Friday, September 7, 2012

Horror Fiction: Zone One by Colson Whitehead

Once again, I find myself breaking my personal rule of dealing with any book that has to do with an apocalypse, of any sort. And I really don't have any interest in zombies. And Colson Whitehead's Zone One has both. But I have been wanting to read a novel by Whitehead for some time now and Zone One is his most recent. Despite my initial aversion to the subject matter, I still feel like the book gave me a good sense for Whitehead's writing and what kind of style he brings to the table.

The Situation: This novel actually deals with the post-apocalypse - the clean-up and the aftermath. Zone One, which is more or less the island of Manhattan, has finally been cleared by the Marines, so now the sweeper teams have come in, going building by building, block by block, to make sure all really is clear and that there are no more "stragglers" left behind. Mark Spitz (not his real name) is part of the Omega sweeper team along with Gary and Kaitlyn. As we follow them through their somewhat tedious, and sometimes dangerous work, we also get a collection of memories and recollections from Mark Spitz of the days before Last Night, how it all started, what people did to survive the initial outbreak, and how people like himself came to work as a sweeper. 

The Problem: One problem with surviving something like this is that people like Mark Spitz often end up struggling with PASD, or Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder. Then there is also the obvious issue of the entire country being in ruins and most of your loved ones have either died, or were turned into zombies and then died. Also, there are still zombies in Zone One, and while a few are the kind that will attempt to attack you and eat your skin, most of them are stragglers: a type of zombie that is sort of stuck in time in one position doing the same motion over and over. These types are harmless in that they show no awareness of anything else going on and don't attack. Sweeper teams find them, and then quickly dispose of them, and then they move on. Some like to play around with the stragglers, knowing they won't fight back, but Mark Spitz isn't too fond of this game, and eventually he realizes why he was right to be cautious.

Genre, Themes, History: I went ahead and put this novel in the "horror" category, you know, because of the zombies. And like most novels dealing with the apocalypse, there is the ongoing theme of survival. Also, because this novel starts after reconstruction is well underway, it deals with the far reaching consequences of such an event - consequences most people would not think about while trying their best not to get eaten alive. And Whitehead does a good job of playing with different character types who deal with the horrors of the disaster in different ways. Mark Spitz seems to be the mostly quiet and reflective type, while Kaitlyn is a hardcore rule follower, and Gary is the somewhat crude and irreverent type. The three of them have to work together to carefully, and methodically, make sure the world is safe once again for humans to inhabit it.

My Verdict: Once again, I regret picking this type of novel. But it isn't really the zombies that bothered me. Sure, there are some truly terrifying and creepy moments, but for most of the book I was incredibly bored. It also didn't help that the narrative voice was hard to follow. The book takes place over three days, but not a lot happens until the very last day. Most of the book is spent inside of Mark Spitz's head while he remembers what it was like before Last Night, and what he has had to do to come this far. Most of the time I didn't quite catch the switch between the present and the past, so I was often confused as to where some of the stories fit on the timeline. Also, I generally just could not grasp Whitehead's writing. I think a reviewer on Goodreads put it best when he said Whitehead's writing is good, there just isn't much "heat" behind it. It is very cold with a lot of great descriptions, but they are clouded in complicated wording and phrasing so they are hard to get a hold of. Well, I wanted a sense of his writing, and I got it.

Favorite Moment: When Gary learns that it isn't okay to mock the dead. You'll know the moment when it happens.

Favorite Character: This is hard. It is a random collection of broken people who have survived this horrific event and are trying to both make sense of it and rebuild from it. Some are more likable than others, but if any of them are friends, they are definitely friendships of convenience and circumstance. None of these people would hang out together if the world was still as it used to be.

Recommended Reading: Well, this summer I have managed to cover vampires, killer robots, and now zombies, and I wouldn't recommend any of them. But that's just me. This kind of stuff just doesn't appeal to me at all. There were some ways in which this book reminded me of Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson, but comparing the two really doesn't work because they are two different styles and two very different approaches to the apocalypse.  

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