Isaac Marion’s The Living does so much more than just give the Warm Bodies series the conclusion it deserves. It shows us all just how important the past is to our present as well as our future.
There are so many quotes and sayings out in the world today that harp on the importance of the past. We’ve all heard them and could probably recite them from memory at this point:
“What’s past is prologue.” —William Shakespeare, The Tempest
“Those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” —George Santayana
“The past can hurt. But the way I see it, you can either run from it or learn from it.” —Rafiki, The Lion King
You get the point.
But, with all of these quotes swirling around us a lot of the time, how often do we actually abide by them?
Often, we work hard to forget the past and sweep it under the rug. We idealize the concept of a clean slate. We see prequels as lesser than the stories and worlds they work to expand. We feel disconnected from history and events that happened so long ago, and therefore decide not to acknowledge them.
And yet, that’s the opposite of what we need to do if we hope to keep moving forward and improving our lives (as well as the world around is). Forward progress is impossible if we don’t know or acknowledge where we came from and how far we’ve come.
What does this have to do with Isaac Marion’s The Living and the Warm Bodies series as a whole? A great deal, actually.
Going in to The Living, I honestly wasn’t expecting another road trip novel. The large majority of The Burning World, the second book in the Warm Bodies series, was spent traversing the barren wasteland of what used to be the United States of America. I assumed that the characters’ self-explorations were finished by the end of The Burning World. That’s just how stories usually work.
I can see now just how foolish that thought was.
After all, road trips don’t work like that. You can’t expect to move in one direction for a long period of time, over thousands of miles, and then instantly revert back to where you started when you decide to. (Apparition and port keys aren’t real, sadly.) There are two legs to every road trip, the adventure and the return, both of which are important. One cannot exist without the other.
The Burning World may be a road trip novel, but it only focuses on the adventure to the destination. It’s The Living that is very much about that trip back. What do these characters *do* with this knowledge now that they have it? How does it inform where they go from where we last left them in The Burning World?
While valuable lessons are learned throughout the adventure leg of any road trip, the return is the more important leg because it takes those lessons from the first leg and starts to put them to use. In a literal road trip, for example, the learning how far apart rest stops are on your route on the way to your destination can inform quite a bit of the plan for the journey home.
This idea works the same way for symbolical and literary road trips. In The Burning World, R begins to remember pieces of his past, including who he is and what he did in his first life. This knowledge is then put to the test and even in to action during the heroes’ return trip to the stadium when they encounter shady figures and operations.
The struggle to work yourself back to where you started with your new knowledge in tow is just as important as seeking that knowledge in the first place. There are no participation points for just learning about or acknowledging the past. The value comes in how that knowledge is used.
This is essentially the crux of The Living. What makes this novel’s story, as well as the story of the series as a whole, truly effective is how it engages with the past in a multilayered way.
Stay with me here.
The first level of the past is just that. The past. What happened to these characters before R and Julie started changing things. Who our heroes (and villains, for that matter) were when the world seemed hopeless. What the dynamics were in the world before the virus took over as well as in the early days.
This level of the past provides the foundation on which everything else in the story is built.
The second level of the past is the recent rediscovery of the first level. It’s the first level of the past with a modern filter over it, which includes the circumstances of that rediscovery as well as any new information on past events. This is the version of the past that the characters are forced to face, endure, and now integrate into their current lives while on their adventure across the country.
This multilayered approach to viewing the past not only gives the reader the necessary foundation for understanding why the world of the story is the way it is but also how each character has contributed to it and how they can break that cycle (sometimes even before the characters realize it themselves).
But while all of these pieces of knowledge are crucial, the multilayered approach to the past does something far more important for our heroes than just exposing these truths: It teaches the characters we’ve come to know and love throughout the Warm Bodies series how to really and truly live.
In The Burning World, things happened to R and co. Though they were out traversing North America, they were relatively passive figures in their own lives. They may have all been Living (or well, most of them if you’re including R’s kids and Julie’s mom), but they weren’t really LIVING. R, Julie, and their friends ran around looking for an escape not only from the world they found themselves in, but also from each of their not-so-glittery pasts.
But, as the characters eventually learned, you can’t do that. You can’t expect the future to greet you with arms wide open if you’re running away from your past. Your past defines who you are and how you view the world. Your past provides contrast. Without it, the world would be dull, muted, and not worth living in.
This was the lesson our heroes learned at the close of The Burning World. (If you’ve never seen it, the trailer for The Burning World does a really good job depicting just how hard-earned that lesson was.) But learning a lesson and living your life by its teachings are two different things.
The characters aren’t the only ones to learn this lesson throughout the course of the novel. The Living schools the reader just as much by revealing important aspects about all of the characters we’ve come to love that weren’t made explicit previously. We need all of the morsels this novel gives up about the characters’ past in order to appreciate their present as well as the future they’re fighting for. Otherwise, their struggles and their successes don’t mean nearly enough.
Take the ending of Warm Bodies for example. Eight years ago, it was enough. Our heroes triumphed enough to live to see another day and potentially change the world around them. The end.
But now, after digging deeper into everyone’s motivations and the tail winds that drive them forward (or backward), that initial finale feels incredibly incomplete. Those characters feel like strangers and their win over the Boneys (as well Julie’s dad) feels far too easy and small in scope. That initial win, although a great start, was ultimately inconsequential.
In The Living, we get that context and contrast. We understand what living means to and looks like for each of the characters and we watch as they all slowly come back to life in their own way. By the end of the novel, our heroes are thriving because they’re actively living their lives. They’re using their knowledge and experience from the past to build the future they want to see, not waiting for someone (or something) else to take charge and create more of the same.
Though The Living is jam-packed with characters we’ve come to know and love over the course of the Warm Bodies series, both corporeal and metaphysical, none is quite as important as that of the past. No, unlike the Universe, it doesn’t have chapters devoted to its point of view and, no, it’s never mentioned by name, but the past plays such an essential role in this story that, thanks to author Isaac Marion’s skillful craftsmanship, it’s a character in its own right.
As The Living reminds us, the past cannot and should not just stay in the past. It’s a thread that we all must carry with us so that we may be reminded of where we came from and what we’re working toward. Yes, the Warm Bodies series is a story about a group of people fighting a zombie virus, but it’s also a warning, as well as a reminder, to all of us to keep the past alive in everything that we do. If we don’t, we’ll lose perspective and regard of just what it means to live and be alive.