by Stacey Roberts
By Colson Whitehead
Harvell Secker: 2011
5/ 5 zedheads
Zone One by Colson Whitehead is the Catcher in the Rye of zombie literature.
The protagonist, Mark Spitz, is a complicated yet elemental fellow, tasked with the removal of undead from Manhattan after the zombie plague. The story is rich and deep, telling a gritty tale of the work involved in cleaning up downtown – removing zombies and stragglers (a new kind of zombie that “haunts” the landmarks of their old lives, an inspired creation), with flashbacks to Mark Spitz’s Last Night – the night before the zombie epidemic that changed the world. There are also brief flashbacks to his life before the plague, his time as a survivor alone in the world before making it to the relative safety of Buffalo, and his place as a soldier on the periphery of the new regime and humanity’s effort to rebuild after the cataclysm.
The story is not wholly new in zombie fiction: humanity is infected by a plague that turns most into flesh-eating zombies, and the minority of uninfected had to learn how to slaughter zombies and survive in a new, desolate world. What is new is the notion of a reconstruction government – the new world order after the end of times – and the striking point Colson makes in the book about Mark Spitz and his compatriots on the cleanup detail. They are self-described as mediocre – the B students of the world, the unremarkable – who are doing the hard and unsavory work. It is an interesting commentary because, throughout history, it seems that the A students are always sending the B students out to do the hard jobs they don’t want to do themselves. The mediocre, Colson says, finally get ahead. As Colson writes, “Surely many of the high-functioning members of society had been killed off, allowing mediocre specimens such as himself to move up a notch. Now the world was mediocre, rendering him perfect.” Mark Spitz and his fellow soldiers are the Supermen of the apocalypse. We don’t care that they were never on the honor roll or had 401k’s because the world needs them so terribly.
Colson’s storytelling is excellent, and he is a master of the English language. The rich descriptions and great lines ease you in comfort through the desolate landscape of Zone One:
“There were hours when every last person on Earth thought they were the last person on Earth, and it was precisely this thought of final, irrevocable isolation that united them all.”There are numerous examples throughout this novel – the poetry of Colson’s language keeps you reading easily and willingly, like floating along a lazy river in the sunshine, aware of the awesome power beneath you at all times.
There are some parts of the novel that are dense with description yet short on action, but these sections, woven so expertly by Colson’s use of the English language and human emotion, are not onerous. He uses phrases such as “pheenies” and “PASD” early in the book without explaining them, which keeps the reader in the dark about some important items, as well as the reason for Mark Spitz’s name, which is revealed in a nice scene toward the end of the book. I would like to have seen a lot more – Stephen King’s epic The Stand is an inevitable comparison. Zone One is a book that could only have been made better with a few hundred more pages – I want to know more about the zombie outbreak, the interregnum of surviving the first days and weeks after the plague, and the new face of humanity once it seemed the danger had passed.
On the whole, Zone One is zombie fiction for the serious and committed reader. Like any good, timeless classic, it is the story and the characters that carry the book as much as the zombie action we know and love. This book satisfies with its craft and power. If you love zombie literature, you must read this book. If you love good literature, you must read this book. A big win for Colson Whitehead and his fortunate fans.
Stacey Roberts received degrees from Florida State, University of Miami, and University of Cincinnati. As well as being the owner of Computer Systems Management since 1994, he has been writing since his early teens, with some contest wins and publications. Currently, he's at work on several works of fiction and maintains a blog at http://stacey-roberts.tumblr.com. Stacey invites you to follow him on Twitter (@sroberts1971) and check out the zombie web comic http://www.xombeeguy.com.