Zone One by Colson Whitehead
Alternate title: The Sound And The Zombie
This book took me longer to read than I anticipated. Mostly this is because the writing style is so molasses thick that I could only read ~40 pages a day before my head started to hurt. Then I had to take a day or two to drain my brain. On the final day I read it, I read 80+ pages at work and I couldn’t really think afterwards. My one complaint with this book is the style. I’ve read some of Whitehead’s first novel The Intuitionist and found the prose style refreshing. It was complicated and evocative while still remaining accessible. There are still sections of Zone One that read that way, but there is a disconcerting amount of laborious, overwritten passages. It’s as if Whitehead didn’t trust his natural talent. After reading the book I still think he’s a gifted stylist, but he’s trying too hard. There’s an attempt at the Faulknerian that Whitehead fails at and that makes the book, at times, a slog. I hope he relaxes a bit and just writes without over complicating things next time.
Aside from this issue (which plagued the whole book), I found the plot interesting and inventive. The story picks up months after the normal zombie/disaster story ends with the protagonist charged with cleaning up a section of Manhattan. The unnamed protagonist who goes by Mark Spitz is haunted by the year he’s spent running from zombies and is unsure of his project. He is unsure if humanity can really survive and if it can, will it be worth the struggle. This cynical streak extends from Spitz out into the world. It seems a mind killing plague cannot kill bureaucracy, as it is the first sign of civilization that springs back from the complete world collapse that follows the outbreak of the unnamed and unexplained zombie outbreak.
I enjoyed the social commentary Whitehead makes in the book. The corporations that sponsor the clean up effort, the mawkish reconstruction theme song, the provisional government’s overactive PR department, the continued existence of vaguely defined, universally applicable pop-psychology (Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder). Whitehead shows how the vapid and brain dead aspects of our culture can easily survive and adapt in a time of near extinction.
However, not every attempt at satire works. Mostly this is because Whitehead, while clearly writing about now or some time in the near future, refuses to tie the book to a cultural moment. He describes a television show that is obviously a cross between Friends and Sex & the City, but instead of seeming sharp or interesting it reads as hopelessly generic. Whitehead refers to “social media networks” instead of just saying Facebook or Twitter. While this does give the book an eerie rootlessness, as if the old world has already slipped from the minds of the survivors, it takes away from what could be a specific and well-grounded world. When Whitehead mentions DVR or a wi-fi connection, there’s an instant recognition on the part of the reader of “okay, I know exactly how this feels, this is my life.” Whitehead sacrifices this sense of environmental immediacy in a bid for timelessness. Which is why I think of this as part of my complaint that Whitehead is “trying to hard.” He may be right in this case. In thirty, forty years, these vagaries might not be as much of a problem.
But here’s the thing: it feels like Whitehead, who runs a great Twitter feed, just doesn’t want to mention Twitter in his literary novel. And I don’t understand this. He’s already writing a genre book. The zombie novel is inherently pulpy and visceral. Filling in the little everyday details would only enhance that feeling.
Beyond this, Whitehead has constructed a tightly constructed book into which he drops fully realized characters. Despite the aesthetic distance at which the prose kept me, I ended up caring about everyone of the characters. I liked the scenes where we met people Spitz had met on his way through the apocalypse. These sketches were vibrant and interesting. Whitehead taps into a very familiar vein of thought and articulates it extremely well, the “I can’t go on, I must” of life. Even though Spitz and those around them have their doubts about whether humanity can or should be saved, they are compelled to help it survive. Zone One feels to me to be both a meditation and, in the end, a celebration of perseverance through horror and doubt and dread.
We are all compelled to continue through life without knowing if it’s worth the trouble.