Zone One, by Colson Whitehead

I’m well aware that it’s pretty macabre of me to enjoy zombie novels. When anyone asks me why I like them so much, I feel like I’m doing a little verbal dance to keep the questioner from knowing that I kind of like watching society as we know it be destroyed. What keeps me coming back to these books, really, is watching society rebuild itself. We’re pretty stuck with the way things are with our traditions, debts, enmities. Changing anything is very, very hard. So I often ponder the question: what if the slate were wiped clean? Would we get to build a great society, or would we try to rebuild the old?

10365343So, even though there’s not much zombie action (though there’s enough to satisfy the reasonably bloodthirsty), I enjoyed reading Colson Whitehead’s take on the zombie apocalypse in Zone One. The novel takes place over three days, though it covers more chronology through flashbacks. Our narrator, known only by the nickname Mark Spitz, is working as a sweeper in New York City. The worse seems to have passed and the sweepers are responsible for taking out the last lingering zombies that the Marines and the Army missed during the big push. Because Mark Spitz doesn’t have a lot to do, physically, he reminisces about the past. He doesn’t think much about this life before. Mostly, he thinks about his encounters with various survivors and “skels” and life at Fort Wonton in New York’s Chinatown.

It may sound boring, on the face of it. But I found the book interesting precisely because it ponders the same sorts of questions that I wonder about when I read zombie novels. In this version, there seem to enough vestiges of government and business from the old world to try and resurrect the old society. Sweepers and other advance groups are not allowed to loot or to destroy property. Chains of command are preserved. Government propaganda seems to be working overtime to forcibly raise the survivor’s morale. It seems that there are enough tethers to the past to keep the slate from truly being wiped clean.

To me, that would sound awfully pessimistic. But even having finished the book, I’m still not sure if Whitehead intends the book to sound that way, or if he’s trying to inspire a grim sort of hope. Because at the end of the book, I honestly felt both emotions.

Zone One is an interesting hybrid of genre and literary fiction. There’s enough action to keep you going, but the bulk of the book is designed to get readers thinking. Novelist Glen Duncan wrote a review of the book for The New York Times that pointed out the oddity of this blend (with a few snotty comments thrown in about lowbrow readers having to look up the big words). I suppose some genre fans might wonder about this big show treading on their turf. But I like to see genres blend like this. I’ve always thought that literary fiction could use more blood and guts and I know that genre fiction has a lot to saw about our society–it just gets dismissed by the cultural gatekeepers. I don’t know if this book is a gamechanger in that regard, but it’s a pretty good step in the right direction.

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