Zone One

June 6, 2011

Chris was like, 'a proof of the new Colson Whitehead book came in,’ so I took it on the bus and read it. I like Colson Whitehead even though I haven’t read much of his work; I was pretty into the Intuitionist until I lost my copy, is most of what I know.

Well and he has a totally sweet twitter account, brah.

This is a weird entry point into his ouevre; it’s a zombie novel. I mean, y’know, he writes all over the place, it’s not totally mind-blowing that he did a zombie novel, but no matter how speculatively he writes, everybody always shelves his books in General Fiction and my impression is that this is probably his most speculative yet. Blah blah whatever my point is that it is a zombie novel but it doesn’t feel like a stunt, Colson Whitehead diving into a zeitgeist that’s been on its way out for ten years; it’s not Sag Harbor and Zombies. The monsters are called skels- which is short for “skellies,” obviously- and the book is about how lonely it is after the apocalypse, when all your friends are dead and everybody around wants to rip you to pieces out of aggressive indifference.

This is a New York novel dressed as a zombie novel: “He’d always wanted to live in New York” is a line that comes up a couple times. Pseudonymous protagonist Mark Spitz- who is only ever referred to as Mark Spitz- is a thoroughly normal (or: mediocre) straight dude from Long Island, was trying to get his shit together to move to New York and be a big deal, never quite managed to, and then when he eventually got to New York anyway, it sucked. The things that keep him afloat when he gets to New York are the coping mechanisms he learned beforehand: being emotionally dead inside, being good at leaving people behind, keeping his nostalgia for a better time close to his vest. Y’know. A New York novel.

Incidental things: without spoiling anything, I thought it was subtle and perfect the way Whitehead handled/disclosed his protagonist’s race. There is a good locavore joke. Some stuff definitely doesn’t get resolved- which makes sense in the context of pervasive and bleak inevitability: this is a close (not quite claustrophobic) third person narrator, not an omniscient explanation.

What sets Zone One apart is the relentlessly somber tone: when the skellies rip people to bits and gnaw on their organs and stuff, it’s cool, but it’s not really fun. I’m trying to think of a zombie thing with a comparable tone- it’s not really 28 Days Later, because 28 Days later had a bunch of intense headrush sequences, where violins tried to scrape off your face, which Zone One doesn’t really have. Zone One is all about this miserable, gave up world. The violence, when it shows up, is scary and rad and stuff but also feels inevitable. I guess I want to compare it to The Reapers Are the Angels but that book was a different kind of bleak, a gothic, southern, religious overtones kind of bleak zombie picaresque. Zone One is characterized by bleak inevitability, just like the three years I spent working at the Strand. Five Empire State Buildings.

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