Fat Books & Thin Women


Review: Colson Whitehead’s Zone One

Colson Whitehead manages the seemingly impossible in Zone One, injecting the zombie novel with a literary bent. He takes this idea of the undead, the afterlife taken to its most gruesome conclusion, and uses it as a filter to look at a city, to look at the people who survived the apocalypse (or rather, the people who have survived longer than the others have), to look at the reasons for their survival, and to examine what hope means when there seems little reason to hope. What’s more, in doing these things he makes them seem obvious – how did no one think, sooner than this, to do with zombies what Whitehead has done so well in Zone One?

As it opens, the novel is almost a love affair with New York City, with “Mark Spitz” (a nickname, but the only way we know our main character) looking back on visits to his uncle and the ever-changing city. This image of New York, of wreckage followed by new buildings, again and again, are eerily prescient of the later images of the zombies walking the New York streets, apparently capable not only of endless arrival but of endless development. This early image of New York, though, retains a sort of quiet beauty in its vision of endless restructuring:

In every neighborhood the imperfect in their fashion awaited the wrecking ball and their bones were melted down to help their replacements surpass them, steel into steel. The new buildings in wave upon wave drew themselves out of rubble, shaking off the past like immigrants. The addresses remained the same and so did the flawed philosophies. It wasn’t anyplace else. It was New York City. (6)

The world Mark Spitz inhabits, a New York that’s been decimated and cleared of its former inhabitants, a New York that has been divided into zones now being painstakingly cleared of “skels” (the zombies) and “stragglers,” who aren’t quite zombies but exist in some nether world, standing motionless at some post they’ve selected for reasons Spitz and his compatriots will never be able to understand, is one with moments of hope. Though Spitz suspects the world has been left with only the people who were mediocre in their former lives (like him, whose “most appropriate designation” in a high school yearbook “would have been Most Likely Not to Be Named the Most Likely Anything” [10]), and though his life at the moment consists of little but walking through building after building, seeking the stragglers missed by the marines who did the first run-through of Zone One, he also finds some cause to hope for a better world as a result of the crushing defeat of the former system. Brief as these moments may be, Whitehead’s vision of the indominatibility of both human hope and despair is powerful:

There was a single Us now, reviling a single Them. Would the old bigotries be reborn as well, when they cleared out this Zone, and the next, and so on, and they were packed together again, tight and suffocating on top on each other? Or was that particular bramble of animosities, fears, and envies impossible to recreate? If they could bring back paperwork, Mark Spitz thought, they could certainly reanimate prejudice, parking tickets, and reruns. (231)

Whitehead occasionally uses this zombie plague as an opportunity to comment on these issues of race and class and the bigotries humans can’t seem to help holding. He’s never heavy-handed with this, though, and the New York Mark Spitz is working in now is at times crushing for the ways it is similar to the previous world, and the ways in which it is different. Though Spitz and the others trying to clear Zone One of skels and stragglers are, on paper, the survivors of the old order, Whitehead suggests, too, that the skels are blindly keeping that old world alive, that in them you can see some true New York story.

The damned bubbled and frothed on the most famous street in the world, the dead things still proudly indicating, despite their grime and wounds and panoply of leaking orifices, the tribes to which they had belonged, in gray pin-striped suits, classic rock T-shirts, cowboy boots, dashikis, striped cashmere cardigans, fringed suede vests, plush joggings suits. What they 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 that funneled down the avenue. As it had been before, per the myth of this 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. Nor did this plague discriminate; your blood fell instantly or your blood held out longer, but your blood always failed in the end. (243)

Zone One is an extraordinary novel, one of those rare concerted mashups of literary and genre fiction that doesn’t cheapen either genre but rather brings both to new heights. Whitehead’s zombies are zombies, literally, but they are also a marker of something else – of the way the things and stories we hope to bury have a way of endlessly renewing themselves.

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4 Comments

Great review! I’ve personally avoided the current zombie renaissance (Pride and Prejudice, etc.), but this might make me pick it up. I did enjoy I Am Legend, after all. How close was Zone One to that (if you saw the movie or read the graphic novel)?

Comment by scottissterling

It’s been so long since I’ve seen I Am Legend that I can’t make a real exacting comparison of the two, but there’s a similarity in that both take a deeper look into the idea of zombies and the siege mentality – it’s not just running around trying to kill them. (I need to remember to read the novel – I vaguely remember reading that there was a significant change to the ending. And google tells me that the film’s zombie-like creatures were vampires in the original – it’d be cool to see those changes.)

I’ve been avoiding this whole renaissance of zombies, vampires, werewolves, as well, but gave in when I was home for the holidays and saw Zone One on the library’s new release shelf. So glad I did. I don’t have much interest in that whole Pride & Prejudice & Zombies sort of genre, but I loved what Whitehead did here. Whether or not I look for more books that have a thematic similarity with this one, I’ll be looking for more of Whitehead’s work.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

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