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Sunday, October 30, 2011

What I'm Reading: Zone One

This is a cross-post with RA for All Horror:

As promised, I read the most talked about zombie novel of the moment, Zone One by Colson Whitehead.   I liked Zone One much more than I anticipated I would, it is not a horror novel.

While Zone One is set in a very real feeling post-apocalyptic world, fear of the zombies is not the key motivator here.  This is a novel about trying to reclaim civilization. It is an interior novel; one that takes place mostly in our hero's, Mark Spitz, head. The moments of pure pleasure in reading this novel come from his observations about how the world has changed, and from Whitehead's amazingly realistic and chilling descriptions of the landscape in his created world.

I will be frank, over the year, I have never been as impressed with Whitehead's writing as the critics have been.  However, there are some absolutely beautiful and haunting passages here.  I did step back to re-read a few.  I also loved how detailed his setting is.  Not only do we have detailed descriptions about the Zone One operations and how they are run (a mix of army and civilian), but we have the unseen provisional government in Buffalo becoming its own character. Additions like giving the reconstruction a theme song (one which we cannot hear because of the medium, but which still somehow permeates our reading of the novel) and calling those who remain "pheenies" (short for the American Phoenix, how we will rise again) add authenticity to the setting. 

Our specific "pheenie" and guide through which we get a first person view of this wasteland is Mark Spitz (not his real name).  The story is set up like a suspense novel with a compressed time frame, in this case 3 days. Throughout the course of these three days, we see Mark and his team of "sweepers" cleaning out and buildings in lower Manhattan in Zone One, the only zombie cleared zone on the island.  Mark tells us what is going on now, but there are many flashbacks to how he got from the old world, through the end times.  He also look forward to more cleared out zones and the rebirth of this great city.

I don't want to give any more details about Mark or the setting away, because as the story it unfolded , I was enthralled.  You are going to have to trust Whitehead though.  The beginning is a bit bumpy, like most post-apocalyptic stories.  You have to just keep reading and trust that Whitehead will fill in the details.  But for me this was part of the joy of reading this novel.  I loved the details AND how Whitehead chose to reveal them.  It added satire and suspense.  Mark is also a great vehicle to tell this story because the only thing he excels at is being average.


Whitehead, a New Yorker, obviously knows his setting.  The haunting descriptions of a desolate New York drew me in.  In particular, I loved the scenes in the subway tunnels, and found them especially chilling. Anyone who has spent any time NYC will be moved by this novel.  I especially felt a kinship here because like Mark, I grew up in the suburbs of NYC and visited often, but with the eyes of an outsider still.

I also enjoyed the new type of zombie Whitehead has added to the pantheon.  He has created "straggler" zombies.  These are zombies who rather than reanimating and compulsively searching out fresh human meat, merely roam back to place of meaning from their past and stay there. For example, the psychologist who goes into the office after turning into a zombie, sits in his chair, and waits for the patient who will never arrive.  These zombies are much like the remaining humans with their different forms of PASD (post-apocalyptic stress disorder) who are straggling through what is left of life on earth.

The final thing I liked about Zone One was its ending.  As you read the book, Whitehead clearly foreshadows (really broadcasts) how this reclamation experiment is going to end, yet as you read, you continue to hold out hope.  Ash is raining down, the zombies are literally knocking on the door, Spitz keeps telling us each place he has found refuge post-apocalypse has only been a short respite until it is destroyed and he must run again, and the book is set in only a three day period with things going from so-so, to bad, to worse.  Yet we hope.

The fact that I had any hope while reading this book is a huge testament to Whitehead's writing.  Look, I read a lot of dark books, where bad things happen, and everyone ends up dead, yet I was rooting for the pheenies.  This is not to say that I was disappointed with the ending.  I loved it even more because of what a great job Whitehead did, but many readers who are flocking to this title because it is the "hot" book right now, may be disappointed.  In fact, on Amazon, the book is not getting good customer reviews.  Much of this is due to the fact that it is not scary enough for horror fans and it is too dark for mainstream literary fiction readers. But in the right reader's hand, Zone One is a gem.

I cannot stress enough, this book does not have rosy things to say about the future.  The zombies are merely Whitehead's vehicle for commenting about the path humanity is on.  And it is a path he does not see leading somewhere good, but even worse, he seems to be saying destruction is inevitable.  This is a bleak book.  But it is also a satisfying look into the human condition, what remains of society when there is very little left, and the hope to be found in the "average" citizen.

Three Words That Describe This Book: bleak, post-apocalyptic, thought provoking

Readalikes: If you liked The Passage by Justin Cronin, chances are you will enjoy Zone One.  The Passage is definitely a notch above Zone One, but that is because of the level of detail Cronin has built in to the story.  Click here to read my full review of The Passage which includes more readalike options.  You can also click here to read Cronin's review of Zone One.

Other post-apocalyptic stories I would suggest here are: The Walking Dead series, I Am Legend by Richard Matheson and Swan Song by Robert McCammon (a hidden gem that should be on the shelf at your library).

Monster Island is part of David Wellington's zombie apocalypse trilogy that is set on the island of Manhattan just like Zone One.  Monster Island is much less literary and much more scary than Zone One, but it is a great option for readers who really enjoyed the NYC setting and want to see a similar story line from a different angle.

I also found Wastelands: Stories of he Apocalypse, a well reviewed, 2008 collection with with stories by Stephen King, Orson Scott Card, Octavia Butler, and George RR Martin.  The collection is great because it runs the gamut in terms of tone, from the bleak and hopeless to stories of hope, and presents a broad view of this popular subgenre of science fiction and horror.

The interesting thing about Whitehead's career is that each book he has written is different from the last, so he is a hard author to match with another author who will be the same.  However, that being said, this novel specifically made me think of two other authors who write with a similar tone and mood to Zone One.

First, Doris Lessing writes character driven novels that are bleak and thought provoking, and often have a speculative element.  Try The Memoirs of a Survivor which is set in a post-apocalyptic landscape.

Chuck Palahniuk is the master of bleak novels which probe the inner turmoil of the human condition.  He uses anti-heroes (like Spitz) and everything he writes is a satire of something we take for granted.  He uses the same wry humor found in Zone One too.  Fight Club is a good starting point.

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