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TBTS Reviews: Zone One

October 19, 2011

What, exactly, does Colson Whitehead think he’s up to, anyway? Is he trying to make a silk purse from a sow’s ear, or is he just cashing in on an unstoppable pop culture phenomenon? What business does an author who has been called the best of the new generation of American novelists have writing a zombie story, anyway? Where does a guy who has been near the top of a list for a whole slew of awards get off doing something like this?

Whitehead revealed some of his motivation for taking a stroll on the gory side of the street in a dialogue posted on pop culture site Grantland. He said, “The blaxploitation movies I saw as a kid provided one example for a black hero, and Night of the Living Dead gave me another one. Black guy on the run from hordes of insane white people who want to tear him limb from limb? What’s more American than that? It’s like T.G.I. Friday’s, and Pez.” His last novel, the semi-autobiographical Sag Harbor, contains more clues about where he’s coming from – its protagonist, fifteen-year-old Benji, accidentally places himself in social Siberia with too many references to Fangoria and George Romero at school before learning to stay tight-lipped about nerdy stuff. In other words, flashy literary credentials or not, Whitehead is a card-carrying member of the geek tribe, and now that he’s got those credentials, he’d like to see you try to stop him. I’ll give you a tip: you couldn’t if you wanted to, and if the result is going to be something like this, why would you?

Spread out over three days, Zone One tells the story of a man called Mark Spitz, a nickname given him by fellow his survivors. Assigned by the provisional government in Buffalo to a crew helping to clear part of Manhattan, he is responsible for locating and putting to rest “stragglers”, people who were not turned into monsters by the virus but instead locked in stasis, their minds winding down while their bodies are preserved while performing some mundane task like vacuuming the floor or working a copier. The details are at once familiar and fresh. Survivors tell each other stories of Last Night, the night where it reached the tipping point and everything fell apart. Juice boxes have become a kind of default currency. Cleanup crews try to identify shapes in bloodstains after putting down stragglers. The government in Buffalo rules over isolated shelters in far-flung places, trying to keep survivors – nicknamed “pheenies”, for the phoenix, the unofficial replacement for the bald eagle as our national symbol – as safe and happy as possible, while everyone contends with their very own case of PASD, Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder. He marries a seldom-seen grace to the trappings of the genre, and the results are amazing:

When the wall fell, it fell quickly, as if it had been waiting for this moment, as if it had been created for the very instant of its failure. Barricades collapsed with haste once exposed for the riddled and rotten things they had always been. Beneath that facade of stability they were as ethereal as the society that created them. All the feverish subroutines of his survival programs booted up, for the first time in so long, and he located the flaw the instant before it expressed itself: there.

Darkly hilarious, stealthily wise, and often genuinely creepy, Zone One is a journey through a nightmare landscape that is at once familiar and uniquely its author’s own vision. Whitehead employs the best elements of the zombie canon – an infectious disease spreads over the whole world in short order, turning most of us to mindless flesh-eating monsters; overwhelmed governments collapse while the dwindling survivors make do as long as they can on their own. There are quite a few new elements, too, with the stragglers being the best innovation to the mythos I’ve seen in ages. Zone One isn’t strictly a plot-driven action story, but it’s got plenty of action to spare. Instead, it occupies the same space as Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead, a character-driven work which captures the image of the broken-down society and the people that inhabit it, except Whitehead is an even more skilled writer than Kirkman. His craft is formidable, and he’s a brilliant architect of both sentences and stories. He’s also a patient storyteller with a knack for dropping tantalizing bits early on and making readers want to know more. When you find out how Mark Spitz got his name, somewhere around the midpoint, it’s one of the most satisfying parts of the book. I had never read Colson Whitehead before, but I enjoyed Zone One so much I went back and read Sag Harbor and Apex Hides the Hurt, and I’m working on John Henry Days now, and I’m glad I did. They’re all masterful. I’ll happily read anything else he does after this.

I have no idea how the literary establishment is going to react to Zone One. Nor can I guess how horror fans will take it. Sadly, I can imagine hardcore zombie-heads thinking Zone One doesn’t stack up to something like World War Z (which is excellent, but in a lighter weight class) or even, God forbid, something like David Moody’s Autumn series, just because it aims higher than providing nonstop gory action. But if it were up to me, I’d hand Whitehead the Bram Stoker award right now, because honestly, what else in that genre is going to come even close to being the acheivement Zone One is? I’ll simply say this: Zone One is the greatest zombie novel ever.

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