experiencing the terror of going insane yet enjoying it at the same time. It's a novel infected with the same linguistic zombie plague it describes.
Written by Tony Burgess and first published in 1998, Pontypool Changes Everything was reprinted to coincide with the release of Pontypool the movie, also written by Tony Burgess. Unlike the movie’s tight, focused, and claustrophobic atmosphere that skates a thin line between sincere horror and flights of absurdity, the original book is an unstable, feral, and fragmented animal with multiple beginnings and endings that occasionally breaks the surface of lucidity but more often than not pulls the reader ever deeper into a web of intangible abstract imagery. Burgess’s style in Pontypool Changes Everything slips between conventional narrative prose and the freewheeling arts of poetry. The effect is manifestly disorienting. Experiencing the novel is like experiencing a particular kind of madness; it feels like it should make sense, and it may be trying to make sense, and it may in fact make the most sense. Or, to borrow a quote from the movie, it was "never making sense" at all.
The basic idea of the novel is the same as in the movie: a strange new virus (known as AMPS in the book) is being transmitted through the English language. The infected first experience a form of aphasia before turning into raving cannibals. The infection begins in the small rural town of Pontypool, Ontario in Canada before spreading out to the rest of the province.
Although the novel begins with the character of Les Reardon, we are introduced to a revolving slate of other characters including Grant Mazzy (not the Grant Mazzy of the film but a sleazy TV anchorman in this book), his assistant Greg and his "Higher Power," Dr. Mendez, and brother and sister Julie and Jim. Except for Les Reardon, the reader never gets close to any of these characters; Burgess drops us in and out of their lives at random. We spend more time getting to know Reardon, but Reardon has mental issues that make him an unreliable narrator in an already unreliable narrative. When the zombies go wild, Reardon's mind quickly takes a hike. In fact, the whole book could simply be Reardon's leftover psychopathic nightmare that has escaped him and is living on long after he's been taken out of the narrative. Altogether, Burgess's story is a story that resists being a story; as a result, the narrative is delusional.
For example, here is how Burgess describes the language virus (an idea that is fittingly abstract and couched in ideas of semiotics and nearly occult philosophies of language):
The virus bit wildly at the exterior shimmer of the paradigms, jamming selection with pointed double fangs. A terrible squealing ripped beneath the surface of the paradigms as they were destroyed. . . . The plague first manifests itself in the infected person as a type of déjà vu, with an accompanying aphasia. Everything that happened presented itself as already happened. This infinitely complicated things. For as soon as the person adjusted, understanding that this sensation was merely a symptom of the plague, his or her understanding slipped backward into the already happened. Each realization had to be doubled against itself into becoming understood next: an impossible therapy to maintain. The present tense was a slippery slope to anyone in remission. The "now" became a deepening lesion, and from it rose the smell of this new sickness. (Burgess 148)Pontypool Changes Everything is not a conventional zombie narrative. It does feature some wonderfully grotesque scenes and some of the best written examples of zombie carnage I have ever read, but these instances are rare. Zombie fans who are used to more standard fare and conventional ideas will find the book quite frustrating, especially if they were already put-off by the movie.
I, however, enjoy abstract poetry and give a lot more credit to the "weird" in art than it may sometimes deserve. That's not to say that Pontypool Changes Everything doesn't deserve to be read and appreciated. The idea of the language virus is one of the most intriguing and refreshing additions to the zombie genre I've experienced since George A. Romero turned zombies into flesh-hungry monsters. I also love the fact that as the language of the novel and it's use of time and place becomes distorted just as the infected people's language begins to deteriorate and they lose their minds and sense of time. For example, there is a point in the story that suddenly ushers the reader into a section of the novel that is a biographical excerpt from Tony Burgess's own life. Barriers break own in Pontypool Changes Everything because it is a book sick with the same sickness it attempts to describe. And as we know from the book and movie, the attempt to speak about the sickness is both a symptom of the disease and a means of transmission. Were the book any longer, it's disease may have progressed to the final stage and we might have seen copies of Pontypool Changes Everything flying off the shelves and taking bites out readers' throats.
At the same time, this style of writing comes at the expense of narrative story since, as Tony Burgess has explained, the story was never meant to be a story for people to read. He considers this to be one of the book's virtues. In the afterword to the 2009 edition of Pontypool Changes Everything, Burgess offers an apology of sorts to his readers: "And so, now that I have been asked to write this afterword, I realize it has to be an apology, not for the book, which can't be helped, but for the fact that I was unfaithful to its first virtue: I have asked you to read it, and now, sitting here at the end, I am telling you that it might be a mistake that you did" (278).
As a book whose best virtue is that it should not be read, it is a flawed story. Yet, it is contagious, infectious, and incorrigible. If, like me, you are a fan of the movie, Pontypool Changes Everything is an essential companion to the movie not for what they add to one another but for the contrasts they highlight. It is also a book that sparks and sizzles with a mad brilliance of language although the potential of those sparks are never collected into a lightning bolt.
I'm going to end this review by pulling a quote from the movie Pontypool to describe the book from which the movie was inspired. How's that for a mind-twister?
In the film, Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie) delivers a brilliantly strange speech near the end of the movie and he utters what has become one of my all time favorite film quotes: "Well, what the fuck happened today folks? Someone took a buzzsaw to your middle, and they pulled out a wheeling devil, and they spilled it right across your anthill. But you know what folks? We were never making sense. We were never making sense."
Pontypool Changes Everything is, at its heart, a wheeeeeeeeeling devil spilled across the anthill of zombie literature.