Review

Zone One

by Colson Whitehead

Mark Spitz is an ordinary guy. He’s the kind of guy who always got B’s on his school assignments whether he tried or not, the kind of guy people forget having met, the kind of guy who's constantly passed over for girlfriends, promotions, or a thousand other perks in life.

"Even as Whitehead encourages a new engagement with the zombie phenomenon, his work also prompts a renewed thoughtfulness toward our own actions, the many mindless daily acts that, for better or for worse, form the pattern of our days."

But after a horrific plague strikes, and Mark Spitz is one of the few guys left alive and standing in a world populated by shambling, mindless zombies, it's like he's found his purpose in life: "This was his world now, in all its sublime crumminess, where intellect and ingenuity and talent were as equally meaningless as stubbornness, cowardice, and stupidity…. He was a mediocre man. He had led a mediocre life exceptional only in the magnitude of its unexceptionality. Now the world was mediocre, rendering him perfect."

Now, in a post-plague world, where the new capital of the reconstruction is in Buffalo, New York, and the landscape is dotted with refugee camps bearing names like Happy Acres and Bubbling Brooks, Mark Spitz is unique in the magnitude of his cynicism. Unlike many of his fellow "pheenies" (a nickname arising from the idealistic image of an American Phoenix), he doesn't really believe that the living will ever triumph over the walking dead. "This is what he had learned: If you weren't concentrating on how to survive the next five minutes, you wouldn't survive them."

As his team of sweepers fans through a section of Manhattan --- walled off in an effort to quarantine the area and slowly repossess the chaotic, dangerous geography of a post-apocalyptic Manhattan --- Mark Spitz sees in the faces of the shambling dead the images of people from his past, all of whom are gone now. The narrative of Whitehead's novel similarly moves back and forth freely between Mark Spitz's past (including harrowing scenes from the first terrifying days and the so-called Last Night of the plague apocalypse) and his present, which, as it turns out, is as tenuous as he always imagined it to be.

Much has been made of so-called literary novelists such as Whitehead and Justin Cronin turning their attention to the subjects and conventions of popular genre fiction. In ZONE ONE, Whitehead uses his subject matter to comment --- subtly or overtly --- not only on the thematic import of zombies, but even, perhaps, on the meaning of our contemporary culture's fascination with them (a recent study estimated zombies' impact on the economy to the tune of $5 billion plus).

Whitehead's zombies stagger through their days, mindless automatons who return, for whatever inexplicable reason, to their dead-end cubicles, overpriced coffee bars, chain retailers, and overstuffed sofas. "Their lives had been an interminable loop of repeated gestures," he writes. "Now their existences were winnowed to this discrete and eternal moment." Even as Whitehead encourages a new engagement with the zombie phenomenon, his work also prompts a renewed thoughtfulness toward our own actions, the many mindless daily acts that, for better or for worse, form the pattern of our days.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on November 3, 2011

Zone One
by Colson Whitehead