Zone One: A Novel
Colson Whitehead is one of a few writers who understand New York. “The Way We Live Now: 11-11-01; Lost and Found,” a stunning piece of journalism published in the New York Times two months after 9/11, offered a tender, wistful homage to a Manhattan coming to terms with an unthinkable crisis.
Mr. Whitehead reminded Manhattanites of the city’s inexorable rhythms and the manner in which it is in a perpetual state of renewal. He observed these rhythms through the eyes of the walker, ruminating on how neighborhoods change at street level—how old haunts remain or disappear—the favorite pizza parlor is suddenly and unexpectedly replaced by a travel agency, later to be replaced once again by a beauty parlor.
Mr. Whitehead pointed out that the disappeared parlor would remain as part of New York for as long as the passerby remembered its storefront. He wrote poignantly, “our streets are calendars containing who we were and who we will be next.”
The article was important as it reminded Manhattanites that they and their city had a future: New York would go on. It also revealed Mr. Whitehead’s intimate relationship with the metropolis and in particular his keen understanding of the city streets.
Zone One is Mr. Whitehead’s fifth novel, yet excluding Colossus of New York, a nonfiction meditation on life in the Big Apple, it is the author’s first to be set explicitly in his hometown of Manhattan. It too deals nostalgically with the lost city, the replacement of the old with the new, but with a marked twist: Zone One is a zombie novel.
Mr. Whitehead offers the reader a portrait of post-apocalyptic America. A plague has decimated humanity, transforming the infected into the living dead. The creatures are divided into two distinct taxonomic categories: skels, voracious, flesh hungry streetwalkers and stragglers, who exist in a motionless, catatonic state, contemplating the minutiae of their former lives. The military has exterminated the most vicious of the infected, and during a perceived lull in the ferocity of the pandemic, the provisional government in Buffalo has ordered the resettlement of downtown Manhattan.
The armed forces have gained a foothold in Chinatown, Fort Wonton, from which teams of civilian volunteers scour the city, exterminating any of the plague ridden to have evaded an initial sweep by the Marine Corps. The area that they have secured is referred to as Zone One, the portion of the island below Canal Street.
The novel takes place over the course of three days and follows Mark Spitz, a member of a civilian sweeper unit operating within Zone One. As with each of his fellow compatriots (or “pheenies” as they are referred to, the American eagle having risen as a phoenix from the flames) Spitz grapples with Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder and the horror of coming to terms with a new, hideously disfigured society.
For readers of Mr. Whitehead’s previous work of fiction, Sag Harbor, the introspective tale of a black teenager growing up in the Hamptons in the 1980s, the author’s radical change of direction may come as somewhat of a shock. However, Mr. Whitehead is no stranger to repurposing popular genres. His first novel, The Intuitionist, was a fascinating take on the detective novel.
From the very opening, Zone One sets itself as a novel about ideas, rather than people. The hallmarks of (recherché) postmodernism are ever present: temporal distortion, metafiction, pastiche, paranoia. During the course of the narrative Spitz comes across a collection of essays written by a deceased literary theorist. The narrator confides that “each attempt at the introduction gave Mark Spitz an ice-cream headache.” Many readers may feel a similar discomfort as the author moves self consciously through a checklist of postmodern literary techniques.
As a novelist, Mr. Whitehead is rapidly distinguishing himself as a filius familias of maximalism. This approach may work to great effect elsewhere, yet in a zombie novel, where pace and narrative urgency are of the essence, it falls sadly flat. On the odd occasion that the novel does begin to gain some momentum, the author has a tendency to embark on tiresome digressions which involve but are not limited to groceries, flossing, tog-count and yoga mats. As a result, the narrative shambles along at the pace of an emaciated skel.
In terms of horror, there are few shocking moments, excluding perhaps when the narrator juxtaposes the scene of a young Mark Spitz stumbling across his mother giving his father a blowjob, with that of him discovering her infected by the plague and gnawing on his father’s intestines.
If Zone One does not work as an engaging zombie novel, what then is its purpose? In his pastiche of the post-apocalyptic horror genre Mr. Whitehead attempts to excavate specific areas of contemporary urban life. It is here that the novel shows flashes of brilliance.
Spitz walks the empty streets of a metropolis populated by the undead. He is an outsider, a minority. Mr. Whitehead goes as far as to describe him as a drifting flâneur. Spitz understands that should his thoughts wander momentarily the city will eat him alive. In many respects, this is a novel about urban solitude, the nigh impossibility of making a human connection in a rapacious capital driven city. It also explores an individuals struggle to identify with a rapidly changing cityplace.
Nevertheless, the reader feels little emotion for Spitz. In a city of the undead, Spitz is the one character that should have a palpable heartbeat. Yet, he rarely appears as a flesh and bone character, rather, as a literary device utilized by Mr. Whitehead to excise and observe cross sections of urban space.
Such urban observations are on occasion deeply moving making us sense that the author is hiding a notebook filled with dazzling field notes from his time spent walking in New York City: “[it] happened all the time that someone you loved moved through the avenues, half a block over, one block over from you as they navigated their day, unaware how close you were. You just missed each other.” Sadly these heartfelt passages are far too few.
Zone One neither explicitly lampoons nor gives itself completely to the zombie genre. As a consequence, the novel inhabits a no-man’s land between the two. At best, Mr. Whitehead offers a dry, smirking humor; many readers will find his inflection hard to discern.
This is, without doubt, a dense, difficult book. In parts it is amusingly clever, yet it is also guilty of being too clever. The author’s use of temporal distortion, for instance, lacks the necessary control leaving the plot tangled, disoriented, and dull.
Essentially, Zone One is Colossus of New York with the addition of zombies. In his repurposing of the zombie novel as a manner of caricaturing urban life in Manhattan, the author loses the sense of urgency and suspense that drive the genre. Furthermore, grappling within the confines of post apocalyptic horror appears to inhibit Mr. Whitehead’s natural ability to write fluid, observational prose about New York City.
Those wishing to devour classic zombie fiction will find slim pickings here. For the rest of us, Zone One proves to be an all too tentative bite out of the Big Apple.