Saturday, November 26, 2011

Zone One by Colson Whitehead

Mark Spitz (not his real name) is a sweeper: an armed and armored warrior tasked with a building-by-building hunt, clearing zombie stragglers from the part of Manhattan called Zone One.

The rest of Manhattan, like the rest of the world, is overrun with the undead. The global zombie apocalypse has come, and only a tiny percentage of humanity remains. Like Mark Spitz, the survivors are traumatized wrecks; they have lived not because they are the best and brightest, but because they are the most ruthless, the most stubborn, the most able to walk away from everything they once loved. Mark Spitz was a slacker in a meaningless job before the end of the world; now he is a lean and hardened killer, ready at any moment to grab his pack and move, and only troubled a little by hallucinations.

Zone One by Colson Whitehead is a zombie apocalypse novel; but its real subject is the struggle of the shattered remainder of humanity to rebuild society after the apocalypse. Whitehead views this prospect with a cynical eye. He notes that the new provisional government has given itself a theme song, entitled "Stop! Can You Hear the Eagle Roar? (Theme from Reconstruction)".

The effort to resuscitate Manhattan may be a bright beacon of humanity's struggle to create a new future; or it may just be a publicity stunt, designed to distract those who remain from their imminent destruction.

Colson Whitehead is the author of one of my very favorite novels ever, The Intuitionist. (See my review here.) Zone One is not quite that good; it tends to proceed in a scramble of interlayered flashbacks. The reader sometimes has to stop and sort out when and where she is, which drains away the book’s forward momentum.

But there are a lot of novels about zombies out there, and this is one of the best. Whitehead is terrific writer, and for darkly funny grimness, there's no one better.

I recommend a two-book binge: for a detailed, harrowing account the unfolding apocalypse itself, start with World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks; and for the shambling aftermath, Whitehead's Zone One.

And then, you can probably in all fairness say that you have done the zombie thing, and move on to the next hot trend.

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