Colson Whitehead – Zone One (Book Review)

Zone One cover

Colson Whitehead – Zone One

Zombies are frequently metaphors for the barbarism that lurks behind polite society. It’s an unsubtle metaphor, to be sure, but it still makes a good match for a “literary” author looking to try something different. Zone One tells the story of slacker hero Mark Spitz helping to clear zombies out of Manhattan in the early days of society’s resurgence. Though this book should only be read if you have a stomach for the gore and hopelessness of a zombie movie, its prevailing atmosphere is more quiet and introspective: Most of the remaining zombies are quiet “stragglers” who seem lost in an echo of their past lives, giving the characters and the reader time to reflect on their pitiable state.

As far as post-apocalyptic fiction goes, Zone One feels halfway between the bleak tragedy of The Road and the outright satire of The Gone-Away World, with occasional bursts of horror to spice it up. Author Colson Whitehead is capable of hitting all those notes, and there are several amazing scenes. Most of the time, though, these contradictory elements just make the book an aimless muddle. The story jumps around in time frequently, often mid-scene, apparently to ensure the reader feels as detached as the “perpetual B-student” protagonist. This even breaks up the action scenes.

The satire has some clever elements, such as PASD (Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder) and corporate “sponsors” who control what items may be looted from stores. For me, though, it was derailed by a stubborn refusal of the author to provide specifics. No products or brands are ever named, relying instead of convoluted vagaries like “seasons one through seven of the hospital drama groundbreaking in its realism”. In fact, Spitz’ old job with a coffee shop chain is described for pages without ever mentioning a company name. This is pervasive throughout the book, and makes the narrator feel too out of touch for the social commentary to have any bite. I wouldn’t care if it mainly used made-up brand names, as long as gave the impression that the characters related to them like normal people.

Zone One leaves no doubt that Whitehead is a very talented author. Provided he doesn’t always use those vague generalizations in place of specific names, I’d definitely try more of his novels. This one, though, feels aimless. After the collapse of civilization, many of the characters wonder whether anything they do matters; That feeling pervades the story itself a bit too well.

Grade: C

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