We are a culture fascinated by zombies. Movies, television, books, comics, and graphic novels reflect our obsession with everything undead. It all began with George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead way back in 1968 and has seen a resurgence in recent years with AMC’s series The Walking Dead and movies such as Dawn of the Dead (2004), Zombieland (2009), The Crazies (2010), and the upcoming World War Z (2012) starring Brad Pitt. The zombie craze has also extended to novels with World War Z (2006), Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2009), and Ashes (2011). One might write off Zone One as being yet another novel in the zombie genre but Colson Whitehead is the author, and that makes it a whole different ballgame.
Whitehead takes a satiric look at the whole zombie genre in Zone One. The result is refreshing, sharp, and dazzling. However, a novel about the undead is not the Harvard-educated Whitehead’s usual fare. He previously wrote Sag Harbor, The Intuitionist, John Henry Days, Apex Hides the Hurt, and a book of essays called The Colossus of New York. Whitehead was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and won the Young Lions Fiction Award. He lives in New York City. Many, including this reviewer, consider Whitehead a “highbrow” novelist. But it is a mistake to dismiss Zone One as a “lowbrow” book; it is anything but.
Although zombies play a role in this novel, it is only a peripheral one. Zone One is, above all, a human story. Whitehead deposits “Mark Spitz” in post-apocalyptic Manhattan. Spitz is not the character’s real name, only an insult-given moniker. Spitz always loved New York City, the city in which his favorite uncle lived and the place where Spitz always hoped to abide as an adult. That city has changed drastically. Indeed, a plague has ravaged the population and turned people into flesh-eating zombies. Whitehead cleverly writes of former Human Resources clerks, a fortune teller, and even Spitz’s own mother as members of the undead circle. This critic laughed aloud many times.
Mark Spitz encounters both “skel” and “strag” alike as a member of the Armed Forces ordered to reclaim the island of Manhattan. A “skel” is a zombie that tends to stay in a place that meant something to him or her, now only a skeleton of his or her former self. A “strag” is a straggler. Acting on orders from the provisional government in Buffalo, Spitz and his team try to clean up the streets to bring back a semblance of civilization. Despite the efforts of Mark Spitz and the reconstruction teams, packets of stragglers remain. The city cannot be considered safe until all these packets of resistance have been removed.
In clever vignettes throughout the novel, Spitz relates stories of the people he has encountered along the way. Everyone suffers from PASD, or post-apocalyptic stress disorder. Corporations now sponsor everything from clothing to food to liquor. Buffalo even has its own anthem “Stop! Can You Hear the Eagle Roar? (Theme from Reconstruction).” Spitz’s fellow soldiers, Gary, No Mas, and Kaitlyn, are obsessed with the well-being of triplets. Gary is also preoccupied with Gina Spens, a former porn star turned zombie killer who is now Italy’s delegate to a summit. One by one, the teams kill strags and skels. It seems as if conditions are improving, but nothing could be further from the truth.
Whitehead takes his time telling the story, revealing only bits and pieces here and there. Zone One is not a novel for the impatient: the reader is on a need-to-know basis. In some instances, the reader just does not need to know everything at that moment. While this tactic often can be frustrating, it shows Whitehead’s amazing talent. He keeps the reader guessing, even until the end. One minor criticism is that Whitehead is overly fond of the metaphor. It is almost as if he is keeping count and seeks, like the real Mark Spitz, to constantly break his record. This critic thought it curious for Whitehead to name his character Mark Spitz and not Michael Phelps. Phelps is more well-known, certainly. Near the end of the novel, Whitehead reveals that his Mark Spitz is African American. This was rather interesting and led this reviewer to question the relevance of such a revelation. What did it matter the race or ethnicity of this character, especially in a world where those things had no bearing. Then again, Whitehead is African American. Could he have been putting himself into this story? Whitehead also lives in New York and loves the city. If Whitehead were not an author, and the unthinkable occurred, could he be Mark Spitz?
The edition I read was an Advanced Reader’s Copy.