Zombies are in.
From AMC’s smash hit television series The Walking Dead, to the movie Zombieland (and the upcoming film version of Max Brooks’ World War Z), flesheaters are everywhere. In fact, they’re so much everywhere that I have started worrying that zombies were reaching that too-much-of-a-good-thing spot that vampires reached right around the second Twilight book.
So, it was with some curiosity and a fair bit of skepticism that I read Colson Whitehead’s most recent book, Zone One. The story follows three days in the life of Mark Spitz (no, not that Mark Spitz), a survivor of a zombie apocalypse, who is working to help the government re-establish an outpost of civilization in lower Manhattan.
Spitz is employed as a “sweeper”, part of a team whose job it is to clean out straggler zombies from buildings in the Zone. Over the course of the novel, Spitz reflects on how he came to be there, his relationships with his teammates, the fall of modern civilization, and its prospects for rebirth.
There are two types of zombies in Whitehead’s world: the vast majority are the mindless, ravenous hordes that we all know and love and the other are a rare type of “malfunctioning” undead. These poor creatures spend endless days repeating a single task from the fallen world: standing at a copy machine, pushing a broom around a room, holding a skillet in a long-unused kitchen. They don’t attack people and never even seem to notice them. It is these stragglers that Spitz is most interested in and curious about.
Whitehead is no hack “genre” writer either – his literary novels over the past decade have been critically well received and have even been finalists for prestigious awards, including the Pulitzer Prize. And, boy, can the man put a sentence together. (Of the sort that makes me despair as a writer, knowing that I’ll probably never write sentences that good.) Using power metaphors and allusions, Whitehead transforms the day-to-day drudgery of Spitz’s Zone One existence into something beyond a horror story. It is, in a way, horror literature.
In Zone One, Whitehead turns the view of the post-apocalyptic world back onto the trappings of our world and civilization – the technologies we take for granted, our attachment to material goods, and our societal preoccupations – and plays on our own desire to “chuck it all away and start over”. The scenes with the malfunctioning zombies, stuck in the pointless, repetitive lives are particularly well done. And through it, Spitz becomes sort of a 21st century everyman who sheds the modern world, but doesn’t particularly mourn it.
The book is an engaging societal and human commentary, masterfully written against (and within) a now-familiar zombie apocalypse backdrop that manages something remarkable: a fresh take on a genre that I thought was getting stale.
Four stars out of five.