Zone One from Colson Whitehead isn’t your typical zombie novel. Not that I’m a regular reader of the genre. But I know my fantasy and horror. What Whitehead does is show us the mind of one man in his post-pandemic world. (Yes, I read another pandemic book.) This world has a fledgling new government called American Phoenix, risen from the ashes. And our main character is a grunt in the army against skel—or zombie—incursion.
This man goes only by his nickname, Mark Spitz. And Whitehead uses the entire name every time he refers to the main character. It’s annoying because both names appear multiple times on most pages. But apparently no one in the book ever refers to him as any shortened sub-nickname. You learn to just go with it.
Mark Spitz is in fact named for the Olympic Swimmer of my 1970s childhood. But it takes Whitehead time to tease out the story. And along the way he tells us of a man on the run, finding places to hide out, and gaining useful survival skills. Mark Spitz is a young man capable of fitting into many situations.
In the book’s present day, he’s a “sweeper” in Manhattan, looking for “stragglers.” Rather than going on rampages, these skels find a familiar spot and just hang out there. Some make copies even though the machine long ago lost power. Others stand motionless at the bottom of escalators. You get the picture. Mark Spitz and his two teammates are assigned a quadrant each week and must clear the buildings of uptown Manhattan.
Zone One proves that a literary zombie novel is possible. The question is should it exist, just like the zombies themselves. Whitehead mixes gorgeous prose with biting social commentary in the context of world destruction. My brain struggled to absorb the dissonant combination.
Mark Spitz tells the tale as a long internal monologue, with various stories about adjusting to a new normal. Yes, there are zombies but not many passages about running from them. Given today’s reality, discussions about adjustment feel fairly relevant. A few times I got a “that’s how it feels to me” punch in the gut. But mostly Whitehead’s American Phoenix-based zone still feels like fantasy.
I think of zombie fiction as an adrenaline-fueled combination of running and munching. This is not at all what I was expecting. Whitehead uses a slow, deliberate pace throughout 90% of the book. The last 10%, not so much. As he describes life in Mark Spitz’s world, he also has plenty to say about ours. Mostly spot-on critical analysis of our current zombie (without the munching) tendencies.
Despite the literary style, or maybe because of it’s beauty, I struggled to progress in this book. It was heavy, slow, and somewhat unpleasant. I give it a guarded recommendation.
I wouldn’t pair this with another zombie book, because I suspect it’ll suffer in comparison. Try something wholly different like Pema Chödrön’s spiritual works or kick butt historical fiction from Greer Macallister.