One of the traditional drawbacks of the zombie genre has always been that it never seemed to translate well to the written word. Ghosts, vampires, witches, demons, they all haunt the pages of some of literature’s most hallowed pages. The poor walking dead remained largely relegated to second-rate pulp, with the occasional exception like Max Brooks’ stunning World War Z. What happens then when a highly-rated hotshot like Colson Whitehead takes on the hordes? Zone One is what happens, a post-apocalyptic tale which has become the darling of many literary supplements. But does it actually work? Do prose and putrefaction successfully mix it up? Yes and no…
We’ve seen the set-up for Zone One a hundred times so I won’t waste too much time on background. Zombie outbreak – check; society crumbles – check; survivors try to rebuild – check. The titular Zone One is the new designation for Manhattan, the first major reconstruction of the Phoenix Project as the USA’s reformed government is now known. With their base established in Buffalo, NY, the new leaders are attempting to impose their vision of America rising from the flames beginning with extensive forays into New York City to eradicate the remaining zombies and start afresh.
Enter Mark Spitz, a man whom Whitehead would have us believe is the pinnacle of averageness, mediocrity personified. We are told repeatedly and at length how he has squandered his life to date dithering, procrastinating and generally muddling by. Now, in the aftermath of the zombie outbreak, he finds himself as an average member of a squad of sweepers, sent in after the Marines to mop up the remaining undead. This is mostly routine work, dispatch the odd wanderer left in an ignored stationary closet, bag the body and toss it on the street for ‘disposal’. It’s still a dangerous task but remains mundane enough to allow the sweepers to occasionally let their guard down and risk infection at the jaws of a lucky ghoul.
Zone One is largely composed of flashbacks alternating with Mark Spitz’s day to day grind in the streets of Manhattan. Piece by piece we discover his journey to the present, a grim tale of misery piled on disaster with each hopeful situation inevitably collapsing due to misfortune, stupidity, greed or just plain insanity. And right here is where the book started to lose me. Whitehead is at such pains to emphasise the tedium, dullness and hopelessness of the aftermath that he seems to forget about the reader. I’m sure Nietzsche would have agreed that if you write about tedious inevitability you should take pains to ensure that your own work doesn’t become tediously inevitable.
For example, Mark Spitz is referred to by his full name throughout the length of Zone One. This becomes grating almost immediately but never fear, it’s leading to a great unveiling of how he came by what is actually a nickname. So Mark Spitz does this and Mark Spitz does that until we finally come to the explanation – which is the dampest of damp squibs (almost literally). Other times he teases us with repeated, oblique references to events and places (infernal Connecticut, damned Connecticut) but denied any kind of explanation whatsoever.
To Whitehead’s credit, the writing itself is beautiful, to a level I certainly didn’t expect before reading. His prose has a natural fluidity and rhythm to it which he occasionally contrasts expertly with sharp staccato phrasing. Even while the story was flagging I held on just to discover another juicy metaphor. His take on the zombie genre has some original conceits as well. He divides the undead into to categories, the skels are your standard walker while the stragglers are a different kind of creature altogether. Infected by the same virus, these poor souls simply shut down, finding one of their previous stations in life (fry machine, photocopier, fortune telling table, etc.) and freezing in a grotesque still-life until the sweepers arrive to put them out of their eternal misery.
The newly-appointed government portrayed in Zone One was also a refreshing change and I only wish he spent more time examining its rise and function rather than Mark Spitz’s dull life. The Phoenix Project is an adventure in banality and bureaucracy which would fit perfectly in the pages of Catch 22 or an episode of M*A*S*H. From the official theme songs to the public service propaganda to the masterstroke of having officially sanctioned and sponsored looting in the post-apocalypse it’s a well-aimed jab at contemporary political and corporate America.
In the end Zone One has a lot to recommend it and I certainly don’t regret spending the time to reach the very worthwhile climax. Colson Whitehead is an exceptionally talented author who showed a lot of courage in tackling a much-maligned genre. He brings a lot of new toys to the show rather then retreading tired, old ground and isn’t afraid of playing with conventions. I just wish he’d smile a bit more, even if he’s just pretending for his readers. And will someone please tell me what the hell happened in Connecticut?