Zone One by Colson Whitehead – Book Review

Zone One by Colson Whitehead
Published by Doubleday Books, an imprint of Random House

Everyone has a Last Night story, and now that the world is rebuilding, people have the time and energy to share them. The man now nicknamed Mark Spitz has even figured out different levels of his Last Night story to tell depending on his acquaintance with the listener. The government in Buffalo is looking to the future, though, and part of that means reviving New York City. Mark Spitz is part of a team of civilian sweepers clearing New York of the last few remaining straggler zombies.

Zone One is, without a doubt, the most introspective of the zombie novels I have read. Mark spends a good deal of time dwelling in the past, resulting in occasionally choppy transitions between the present zombie search-and-destroy mission and the past, both before and after the traumatic events of Last Night (Mark, like essentially every other survivor has PASD: Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder).  Interestingly, actual zombies played a relatively small role in Zone One, Spitz comes into contact with them only rarely, either in the present or in his memories, with Whitehead focusing more on the psyche of the survivor than the actual end of the world.

This is a fascinating approach to a post-apocalyptic novel, but it is one that would have worked better had Mark Spitz been a more compelling character. Certainly part of the issue is the stress disorder associated with the end of the world, something like that does not make for a terribly personable character. Spitz’s extreme mediocrity is drilled into the reader, however. We are told over and over that he is exactly average, even painfully average, never any grade but a B, never excelling in any way, other than perhaps his aim in killing zombies. The real problem is that Colson Whitehead – 2002 recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship – doesn’t write ‘extremely average’ well, as is evidenced by this reminiscence of Mark’s about the apparent normalcy of his home on Last Night:

Normal was the unbroken idyll of life before. The present was a series of intervals differentiated from each other only by the degree of dread they contained. The future? The future was the clay in their hands.

A thoughtful and beautiful passage, to be sure, but not one that is particularly believable from the head of someone without any great mental ability. Passages like this are also not rare, one could open to almost any page and find one. This fairly significant flaw in characterization makes Spitz a two-dimensional and therefore less interesting character, which in turn lessens the emotional impact of the attempted rebuilding of our world after devastation by such an insidious plague.

All this being said, Colson Whitehead’s general depiction of life after zombies seems to be almost painfully on cue, from the cheesy, manipulative symbols put out by the government in Buffalo to the ability of those with significant personal problems to detach from the danger in their everyday lives in order to focus on sensationalized stories, such as a the survival of a set of triplets in a far-off survivor camp.

Zone One is certainly an interesting and realistic take on a post-apocalyptic world, but an unbelievable protagonist makes it less successful than it might otherwise be, and some fans of zombie lit may be surprised and disappointed by the near lack of zombies.

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