7.15.2012

what i'm reading: "zone one" by colson whitehead

I'm currently reading Zone One, by Colson Whitehead, a book I might never have picked up if it hadn't been written by one of my favourite authors. Fortunately for me, it was, because I'd hate to have missed this.

Zone One is a zombie book - a literary zombie novel. The action takes place principally in New York City after a global, apocalyptic plague has swept the earth and subsided. Whitehead has total cred when it comes to horror, having spent his childhood obsessed with B movies (see his brilliant essay in the New Yorker, "A Psychotronic Childhood"). He's taken that background and married it to his own literary sensibilities.

Whitehead imagines the aftermath of the pandemic in minute detail, and these details become a showcase for his acute powers of observation, quirky, wry descriptions, and profound understanding of human motivation. The devastation and rebuilding form a vehicle for Whitehead to analyze and comment on every facet of society, reflecting and refracting it with dead-on accuracy. It is really a tour de force.

Whitehead readers will find some familiar themes, as the reconstruction comes complete with corporate sponsorship, theme music, and inspirational titles. Other scenes are either nauseating or hilarious or frightening or some combination of those, depending on how you react to zombie-style gore. The disgusting bits are often leavened by wry humour, including inside New York jokes. (The comparison of zombies to tourists is too easy, but how could it be left out?) Whitehead zooms in for the minute detail that turns your stomach, then zooms out for the global view, forcing you to contemplate The End of the World. The reconstruction may work, or it may not.
Buzzwords had returned, and what greater proof of the rejuvenation of the world, the return to Eden, than a new buzzword emerging from the dirt to tilt its petals to the zeitgeist. In the recent calm, experts of sundry persuasion reconnected with their professions, hoping to get out of custodial duty and earn a ticket to Buffalo with the rest of the royalty. One canny psychotherapist - Dr. Neil Herkimer, who'd made a fortune in the days before the flood with a line of self-help books imparting "The Herkimer Solution to Human Unhappiness" - delivered the big buzzword of the moment: PASD, or Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder. Dr. Neil Herkimer climbed aboard a Buffalo-bound chopper soon after his diagnosis. As the chopper disappeared into the sky, he could be seen through the tiny window giving his buddies at Camp El Dorado a vigorous thumbs-up. Mark Spitz heard people jabbering about it over pea soup in the mess tents, or as he handed crates of powdered milk and vitamin supplements to eager survivors in the scattered camps from an armor-plated supply truck: Everyone suffered from PASD. Herkimer put it at seventy-five percent of the surviving population, with the other twenty-five percent under the sway of preexisting mental conditions that were, of course, exacerbated by the great calamity. In the new reckoning, a hundred percent of the world was mad. Seemed about right.

Buffalo shipped out "Living with PASD" pamphlets to the settlements in the packages containing work orders, dietary guidelines focusing on the realities of this age of scarcity (scurvy was a recurring character), and, of course, classified status reports on new reconstruction initiatives. The pamphlets were left on bunks and mess-hall seats; Buffalo knew exactly how many to print from the survivor rolls. . . . .
Whitehead doesn't offer a formula for plague and recovery; there are no ready-made morality tales. There is meaning in here, but you'll have to ponder it on your own.
Mark Spitz had met plenty of the divine-retribution folks over the months. This was their moment; they were umbrella salesmen standing outside a subway entrance in a downpour. The human race deserved the plague, we brought it on ourselves for poisoning the planet, for the Death of God, the calculated brutalities of the global economic system, for driving primordial species to extinction: the entire collapse of values as evidenced by everything from nuclear fission to reality television to alternate side of the street parking. Mark Spitz could only endure these harangues for a minute or two before he split. It was boring.The plague was the plague. You were wearing galoshes, or you weren't.
Survivors trade Last Night stories, but rather than an extended movie sequence of the end of the world, the glimpses of Last Night are scattered, brief, sketched in a few lines, the details left to our imaginations to fill in.
...One aspect of the afternoon remained unblemished, however. It was a drop-off party, that two-hour oasis in the harried parent's calendar, egress to a world of manis and pedis, a pilfered nap, a glass or two of decent rose. Mim left her kids there. They had buddies their own age, known each other since they were born. Asher, Jackson, and little Eve didn't even spare a goodbye, trotting into the playroom where the other kids toiled in their commotion. "Good luck," Mim said, as Gladys shut the door to keep the AC in.

When she returned an hour and a half later - she had resolved to straighten up her office but had scratched at her crossword instead - she saw the ambulance outside but immediately calmed herself: Gladys would have called her if it had been one of her kids. Then the squad cars ran her off the road as they sped past, almost driving onto her friend's front lawn and into her beloved hydrangeas and Mim thought, Maybe Gladys didn't have time to call and something has happened to her babies. She was correct: Gladys didn't have time to call.

Twelve hours later, Mim was on the run like everyone else. Cast out into the dreary steppes. Mark Spitz didn't ask about Harry. You never asked about the characters that disappeared from a Last Night story. You knew the answer. The plague had a knack for narrative closure.
I don't read horror novels, so I don't know whether zombie aficionados would find this book satisfying. I imagine that for many readers it might be too slow, crammed with too much detail, too many flashbacks, and not enough plot. For others, it might be the greatest zombie book ever, a more fully realized imagining than any genre novel would dare. So I don't know if Zone One is both a zombie novel and a zombie story as metaphor, or only the latter. Almost every review of the book attempts to tackle this question. I'll tell you this: it's a great book.

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Other Whitehead in wmtc: Sag Harbor, Apex Hides the Hurt, excerpts from The Colossus of New York here and here.

Other Zone One reviews: Esquire, Guardian, New York Times, and one by a fan and student of the genre i09, with many spoilers.

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Update. After writing this post, I read the second half of the book in one breathless sweep. It was horrifying, and riveting, and not predictable, and impossibly good. I can't write about it in any detail without giving too much away. So I'll just recommend that you skip the reviews posted above, and read this book.

6 comments:

laura k said...

After the man died in his sleep, Jerry hunted solo, scraping by until he joined a caravan of six RVs headed to Canada. "The intel seemed good on that one," he said, still disappointed. They had become a backward people, stunted and medieval: the world is flat, the Sun revolves around the Earth, everything is better in Canada.
(page 174, hardcover edition)

allan said...

I may have to take a S. King break and read this one. What little you have told me reminds me of parts of The Stand.

laura k said...

I've never read The Stand, and I've never read another zombie book, so I have nothing to go on here. But I'll tell you, from my perspective, this was unlike any book I'd ever read.

I wonder if the ending would have the same impact on someone who has seen a lot of end-of-times movies, either zombie flicks or big budget disaster scenarios like Independence Day. I come to this completely cold - which was great.

laura k said...

This is from the Guardian review, linked above:

Whitehead does have a tendency to overwrite – sentences sometimes grow so rhythmical, you fail to take in their actual meaning as the words wash over you – but he achieves a kind of miracle of tone. A fragile hope permeates these pages, one so painful and tender, it's heartbreaking. There have been sharper zombie tales – the bitter satirical punch of George A Romero's original Night of the Living Dead film is unimprovable – but I can't recall one this sad and moving.

I agree with this. It was unexpectedly sad and moving - and profound.

James Redekop said...

My cousin Corey, who's not only a zombie fan, but has his own zombie novel ("Husk") coming out soon, rates "Zone One" as 4/5 -- though, unfortunately, he hasn't written one of his detailed reviews.

laura k said...

Nice! I'm glad to hear it. I'm going to read more reviews - I'm interested in the zombie fan's take on this book.