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Literary Pedigree Belies Lowbrow Thrills in 'Zone One'

'Zone One' by Colson Whitehead (Doubleday)

By Rachel M. Wehr, Contributing Writer

Zombies are never subtle plot devices. There is a reason they have been confined so long to the realm of B-list horror: they are a particularly heavy-handed way to convey the sheer terror of losing one’s humanity. In his new novel “Zone One,” the celebrated A. Colson Whitehead ’91 drags zombies out of genre fiction and into high literature—with disastrous results.

At the novel’s beginning, a zombie plague has thrown Manhattan into chaos and uprooted society at its very core. In the past few years, small bands of survivors, allying themselves with ramshackle militias or hiding in the countryside, have tried to cope and rebuild civilization in the wake of the epidemic. A fledgling government in Buffalo, having made great strides in rebuilding upstate New York, attempts to reclaim New York City from the chaos. They send clean-up teams to Fort Wonton, based in the former Chinatown, to clear away bodies and scour every city block, office building, and apartment in Manhattan for the dangerous and flesh-hungry “skels.” The novel follows three days in the life of one of these sweepers, a man nicknamed Mark Spitz. His experiences become a lens through which Whitehead explores horror, loss, and rejuvenation in the wake of chaos.

”Zone One” is frightening, a spare narrative cluttered with the ephemera of New York’s bygone civilization—chamomile tea, anti-mosquito candles, abandoned m inivans—and devoid of the preaching allegory that haunts the disaster genre, in films like “The Day After Tomorrow” and novels like Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.”

Also unique to Whitehead’s zombie story is the concept of “stragglers”—infected people who do not develop a taste for flesh and continue with a routine task like making photocopies for all eternity. Not much separates the stragglers from the surviving humans, most of whom are ill-equipped to deal with the new reality. Indeed, many survivors simply refuse to cope, treating stragglers as simply sick rather than lost. Through the stragglers, Whitehead, perhaps excessively, analyzes humans’ ability to cope with change. Though his meditations are often poignant, he dwells far too much on individuals stuck in limbo.

Whitehead stays true to the horror genre by depicting some awful and gruesome scenes, so twisted in their depravity that they repel and fascinate simultaneously. But Whitehead also plays a mental game with his readers: if he strips away one piece of decency here, a mind there, but leaves an collection of insignificant details intact, at what point can we no longer recognize the human? A zombie may look like a grandmother, wearing the same clothes and continuously clicking through the channels on the television, but she is fundamentally different from the survivors who are able to cope with the catastrophe—so different, in fact, that her very humanity must be questioned. By exploring what separates the harmless stragglers, the bloodthirsty skels, and the survivors, Whitehead divides embattled humanity into three possible paths when faced with a disaster: the path of failure, the path of success, and the path of simply making it through.

“Zone One” is undeniably literary, but while trying to compensate for the inevitable associations between zombies and the cheap thrills of the genre to which they belong, Whitehead has overshot his goal and left his novel lofty and inaccessible. Sentences that are supposed to twist artfully just seem confusing and unpolished on the page. Ironically, Whitehead falls into the same trap that bogs down so many science-fiction and thriller writers: while the premise may be exciting, the uneven and winding prose makes the book almost unreadable.

On the very first page, Whitehead dissects a scene from Mark Spitz’s childhood and latches onto a very small detail—a camera. The camera holds the key to understanding Mark Spitz’s relationship with his parents. “His parents were holdouts in an age of digital multiplicity,” Whitehead writes, “raking the soil in lonesome areas of resistance … The camera was so backward that every lurching specimen his father enlisted from the passersby was able to operate it sans hassle, no matter the depth of cow-eyed vacancy in their tourist faces or local wretchedness inverting their spines.” As one of the few descriptions pre-dating the zombie apocalypse, it is inscrutably academic, leaving readers no frame of reference to understand the contagion that has upended society. Every sentence in this book fills to the brim and topples over with descriptive detail. By including these minutiae, Whitehead seems to be aiming for a reality effect, but the small details do not add up to a grander picture.

Despite the occasionally gory and jolting scene, there is simply not enough incentive to turn the pages and keep reading. Although blurring our definition of humanity may be a worthy premise, “Zone One” is a frustrating read that never achieves its grandiose ambitions. Beneath its morass of painstaking description lies the same gore and suspense that is at the heart of more lowbrow zombie novels—no more and no less.

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