In the interest of full disclosure, Zone One is one of the books that beat out That Which Should Not Be for the finals of the Goodreads Choice Award. I can assure you, that did not affect my opinion at all.
It’s hard to write good genre fiction, and it’s hard to write good literary fiction. But it’s really hard to write good literary genre fiction. That is the challenge Colson Whitehead faces in his novel Zone One. Whether you are capable of enjoying Zone One depends almost entirely on how you view it. If you are looking for a zombie novel, Zone One is probably not for you. If you want literary fiction with a more interesting plot than your typical lit fic novel while maintaining the same “benality of modern society” omphaloskepsis we’ve come to expect, then maybe you will like this book.
Zone One is a story of the end of the world, told through the eyes of the anachronistically named Mark Spitz. (It’s a nickname, the origin of which we don’t find out until the novel is almost finished. When we do, you’ll find yourself asking why they didn’t call him Michael Phelps. I challenge you to find people under thirty who know who Mark Spitz is other than in relation to Michael Phelps. But I digress.) The action takes place over the course of a single day or so, although the time-line of that day is impossible to piece together given the never-ending flashbacks and temporal gymnastics. The zombie apocalypse has decimated society, but reconstruction is underway, led by the new government in Buffalo. Spitz is a part of a sweeper team, clearing out the remaining zombies—called skels because zombie is so passé—from an area of New York City called Zone One. But Spitz suspects that things are not as secure as the government wants them to believe.
The main problem with Zone One is that, although at times it is well-written, it is neither a good zombie novel nor good literary fiction. And that’s a real shame. There is a good book here. In fact, if this was Colson Whitehead’s first novel, I think it would have ended up being fantastic. But it’s not Colson Whitehead’s first novel, and I have a feeling that his editors didn’t exercise their scalpels as liberally as they should have.
Zone One fails as a zombie novel because Whitehead doesn’t know when to stop with the literary fiction pontification and cut to the action. I get it; Whitehead is trying to make a point. And while that is all well and good, if you are making a point in a zombie novel, then you have to respect your readers. When the zombies show up, the action should start.
The best example of this deficiency has been well documented in the myriad angry reviews by zombie aficionados that have sprung up across the web. Early in the novel, Spitz is ambushed by a group of zombies. Whitehead spends ten pages describing this encounter, but not because he dedicates himself to documenting the terrifying struggle against scratching, diseased claws and snapping jaws. No, Whitehead sees the zombie attack as an opportunity to explore the emptiness of middle class life. As if anyone, pinned to the ground with a member of the undead on top of them, would wax poetic about Marge, lead character in the most popular show before the Fall, and how “the legions of young ladies who fled their stunted towns and municipalities to reinvent themselves in the Big City recognized something in her flailings . . . . They had been reeled in by the old lie of making a name for oneself in the city; now they had to figure out how to survive. Hunt-and-gather rent money, forage ramen. In this week’s written-up clubs and small-plate eateries, loose flocks of Marges were invariably underfoot, sipping cinnamon-rimmed novelty cocktails and laughing too eagerly.” (In case you missed the point, the great revelation of the book is that the poor befuddled members of the middle class are the real zombie hordes. Sorry to ruin it for you.)
Now, I don’t care if Whitehead wants to make this point. Maybe it’s a point that we, the walking dead of modern society, need to hear. But Whitehead’s timing is atrocious. He could have done this in the aftermath, with Spitz staring down at the dead skels, thinking about who they were before the virus took them. We could have had the best of both worlds—the action packed zombie attack and an important insight into the human condition. But that’s not what we get. This happens repeatedly throughout the novel. Every zombie assault is a time for meditation, every pair of plague bearing jaws an opportunity to reflect on the mediocrity of middle class life.
Unfortunately, Zone One doesn’t really work as as a literary endeavor either. Too much of Zone One is open to the criticism that it is merely the perfected cynicism of literary fiction, as pretentious as it is cliché. Everyone’s a stereotype of the group they represent—the perky middle class cheerleader, the lower class ruffian who sees the faces of the rich in every zombie he puts down, the intemperate upper class politician from Buffalo who is more concerned with appearances than people. Everyone more focused on securing the best apartments in the new society than putting down the roving bands of undead.
It doesn’t help that we have seen this all before. George Romero invented the modern zombie largely as a metaphor for mass consumerism. We get it; the shambling hordes are like the denizens of strip malls or partakers of chain American food restaurants, and the long winded discourses on the sad commercialism of the middle class grow tiresome because of it.
The strange thing about Zone One is that once I accepted its shortcomings and took it for what it was, I sorta liked it. Whitehead does a pretty good job of describing what life would be like after the rising, both in the wilderness and in the isolated human settlements that remain. That success only made the book that much more frustrating. I simply don’t know to what group of readers I would recommend this book. It’s a muddle, and like the protagonist of the story, Zone One is middling at best.
I would stop here, but I feel as though the New York Times review of Zone One, which spawned a minor controversy known as “zombie gate,” should be addressed. Never before has a positive review been so unfair to the author it praises. Glen Duncan—who refers to what Whitehead is doing as “genre slumming”—begins his review by saying, “A literary novelist writing a genre novel is like an intellectual dating a porn star. It invites forgivable prurience: What is that relationship like? Granted the intellectual’s hit hanky-panky pay dirt, but what’s in it for the porn star? Conversation? Ideas? Deconstruction?” The review continues as a screed against zombie aficionados and genre fans in general, implying that we are all degenerate fools. Duncan apparently suffered a failure with his single foray into the horror genre and is now intent on taking his frustrations out on Zone One‘s readers. I can’t say what Mr. Whitehead believes, but there is nothing in Zone One that indicates he would support Duncan’s prejudices, and I hope that those who would consider reading Zone One pay Duncan no mind.