Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Zone One: The "Literary" Zombie Novel

If the Jesse Eisenberg/Woody Harrelson film Zombieland (one of the more underrated movies of the last five years, in my humble opinion) was slightly less funny and slightly more disorienting, detailed and flash-backy, you'd have Colson Whitehead's Zone One

The basic plot is the same in each — survivors of a zombie apocalypse try to continue to survive. Zone One, however, takes place over three days in New York City at the supposed tail end of the plague, as main-character Mark Spitz and his three-person "sweeper" crew go building-by-building to clear out the remaining "skels" in an attempt to make lower Manhattan re-habitable.

The schtick for Zone One, as you may have heard, is that it's a "literary" zombie novel. Just as Zombieland was a new take on the traditional zombie apocalypse story, so is Whitehead's novel an attempt to break out of the genre's convention. He does so with incredibly detailed, metaphor-laden sentences and paragraphs, constant flashbacks, and digressions inside of digressions. It's all very disorienting. And not always fun. 

Put it this way: It's not a novel everyone will enjoy. But even if you don't enjoy the novel as a whole, there are several set pieces (a flashback to Mark Spitz and some friends holed up in a farmhouse, the story behind how our Mark Spitz came to be known as Mark Spitz) that are absolutely dazzling. And the last 30 pages or so scream by at a pace approximately triple that of any 30-page stretch in the rest of the novel. So even though it's a difficult novel to engage with — you have to really be in the mood to read diligently — I'd still recommend checking it out.

Whitehead is an amazingly skillful writer. As one of the back blurbs states, "Whitehead has a David Foster Wallace-esque knack for punctuating meticulously figurative constructions with deadpan slacker wit..." Agreed. Whole-heartedly.


  1. I don't know what appeals less to me zombies or Wallace but somehow I want to read this.

  2. Nice review! Disorienting and not always fun, absolutely. The prose helps even those parts that aren't so much fun. I kind of want to read it again, not because I loved it so much but because I know there were times I missed a lot because I wasn't in the right mood.

  3. Intriguing review.

    I'm glad somebody like Colson Whitehead is trying to give a new light to what I call the "rent-a-monster" genre (vampires, zombies, werewolves...whatever monster is ready-made).

    Some of the ideas and symbolism in those stories are interesting and I'm glad a very capable writer like Whitehead gave it a go. Might have to check it out

  4. A literary version of Zombieland(awesome movie)sounds like fun and while zombies are getting rather played out these days,this book should be worth checking out.

  5. I started reading this and definitely expected it to be more fun. However, I don't need fun, I just had the wrong expectations. I'm going to try to return to it with more realistic ones.

    I also loved Zombieland.

  6. I haven't read this but I've been meaning to read something else by Whitehead (I have read Apex Hides the Hurt). I'm not so sure it would be this, but it sounds interesting... Maybe next October. Oh, and if you ever get a chance to go to a Whitehead "reading" DO IT. Hilarious.

  7. I want to read this book. But more than this, I want to know: what to all the zombies mean?

  8. I meant what *do* all the zombies mean...

  9. Speaking of literary zombies, the University of Ottawa Press just published a book called *Braaaiiinnnsss! From Academics to Zombies.* It's by a bunch of scholars and writers and it "take[s] a serious look at how zombies threaten almost every aspect of our lives... It draws on a variety of fields including biology, history, law, gender studies, archaeology, library science, and landscape architecture. Part homage to zombie films and fiction, part cultural study, this collection humorously explores our deep-seated fear of the undead. Engaging and accessible, Braaaiiinnnsss! will amuse academics and zombie fans alike."

    I'm not even kidding. This book exists.