In which I outline the requirements for an exceptional zombie novel
Title: Zone One
Author: Colson Whitehead
What it’s about: When Last Night came, all the rules of the world were rewritten as humanity fled from the plague-stricken hungry for human flesh. But inevitably, some semblance of normality has returned, even in a post-apocalypic world, and Mark Spitz is part of the plan for a future, employed in Zone One, once Manhattan below Canal Street, and the future first resettled city in America. For now, he and his team of sweepers search buildings for remaining monsters, eliminating the already dead but still around. They’re part of the second wave, after the marines razed the island with gunfire. Mark and his team of civilians now clean up the stragglers. But in this day and age, the distinction between civilian and military has ceased to matter. They’re all survivors.
Zone One is what a good zombie book should be. It’s an exploration of humanity, what drives us, where our dreams lie, how we plan for the future, how we learn to hope, and what keeps us alive. Whitehead uses New York as that eternal symbol of renewal, a city that has constantly remade itself, where people go to start fresh, where we bring our dreams, however fantastic, and believe that through hard work and persistence they’ll become a reality. Through flashbacks we relive Mark Spitz’s journey, starting with the horrors he found in his house on humanity’s Last Night and following his travels through horrible Connecticut, the few micro-families he formed along the way, and the ultimate disintegration of each one in much the same way and with the same result: once again alone, but alive.
I was struck by the poetic language and its dreamlike and meditative quality. Though on the surface we’re reading an apocalypse account, we’re also reading about the other in each of us. Whitehead creates two brands of zombie: the “skel,” the familiar mindless wandering creature intent on devouring human flesh; and the “straggler,” an almost motionless shell trapped in the act of some everyday task—at the copy machine, flying a kite, washing a dish. It’s the stragglers that Mark and his team of sweepers are charged with eliminating, and their quiet dedication to a place is eerie and almost religious. Mark sees in them the faces of his dead neighbors and friends, ascribing significance to their final resting places, though there’s no evidence that any thought or reason draws them to a particular area. It’s this very threat of chaos that frightens and intrigues Mark—if the dead come to these places for no reason, if everything is random, is the world only chaos, the future only an illusion? As a consummate survivor he knows that’s true, but nonetheless, he plays the game, Solve the Straggler, piecing together a narrative that led them here to a quiet corner of New York City.
I enjoyed Zone One for its depth and for being a study in the potential of zombie stories and a reminder of why they resonate with us. It’s not for the horror and gore of humans changing into cannibalistic monsters or the gruesome survivalist resolve that leads one hero through the wilderness. It’s for what they tell us about humanity and our own fears about death and the mob. Zombie books should really be psychological, not physical in nature, and Whitehead does of brilliant job of capturing this.
Would I recommend? Yes. Don’t let zombie fatigue get you down. Zone One is a high class of undead literature and worth a look.