Book Review: Zone One, by Colson Whitehead

Zombies are in.

From AMC’s smash hit television series The Walking Dead, to the movie Zombieland (and the upcoming film version of Max Brooks’ World War Z), flesheaters are everywhere. In fact, they’re so much everywhere that I’ve started worrying that zombies are reaching that too-much-of-a-good-thing spot that vampires reached right around the second Twilight book.

So, it was with some curiosity and a fair bit of skepticism that I read Colson Whitehead’s most recent book, Zone One. The story follows three days in the life of Mark Spitz (no, not that Mark Spitz), a survivor of a zombie apocalypse, who is working to help the government re-establish an outpost of civilization in lower Manhattan.

Spitz is employed as a “sweeper”, part of a team whose job it is to clean out straggler zombies from buildings in the Zone. Over the course of the novel, Spitz reflects on how he came to be there, his relationships with his teammates, the fall of modern civilization, and its prospects for rebirth.

Zone One, by Colson Whitehead

There are two types of zombies in Whitehead’s world: the vast majority are the mindless, ravenous hordes that we all know and love and the other are a rare type of “malfunctioning” undead. These poor creatures spend endless days repeating a single task from the fallen world: standing at a copy machine, pushing a broom around a room, holding a skillet in a long-unused kitchen. They don’t attack people and never even seem to notice them. It is these stragglers that Spitz is most interested in and curious about.

Whitehead is no hack “genre” writer either – his literary novels over the past decade have been critically well received and have even been finalists for prestigious awards, including the Pulitzer Prize. And, boy, can the man put a sentence together. (Of the sort that makes me despair as a writer, knowing that I’ll probably never write sentences that good.) Using power metaphors and allusions, Whitehead transforms the day-to-day drudgery of Spitz’s Zone One existence into something beyond a horror story. It is, in a way, horror literature.

In Zone One, Whitehead turns the view of the post-apocalyptic world back onto the trappings of our world and civilization – the technologies we take for granted, our attachment to material goods, and our societal preoccupations – and plays on our own desire to “chuck it all away and start over”. The scenes with the malfunctioning zombies, stuck in the pointless, repetitive lives are particularly well done. And through it, Spitz becomes sort of a 21st century everyman who sheds the modern world, but doesn’t particularly mourn it.

The book is an engaging societal and human commentary, masterfully written against (and within) a now-familiar zombie apocalypse backdrop that manages something remarkable: a fresh take on a genre that I thought was getting stale.

Four stars out of five.

7 thoughts on “Book Review: Zone One, by Colson Whitehead

  1. Well that explains some of the bartenders we’ve run across while shopping in the Village. Brilliant review Steve, and if I remember right you rarely give this high of a rating to any book. Nice, I must check this one out.

    Benign zombies? Really?

    Well my coworker Flora is way ahead of this trend. She is obsessed with the zombie apocalypse. She sees signs of it everywhere and it’s all I can do to stop her warning visitors to our parks about it. Scary.

    • amelie — I try to stay away from grade inflation here… :)

      In many ways, it’s a book about what it means to be “civilized” and what we’re willing to do (or not do) to keep it.

  2. When I read the opening to your review, I thought, ‘Oh no, not more zombies.’ They’re everywhere these days, even in politics:

    However, this novel sounds really fascinating. I’ve joked about being a zombie at work and zombies driving on the highway, but seriously, you have to wonder what modern life and the mindlessness of it all do to us, mentally and physically. Maybe our fascination with zombies has to do with our own fear of losing consciousness and motivation.

    • HG — I definitely think that the rise in zombie interest reflects a deep seeded fear of being “pointless”. Face it, zombies are animated corpses, which at some level works against the standard Christian “I will raise you up” sort of afterlife. And if there’s no afterlife — than what’s the point? On top of that is just the sheer multitude of humans — how can you ever disentangle yourself from the crowd and believe that you’re an individual, when really you’re just another unit looking for brains.

  3. Well, you sold me! I’ll be stealing this one from my sister as soon as she’s done.

    And zombies are the perfect metaphor for modern society. People recognize themselves in the mindless actions of zombies and want to rage against the repetition. Zombies frighten us, but free us from ourselves at the same time. But, you already know about my love of zombies . . .

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s