BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A group of survivors sweep through New York City cleaning up the straggling undead and trying to restart civilization after an apocalyptic plague.
PROS: Zombie fiction with ideas; Whitehead brings literary weight to a stagnant genre.
CONS: Sometimes inconsistent in the tone of its philosophies.
BOTTOM LINE: An enjoyable if heavy-handed read; a refreshing and challenging entry into the zombie genre.
Colson Whitehead isn’t accustomed to receiving reviews on speculative fiction blogs. His oeuvre is decidedly high-brow literary (his debut The Intuitionist was reviewed by Updike in The New Yorker). He’s a Harvard grad and a McArthur Fellow. And he can now add to that resume: horror novelist.
But it’s not as simple as that. Zone One, for all its genre trappings, isn’t just a book about the ravenous undead and the heros who seek to stamp them out. Nor is it just a thriller following unsuspecting survivors as they seek to stave off their own doom. It’s both of these things and neither. It’s a challenging and thought provoking book with a foot in two disciplines, sometimes to its credit, other times to its detriment.
The reader is placed squarely between the eyes of Mark Spitz (never just Mark, always Mark Spitz, somewhat jarring to those familiar with early ’70’s competitive swimming). Mark Spitz is the everyman required by the zombie genre. Whitehead goes out of his way to emphasize the very averageness of his protagonist, dedicating overly long passages to such inane subjects as his kindergarten aptitude. In the time since “Last Night,” Mark Spitz has found that mediocrity lends itself to post-apocalyptic survival and has made it back to Manhattan where he works as a sweeper cleaning up straggling “skels” (Whitehead’s word for zombie, why people of modern sensibilities don’t call a zombie a zombie is never explained).
With him in this endeavor is the standard cast you’d expect to find in zombie fiction, the grizzled right-winger with a happy trigger finger and a sense of immortality, the goody-two-shoes keen on organization and playing it by the book, a philosophizing military leader with a gift for poetic restatement. And despite being trapped in the unremarkable Mark Spitz vehicle throughout, Whitehead does his best to give us a glimpse beyond the wall. The seat of humanity has resettled in Buffalo. There are other settlements up and down the eastern sea-board and news of these encampments is sought after by the inhabitants of NYC. Survivors latch onto symbols of rebirth and freedom, i.e. the Tromanhauser Triplets, born into the ashes of reconstruction or “Stop! Can You Hear the Eagle Roar? (Theme from Reconstruction),” a refrain often whistled by “pheenies” (members of the American Phoenix, the reconstruction bureaucracy) in the field as they happily mow down the undead.
The book takes us through three days in the life of Mark Spitz but is constantly undercut by digressions and flashbacks, some to before Last Night but more often to his days fending for himself in the wasteland. There is a continuity to the present in the story but it sometimes feels lost among the afterthoughts. For instance, the opening action has Mark Spitz fighting off a foursome of skels trapped for years in a copy room in a high rise office building and is interspersed by recollections on the hairstyles of popular sitcom stars, thoughts on Mark Spitz’s fondness for a certain sixth grade teacher, and contemplation on the tenacity of human resources representatives. All of this has its purpose but it stands out as distinctively introverted.
Whitehead throws us another symbolic twist with the advent of “stragglers,” skels who aren’t motivated by blood-lust but instead haunt the corners of their former lives. Creatures in thrall to their sofa and television, the grill of the corner fast food joint, the bedroom in the house where they grew up. Mark Spitz ruminates at length over the humanity of these stragglers and Whitehead invites us to wonder where we would linger in such a state.
Whether or not a reader connects with Zone One probably will rely much upon that reader’s expectations. This is not light reading and if it keeps you up at night, it won’t be because of Whitehead’s depiction of his monsters but instead in reflection on the idea of self the apocalypse forces upon his characters. Mark Spitz is an everyman in the day to day sense, a mediocrity that turns exceptional in the light of extremes, a world where “beauty could not thrive, and the awful was too commonplace to be of consequence.” Mark Spitz’s plight is one of hope versus grim reality. There’s a sense that the sun sets on all things and the night can only get worse when blood thirsty skels roam the streets. This dichotomy between the need for survival and the hope for it drives much of the conflict.
Also intriguing is the way Whitehead tackles American consumerism sidelong. The book avoids the trappings of brand. Instead of simply saying Starbucks and letting our connotations of the brand do the talking, Whitehead instead goes on a several page dissertation on what that brand stands for, including descriptions of its stores, its origin and place in society. This patterns repeats, “a sitcom,” a “24-7 gas-and-cigarette vendor,” a “famously grim pizza-and-sub place.” This reversal of branding gives the reading a social punch that’s hard to triangulate but thought provoking nonetheless.
In this new bureaucracy, corporate “sponsors” lend their resources to the effort of reconstruction, a symbolic gesture aimed at curtailing looting of any non-approved materials. This arrangement seems laughable under the circumstances but given its rooting in our current ownership society it probably isn’t far from the mark.
Whitehead isn’t always so cagey with his delivery, however, and there are moments that feel too contrived to be useful. One feels echoes of McCarthy’s The Road, when Mark Spitz is ruminating on social structure in the wasteland, where attachment to a child or spouse makes life dangerous for the uninvolved outsider. In The Road we confront these issues as a battlement against nihilism but here it plays a little crass. Mark Spitz himself, portrayed as a center pivot between the madness of the skels and the hopeful idiocy of the pheenies, seems purpose built to eschew any ambiguities regarding skel relations. If someone were to have a moment of pure humanization regarding a skel straggler, we would expect it to be someone summoning the full buoyancy of the American Phoenix movement, not our paragon of mediocre practicality. Niggling aside, Zone One presents a view of the apocalyptic plague from the inside out and it’s here that it makes the most philosophical hay.
Whitehead is clearly a fantastic stylist which may actually be a turnoff to certain genre readers. As with the action scene previously mentioned, the text is full of digressions that reflect more on Mark Spitz’s situation mentally than his current physical well being. For the patient reader this builds into a dreamy affect that adds to the atmosphere of the novel, building intensity up to the thrilling climax (and ultimate payoff for reprinting the full name Mark Spitz so many hundreds of times).
“Genre-slumming” is a term invented to attach stigma to a book like Zone One and it’s an unfortunate tag. Genre tends to suffer from stagnation when confined only to its adherents. Max Brooks enlivened the zombie genre once and here Colson Whitehead, as unlikely a source as any, has done it again. And done it without compromising any of the depth and poetry that gives literary fiction its supposed psychic lift. Recommended.