Monday, February 10, 2014

Colson Whitehead's ZONE ONE

Admit it. You've always wanted to know what it would be like if E.L. Doctorow wrote zombie fiction. Could it be lyrical? Could it be beautiful? Could it be moving and produce a book for the ages?

Yes, yes it could. And Colson Whitehead's heartbreakingly lovely Zone One is Exhibit A. It may wind up being the only exhibit, mind...

But what an exhibit it is!

The zombie apocalypse has engulfed the world, has been going on for a few years now, as the novel opens and we start getting to know our point of view character, whose real name we never learn and whom we only ever know as Mark Spitz, an ironically bestowed nickname, given after he refuses to jump into the water and swim to safety as he can barely tread water. A Long Island boy who has always dreamed of growing up to be a Manhattan Man, he is finally getting his wish, but his Manhattan is merely the corpse of what he longed for as a young'un:
"He tried to orient himself: Was he looking north or south? It was like dragging a fork through gruel. The ash smeared the city's palette into a gray hush on the best of days, but introduce clouds and a little bit of precip and the city became an altar to obscurity. He was an insect exploring a gravestone: the words and names were crevasses to get lost in, looming and meaningless."
There are still fragments of civilization struggling to rejoin and reclaim the world, however, and Mark Spitz is a part of that mighty effort, a "sweeper,", member of a three-person crew who patrols a section of the city block by block, mopping up after the Marines whose zombie-killing sprees have caused as much destruction, perhaps, as the zombies and the struggling survivors did, ridding the city of perhaps 99% of the "infected" but that pesky 1% that's left, ah, there's the rub. For about 1% of the population who are infected with the disease that makes zombies do not turn into ravenous undead psychotic killing machines, but instead become "stragglers', mindlessly and poignantly fixated on a specific location and activity, three-dimensional freeze frames of filling mylar balloons or making photocopies or waiting for a bus or a ball game to start. And some psychotic undead regular zombies still lurk here and there as well. Both types must be disposed of, systematically and dispassionately, room by room, office by office, building by building, block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood, zone by zone, because the ad hoc government in Buffalo has decided that Manhattan is the ideal location to try to re-establish civilization when it's finally time to let the small shuddering populations of uninfected humanity out of the highly fortified and militarized refugee camps.

That all sounds like fairly standard zombie-novel fare, though, doesn't it? What's different here is Whitehead's skill as a crafter of prose and a sharer of feeling and nuance. The bare bones narrative covers just three days (albeit highly significant ones) in the effort to clean out one zone of Manhattan, but the story ranges back and forth in time and tone, Ragtime-like, as we experience the start and the early days of the disaster alongside Mark Spitz as he goes from ordinary schmo coming home from a gambling spree in Atlantic City to find his parents eating each other, to hunted survivor sleeping in the suburban trees, to part of an organized effort to clear Interstate 95 of abandoned and wrecked cars so that traffic and commerce and contact can resume someday (for my money, re-establishing physical mobility is way more important and significant than the standard hopeful moment set-piece of getting the lights back on that is such a cliche of post-apocalyptic fiction; Whitehead's recognition of this -- humanity survived for thousands of years before electricity, but has never done too well without being able to get around -- is another of the many reasons why my respect and even awe for this novel is almost without limit), to sweeper.

As we go, Mark Spitz's experiences and perspectives drive home the idea that the disease is just a heavy-handed literalization of what had already been going on in 21st century society: many of us were already basically zombies, deluding ourselves with notions of individuality and individual importance even as we buy identical consumer goods from identical stores the nation/world over: "They had shambled through the identical outlet showrooms and tested the same sofas with their asses... mentally arranging the merchandise according to the same floor plans." And the city is constantly referred to as a machine that "required people to make it go." Or this description of Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder (which every survivor has): "'Survivors are slow or incapable of forming new attachments,' or so the latest diagnoses. droned, although a cynic might identify this as a feature of modern life merely intensified or fine-tuned with the introduction of the plague."

Zone One, if you can't tell, is not at all a hopeful read; in its way it's as bleak as, if not bleaker than, The Road. But where The Road and its ilk are just dreary individual survivor stories, Zone One has subtle tricks up its sleeve. For instance, it simply shines as a love letter to Manhattan, past and zomibe-riddled present, and to cities as a whole, even when the tone is at its most depressing, as when Mark Spitz observes an oncoming zombie horde, all still dressed in the remnants of the clothing each person had died in:
"All the misery of the world channeled through this concrete canyon, the lament into which the human race was being transformed person by person. Every race, color and creed was represented in this congregation...As it had been before, per the myth of the melting-pot city. The city did not care for your story, the particular narrative of your reinvention, it took them all in, every immigrant in their strivings, regardless of bloodline, the identity of their homeland, the number of coins in their pocket... They had been young and old, natives and newcomers. No matter the hue of their skins, dark or light, no matter the names of their gods or the absences they countenanced, they had all strived, struggled and loved in their small, human fashion. Now they were mostly mouths and fingers..."
See? Depressing as hell. But also glorious. Even if you are, as I am, sick to death (hee hee) of zombies, this book is not to be missed. Many effusive thanks to SJ the PopQueenie for this one!


  1. I loved this one, too. So good. I especially loved the paragraph or two about religion and God, and the four or five paragraphs about who got out of the city/survived vs. who didn't (which is always the same in the event of natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina).

    1. Oh yes. Man, SJ is right. A few re-reads and the whole damn thing will be highlighted XD


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