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Book Review: Zone One: A Novel
The Book Slave   |  

Zone OneZone One: A Novel
By Colson Whitehead
Hardcover | Kindle
Doubleday
Release date: October 18, 2011

Zone One begins not with the outbreak of a zombie plague, but a few years into its aftermath, when survivor camps and a new government, the American Phoenix, has already been established. In most other places – the great ‘out there’ – the dead still roam in search of live human food. Colson Whitehead tells the story from the point of view of an extraordinarily average young man called Mark Spitz who is part of a sweeper unit sent out by the military, which has set up a command station in Chinatown, to kill and dispose of the walking dead all over the island of Manhattan, beginning in Zone One, lower Manhattan.

Spitz signs up to work in NYC out of homesickness, but also because only a relative few undead ‘stragglers’ are left behind in Zone One that the Marines had missed during their initial aggressive sweep of Manhattan. These ‘stragglers’ are a less potent variety of zombie that seem to stay in one place, perhaps carrying on some pre-existing purpose they’d had in life before undeath. They don’t attack unless provoked, which makes them easy to kill, which is the main reason why Mark Spitz agrees to join the military.

The focus is mainly on the Reconstruction effort orchestrated by the provisional government. Looting of goods is not permitted, as the new protocol dictates that such items as one might need, say a power bar or new pair of boots, will now come from corporate sponsors, which for their show of goodwill, have been promised huge tax breaks once the world is up and running in proper tax collecting fashion once again.

While not the desperate post-apocalyptic page-turner that most zombie novels seem to be, I appreciated the thoughtful pacing, which forced me to slow down and absorb Whitehead’s finely written prose. But don’t worry, kids: there’s still plenty of gore as Mark Spitz and his three-person sweeper unit run into plenty of undead groups holed up in offices, cubicle farms and conference rooms all across Zone One as they find that docile stragglers are not the only skels left – ‘skel’ being short for skeletons.

Zone One is a feast for word-nerdy zombophiles like me. While some hardcore genre junkies might find the pace a bit stifled by the somewhat lengthy and frequent deviations from true action, it was a breath of fresh air for a person who’s read and reviewed a number of zombie apocalypse books this year. There’s a musicality to Whitehead’s prose that makes me wish I’d gotten the audio version of this book instead of the hardcover. When taken as a whole, Zone One is a refreshing departure from the standard shoot-‘em-in-the-head-grab-provisions-stay-alive formula. Whitehead’s spin on this is unique. It’s essentially about the regluing of society as witnessed though the eyes of a typical consumer of American culture who gets misty while reminiscing in a once popular now-dead chain restaurant.

It kind of makes you want to take a step back and ponder the physical, structural and psychological aspects of what to keep, what to toss when forced to “rise up from the ashes” and start all over again. Do we scrounge known materials to recreate the same old life we’d grown accustomed to or do we try something completely different? Turns out, it’s easier to carry on via military rule and corporate sponsorship when most folks are too traumatized with PASD (Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder) to give a flying shit about a corporate logo stamped on their survival packs. They flock to military base camps and abide by the rules because they simply want to live.

Free-thinkers stay out of those camps, preferring to forego assured safety and relative comfort in order to retain their individuality and freedom. Those people probably refused to be put in any kind of box before society ended; why would they join up after? In that respect, Zone One is as much social commentary as it is the story of how an average guy survived a deadly plague in a way that was nearly as ho-hum as how he lived before it.

While I found Zone One to be intellectually satisfying, I didn’t feel very emotionally connected to the main character. Spitz’s wistful remembrances of banal long-ago family outings are about as close to his emotions as we are allowed to get. Maybe it’s me. Perhaps I just prefer a protagonist who either fucks up a tad worse than I have or who is somehow better than I strive to be. I could neither dislike Mark Spitz nor look up to him. And I guess that’s the point of Zone One: in a zombie apocalypse, maybe you want to be that totally average person who squeaks by under the radar, staying alive by being neither hero nor anti-hero. You just want to survive and not call attention to yourself, not unlike your average real-life person. However, unlike your extraordinarily average person, Spitz seems to have no dreams of anything better than his allotment in life, either before the end of the world he knew or after, and that is where he flatlines as a human being for me.

Colson Whitehead is the author of The Intuitionist, Sag Harbor and other novels, essays and articles. Learn more here.

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