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Cannonball Read #2: Pontypool Changes Everything by Tony Burgess

November 23, 2009

I was inspired to read Pontypool Changes Everything after I watched the Bruce McDonald-helmed film adaptation, Pontypool (which I found about through a review on Pajiba.com and through io9.com, proving that I am Queen of the Nerds for All Time Unto Eternity.) Prisco had many nice things to say about Pontypool the film, including:

None can hold a bayberry candle to the taught tension of Pontypool,
which is something like Talk Radio meets 28 Days Later. A
shock jock banished to the hinterlands of rural Canada finds himself trapped in
the radio station while a mob of seemingly insane maniacs spouting gibberish lay
siege to the building. With a minuscule cast, just a spectacular splash of gore,
and a veritable straightjacket of tension, Bruce Macdonald creates an
outstanding pseudo-zombie cocktail and an even better psychological horror that
should make M. Night Shamalyan weep with shame.

I really enjoyed the movie, though I thought it was a tad overwritten in places (paging Captain Exposition, you’re needed in the basement of this small-town radio station for a Code 3 Background Description.) I’ve always been fascinated by the way speech influences thought and vice versa* and was intrigued by the premise of the movie. And McDonald’s taut direction, especially towards the end, as things got Increasingly Dire for Grant Mazzy and his cohorts, kept me nervously clinging to the edge of my seat. So, when my natal day delivered a $50 Amazon gift card to my door I decided to get the movie’s source material, Pontypool Changes Everything (along with Jeff Vandermeer’s superb Finch, which I’ll be reviewing next, and the 2-disc Star Trek DVD, see aforementioned Queen of All Nerds Bow to my Magnificence.)

Pontypool is to Pontypool Changes Everything what Ragtime! The Musical is to E.L. Doctorow’s novel Ragtime: Features some of the same characters but takes vast liberties with the arcs those characters take. Normally I’m the first person to be up in arms about big deviations from the source material when adapting for the screen, but in the case of Pontypool Changes Everything the complete restructuring of the novel for the screen managed to convey the bleak tension of the novel.

Pontypool Changes Everything is set an unspecified amount of time after a virus has decimated vast swathes of Canada. Those infected with the virus are frankly called Zombies by non-sufferers in the book but are referred to elsewhere in interviews by Burgess and McDonald as “Conversationalists.” I like this term better- those afflicted are first overwhelmed by a sense of having lost hold of their language, then moved to repeat certain words over and over (in the book and movie, usually terms of endearment) and finally moved to end their suffering by chewing their way through the mouth of an uninfected person.

Yes, seriously.

Post-Plague Canada has largely shuddered into a kind of bureaucratic detente around the outbreak- those who are diagnosed with the disease must register, and generally go days or weeks before manifesting symptoms. High schools are given over to the cataloguing and autopsy-ing of the dead (By Dr. Mendez, a central character in the movie but only tangential to the book’s plot.)

Grant Mazzy who in the film is a shock-jock talk radio personality is a well-respected and famous TV anchor in the book, and takes up few pages of Burgess’ time as he paints a portrait of every facet of society as it is touched by this insane disease. An addict named Greg, diagnosed but not yet manifesting symptoms, attends NA meetings with his Higher Power (who may or may not turn out to be a real person.) Greg is a volunteer at the TV station for Mazzy, who solicits sexual favors from the other volunteers on staff while being a passionate volunteer for various charitable causes. Pontypool, which Mazzy says “changes everything,” is a kind of Ground Zero, the point from which the infection spread (though this is unclear.) A brother and sister, orphaned by their parent’s zombification early in the book, live in an idyllic, incestual paradise in a shack outside of Pontypool, living on the flesh of dead zombies. Their child is born with full command of the English language. Les Reardon, a former mental patient who is trying to revive Pontypool’s amateur dramatics league, is the first person we meet in Pontypool Changes Everything. As the world crumbles and Les witnesses increasingly terrifying and horrifying scenes, the lines between his schizophrenia and his dawning Conversationalism blur as he fights to save his child.

All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed Pontypool Changes Everything. Neither the movie nor the book is perfect, but both convey the feelings of the Conversationalists who become increasingly haunted by their inability to verbalize themselves, their anxiety over what is happening, or the certainty that they are about to do something horrible to someone else.

*I know I usually twitch when I hear the phrase “I’ve always been fascinated / intrigued by X” but it seemed to work here, so forgive me. I’ll take off my beret now.
** There are undoubtedly many smart things to be said about the homage Pontypool Changes Everything pays to Neil Stephenson’s magnificent Snow Crash, but I haven’t read the latter in years and I’m sure someone else on the interwebs has already made these comparisons.
*** I totally typed this review with “Jim Sturgess” as the author instead of “Tony Burgess.”

Prisco’s Pontypool review on Pajiba.com
Pontypool Changes Everything on Amazon.com

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