Wow. I just finished ZONE ONE by Colson Whitehead with some extremely mixed feelings. This is a book I had high hopes for after hearing it praised as a “thinking man’s zombie novel,” which as an author of zombie fiction (even if a bit of a hack), I found a little insulting (I don’t know any authors in the genre who write for idiots), but took to mean it has more of a literary approach than the usual thriller, which interested me as a reader always on the lookout for something fresh. Whitehead writes literary fiction, and seeing somebody like him take on zombies and the end of the world was definitely intriguing. The Amazon reviews were extremely mixed–from vicious take downs to soaring praise, with an almost equal distribution of one-, two-, three-, four- and five-star ratings in its 130+ reviews on Amazon–which actually only intrigued me more.
The book begins a bit awkwardly, as if the author is trying to push away any readers expecting a typical zombie novel. We are introduced to an average man nicknamed Mark Spitz, survivor of the zombie apocalypse, now working for a reconstituted government as a “sweeper” shooting down stragglers in a reclaimed southern Manhattan, officially named Zone One, after the marines clear it. The protagonist is intentionally introduced as a blank, which makes it difficult for the reader to emphasize with him, and he comes across as so emotionally distant from the apocalypse, reinforced by the author’s wry and witty writing style, that it’s hard to care what happens to him–if he doesn’t seem to care that much, why should we? Early in the book, he is attacked by some zombies locked for years in a room and during the resulting struggle, there are so many flashbacks and digressions, going for on for so many pages, I stopped caring whether he survived. This approach continues, with digressions within flashbacks going on for so long that when they finally looped back to the present I had no idea what was going on. Seriously, by about 100 pages into the book, almost nothing had actually happened.
At this point, however, something clicked for me and I think the author as well. Whitehead’s brushstrokes started to reveal the big picture, and the setting itself began to take over the story. Mark Spitz started to become sort of an archaeologist, visiting a desolate Manhattan and recalling it in bits and pieces as a once great civilization. The setting of a post-apocalyptic America started to become so rich and detailed I could not help but be impressed. This is a richly imagined, detailed and precise world, with its own rhythms, problems, obsessions, hopes, people, stories. I started to feel at one point that the apocalyptic world, specifically Zone One, was the main character, not Mark Spitz. Now I can understand how this would disappoint some readers. A good story requires sympathetic characters engaged in compelling and believable conflict, not just a strong setting. It’s like ZONE ONE was a 600-page book, and Whitehead was forced to remove most of the plot to compress it to 272 pages. By the end, all cylinders start firing, however, as Mark Spitz recalls his journey as a lone survivor and Zone One is attacked. Wry and witty take a backseat to Mark Spitz’s urgent desire to survive, and his surprising talent at it. The ending is so strong that I couldn’t help but think if Whitehead had made the rest of the book as exciting as that, he would have created what might honestly be considered a masterpiece, at least by the humble standards of our genre.
The result is an incredible vision–one of the most poignant I’ve seen in this genre, and trust me, I’ve read a lot of zombie books–but also sadly, in my honest opinion, a story that could have been much more compelling. ZONE ONE is like a jigsaw puzzle. When you finish it, you can see the whole, and it’s beautiful. But the journey to completion can be maddening at times. Would I recommend it to others? It depends to whom I was speaking. It is certainly not everybody’s cup of tea; it’s not your usual zombie novel. In some ways it’s not even your usual any-novel. If you’re looking for a unique and richly imagined vision of the zombie apocalypse, I would give it a shot, and if you do, stick with it. If you’re a fan of literary fiction, definitely check it out. If you are looking for a thriller with a strong linear narrative, dramatic conflict and lots of action, however, I would suggest passing on this one.