A few weeks ago, we heard an interview with Colson Whitehead, talking about his zombie novel Zone One. I haven’t read anything else by Whitehead, but I was intrigued by a zombie novel written by a writer with credentials as a “serious” “literary” writer. I also saw figured it was the perfect gift for a couple of English-teaching zombie-fanatic friends, so we bought a copy, read it, and passed it on (yeah, we’re those people).
Considering that I identify as a huge fan of fantasy and science fiction as well as an English major and former high school English teacher, this had the potential to be a great read by combining two great tastes that go great together. Unfortunately, it was only a good read.
The basic premise is this: the zombie apocalypse has come and decimated civilization, but the remaining humans have come together to push back the undead tide and reassert civilization. Our protagonist, called Mark Spitz, has survived and works for the government as a sweeper in New York City, working with a team to clear out the remaining “skels” and "stragglers" in Zone One of New York City after the marines--the real soldiers--have been through. As part of Project Phoenix, they will pave the way for the resettlement of America's greatest city by the other survivors, who are currently holding out in protected refugee camps. The novel follows him and his team (Gary and his squad leader Kaitlyn) as they go building to building, with frequent flashbacks to life before “Last Night” and his life in “the Interregnum” before the government (in Buffalo, of all places) started picking up the pieces. In some ways, it felt reminiscent of the literature of the Viet Nam war, soldiers just slogging through, suffering from the effects of their horrific experiences, but continuing on with their routines as sweepers. Their lives, either in the present or in flash-back, are not particularly heroic or action-packed, except for brief moments that are almost over as soon as they’ve begun (this is especially true since the zombies we see are mostly your typical slow-moving horde zombies, as well as a number of totally passive zombies who just sort of stay put, lost in some routine or memory, basically doing nothing).
Genre fiction is caricatured as being more shallow than “serious” fiction, particularly in terms of characterization and what we might call significance or meaning. The reality is that genre fiction can be every bit as deep, though it can also be every bit as shallow as its detractors think it is. But in any case, you would expect that Whitehead would be bringing something a little more to the zombie novel. And sure, he spends time on characterization and reaches for significance. The problems, as I see them, are at least two-fold. First, the zombie genre is pretty well developed in film and print, and the zombie as symbol has been pretty well mined. Whitehead touches on those interpretations of zombies, and sometimes he makes clever uses of the genre’s tropes, but he doesn’t really show us anything particularly new. And at the same time, as he makes the novel more “literary,” he makes it rather painfully slow at times. Say what you will about genre fiction, the plot typically moves along at a good pace, and even the writers who are striving for depth in their writing can typically keep a plot zipping smoothly along at the same time. Whitehead really doesn’t: call the process plodding more than plotting. Not—I hasten to add—that this was a deadly flaw or I ever considered putting the book aside. Whitehead did, in any case, do enough to make me care about the characters and the world he was drawing, and at times he displays great cleverness or perfect phrasing; in large measure these elements compensated for the slower plot.
I feel like I'm being quite critical, when the truth is that I enjoyed the novel well enough... just not as much as I hoped. And all that said—spoiler alert here—I did rather like where Whitehead takes it at the end: instead of a resurgence of humanity, the bastions of resurgent civilization crumble, plunging those who escape its fall onto their own individual and small-group resources. Forget the happy ending, forget any sense of the inevitable resurgence of civilization. Mark Spitz and others like him may survive past the end of the novel, but it's a zombie world now, not a human one, and the old paradigms don't apply.
Why they’d tried to fix this island in the first place, he did not see now. Best to let the broken glass be broken glass, let it splinter into smaller pieces and dust and scatter. Let the cracks between things widen until they are no longer cracks but the new places for things. That was where they were now. The world wasn’t ending: it had ended and now they were in the new place. They could not recognize it because they had never seen it before.
Whatever the future will be like, it won't be like the past, which is what the human characters have more or less universally been trying to do. There's a sense that Mark Spitz may be able to make it, there's a sense throughout that this very average man (throughout his life, he was a B student, an average employee, excelling at mediocrity and never standing out for either competence or incompetence) is about as well-adapted to the new world as anyone could be, especially here at the end where he's realized the truth about the world he inhabits.