My experience with Colson Whitehead’s Zone One mirrors my that of a similar novel, Justin Cronin’s The Passage. First, I get excited at the prospect of literary fiction taking on genre fiction subjects (zombies and vampires, respectively). Then, I get even more excited once critics and readers flood magazines and blogs with positive reviews. Then, I actually read the thing and inevitably find myself disappointed. Either my expectations are too high, or literary fiction stylings of sci-fi and horror tropes are just not for me (which, how can that be possible?!).
Zone One is, on a macro level, a story about the end of the world. A nameless plague has swept through the United States, turning humans unlucky enough to get bitten into “skels,” so named for their increasingly skeletal appearances. We never discover how or why this happened; people are more interested in surviving and resettling. Zone One refers to the portion of lower Manhattan that will be one of the first parts of the city to be resettled, thanks to the Marines killing the first wave of skels and a wall that protects them from outside hordes. Mark Spitz, our main character, is part of a sweeper team–soldiers and civilians who kill off any “straggler” skels–working its way, block by block, to a skel-free future.
The city had long carried its own plague. Its infection had converted this creature into a member of its bygone loser cadre, into another one of the broke and the deluded, the mis-fitting, the inveterate unlucky.
I like being dropped into a world, without a lot of backstory or a long, tortured prologue, and that is how Zone One appeared–at first. But the flow of action was quickly stifled by endless flashbacks. The novel’s opening, for me, was excruciating to get through: while being attacked by three skels, Mark Spitz drifts in and out of memories, including an explanation of a popular tv show whose character inspired a hairstyle worn by one of the skels and his feelings about one of his former teachers. This info-dumping of related and unrelated memories continued for the entire book. I would often lose track of which events were occurring during what time, which was disorienting and often forced me to flip back to the chapter’s beginning. I can intellectually appreciate that Whitehead did this purposefully, to depict through form the manifestation of Mark Spitz’s PSAD, but as a reader I had to wonder if disrupting the flow of the story to such an extent was worth it. It certainly hampered my enjoyment, and almost caused me to put the book down after 20 pages.
My thoughts on Whitehead’s writing style can be summed up in 11 words: Not every sentence has to be a simile or a metaphor! Again, the endless sentences dripping with flowery descriptors served to slow the action and, occasionally, annoy the bejeezus out of me. An example:
a moribund dry cleaner, that reliable exacerbator of stains.
However: some scenes were so taut and perfect, glimmers of what this novel could have been had the necessary linguistic pruning taken place. The scene where Mark Spitz receives his nickname, for example, and the events at the farmhouse in Massachusetts, had all of the action and terror that I wanted to see throughout the rest of the book. I felt truly scared and desperate in those moments–emotions you would imagine the survivors of an unspecified plague would feel. You could see Mark Spitz shutting down and reverting to a pure survival mode, checking windows and other exits, grabbing a stashed pack, and leaving behind those who couldn’t keep up. There were also some very lovingly-rendered depictions of New York City, even a New York City that is destroyed and desolate but for the dead. Whitehead’s love/hate relationship for the city certainly shines through, and that thread was strong and present throughout the novel.
New York City in death was very much like New York City in life. It was still hard to get a cab, for example. The main difference was that there were fewer people.
I also did like Mark Spitz as a character. His hard-won survival techniques and his acknowledgement of his own mediocrity helped make him feel like a real person, as did his refrain of repugnant, horrible, torturous Connecticut. I believed in his attachment to Kaitlyn and Gary, in his terror and shame at finding his parents during Last Night, in his reptilian desire to survive. Again, it was simply getting lost in his maze-like thoughts that jolted me out of the book and activated my rage settings.
I really wanted to love Zone One. It should have been five stars, but instead, it is a reluctant three, in appreciation of the world-building and some excellent, tense scenes. I will be checking out more of Whitehead’s work, though; I normally give authors three strikes before they are out of my reading line-up, and this wasn’t entirely a whiffed attempt.
Bookwanderer Rating: Three out of five stars
Bookwanderer Tagline: “There were plenty of things in the world that deserved to stay dead, yet they walked.”