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Book Review: Zone One, by Colson Whitehead

This one was probably the first infected. Everything below its eyes was a dark, gory muzzle, the telltale smear produced when a face burrowed deep into live flesh. Just another day at the office when she gets bit by some New York whacko while loading up on spring mix at the corner deli’s Salad Lounge. Full of plague but unaware. That night the shivers came, and the legendary bad dreams everyone had heard about and prayed against – the harbingers, the nightmares that were the subconscious rummaging through a lifetime for some kind of answer to or escape from this trap. With those early strains, you might last a whole day without flipping. She returns to her cubicle the next day because she hadn’t taken a sick day in years. Then transformation. (p.18-19)

I have too much to read: my stack of books has piled up to rather ridiculous proportions. So, taking a suggestion from a friend and in an effort to post here more regularly, I’m going to attempt to write some reviews of what I’m reading while I wait for things in the rest of my life to calm down enough to allow for philosophizing. This week’s offering: Zone One by Colson Whitehead.

I’m not a huge connoisseur of zombie fiction, but I’ve consumed my share in the last year or so. I think what I like about this genre, when it’s done well, is the interesting sociological stuff that comes out when people think about the aftereffects of the end of the world. I had high hopes for this book when I picked it up, but in the end, I found myself disappointed – mainly because I think I prefer my horror stories to have philosophy as a light sauce rather than the main dish.

This book falls into the subcategory of “postapocalyptic zombies”; the dead are several years’ risen, victims of some unspecified disease, and society’s already made many of its shifts and changes to deal with the situation. Our hero’s a drifter who’s settled in a colony of survivors in New York City’s Chinatown, and the book encompasses three days of typical life there, as he and his team of fellow “sweepers” go out into the larger city to clean up zombie stragglers.

I didn’t hate Zone One, by a long shot. There’s some clever worldbuilding to appreciate here; I liked the details of popular culture, the fact that the bits of news that trickled in included things like regular updates on the fate of orphaned baby triplets being raised by another colony, and the way the narrator laid out the three different kinds of “Last Night” stories (your tale of the night the zombie plague intersected with your life) that he tells to new acquaintances, the anonymized Silhouette for those you’re only spending a bit of time with, the slightly more personalized Anecdote for those who’ll want to feel they know something about you (like if you’re traveling together for a day or two), and the Obituary for those who you actually might feel like bonding with.

There were other things I liked. The prose is attractive, and fairly clean – many times, I caught myself admiring the way that Whitehead constructed a sentence or described a concept. There are a few really creepy images scattered throughout the text, too, like the details of the narrator’s Last Night story, that will stick with me for a while.

However, I think the book’s got some serious weaknesses, too. My biggest problem with it (one I’ve seen reflected in other reviews, too) was its overall structure. Although the story ostensibly covers three days, the narrator’s mind has a tendency to drift back and forth in time; to his childhood, to his drifting days before he joined the colony in New York, to other, earlier moments in his history with his sweeper team. These flashbacks can be pretty lengthy, they’re not always well-marked, and they have a tendency to occur at inconvenient times. For instance, the book’s first zombie attack (which includes the creepy paragraph that starts this review) takes up ten pages, and only about three of those involve actual contact with the zombies; the rest is the narrator wandering through his thoughts about people the zombies remind him of, and about how you’re supposed to fight zombies, and so on and so forth. I kept forgetting we were in a fight, which seemed problematic to me.

The book was also a little too clever for my taste. For instance, the main character’s name, Mark Spitz, is a wink-and-nod reference – we’re told that he rechristened himself early in the apocalypse after he realized that while he might not have been a standout in ordinary life, he was a gold medalist when it came to surviving zombie attacks. The joke’s not explained until near the end of the book, though; up to that point, we just have to deal with other characters making snarky comments about it, which made this reader feel a little bit left out (and wonder what the protagonist’s real name was).
Those who are giving the book positive reviews (on Amazon and in other places) talk about the prose, about the depth of the characters and the subject matter, and I think that’s definitely there; the book reads much more like literary fiction than like horror fiction. I said to Husband at one point, about three-quarters of the way through the text, “I don’t think I’ve encountered a single spoiler yet”; for a zombie story, the book’s surprisingly low on plot and events. I heard an interview with Whitehead on NPR’s Morning Edition where he talked a little bit about his motivations for writing the book, how he wanted a chance both to wreck his hometown of New York and to explore deep ideas of how all of us are basically “haunting our former lives.” This explains why we spend so much time wandering through Mark Spitz’s recollections of the world rather than seeing how it’s changed, but as a device, it didn’t work for me.

As I said, I’m not nearly so much of a zombie fan as some I know, but I’ve read and watched some in the last year that I’ve liked quite a bit. I’ve liked what I’ve seen of Walking Dead (both the TV show and the video game), and Mira Grant’s Newsflesh series is pretty awesome (she also wrote a prequel set at the 2014 San Diego Comic-Con, which I’d highly recommend). Although both of these might qualify as “pulpy,” I think they’re also thought-provoking for a few reasons; they encourage us to think about what we might do in the characters’ situations, and they encourage us to care about the characters. The laconic pace of Whitehead’s book left me not really paying much attention to what was going on – when zombies came swarming into some poor group’s shelter, I wasn’t on the edge of my seat waiting to see how our heroes are going to get out, although I might have admired the way the attack was written.

I finished the book; that’s actually a testament in and of itself, as I don’t finish everything I read these days. But for those of you looking for a fresh spin on the zombie story, this might not be the place to go.

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4 Comments

  1. Matt

     /  January 5, 2013

    Here’s one YES vote to more book reviews. More book reviews! Plotless and pretty to look at? I’d read it.

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  2. Thank you for this review…I’m not a huge zombie fan. Sometimes I feel like I’m the only non-fan of the Walking Dead. I even read 11 of the Walking Dead comics and still wasn’t into it. Someone told me, “Maybe you’re not into survivalist stories.” Nope that’s not the case. I guess zombie stories all seem the same to me. Maybe I’ll give this one a try and see how I feel. I DID however, just something (don’t want to give the title because of spoilers) recently that had zombie like people in it because of a plague, but it was done very differently AND it wasn’t all about them. Okay, now I’m just babbling. Maybe I should go write in my blog that is collecting figurative dust on the interweb right now.

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    • What impressed me about the Walking Dead TV show was its atmosphere — I think I hadn’t seen much “serious” zombie stuff. Maybe try the first episode (I think it’s available on Netflix streaming) and see what you think.

      Looking forward to encountering mysterious zombie-like people in some book somewhere in the future… 🙂

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  3. oops, please insert the word “read” between just and something. Haha.

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