Let’s get this straight: Zone One is a zombie novel. There is blood, viscera, various bodily fluids streaming through the gutters, dead men walking, and heads being blown off right and left. There is terror and running away and hiding from the dead. There is a dying world without electricity, ash-covered streets, and bleak prospects for all. But Zone One was not at all what I expected. And in a good way.
Zone One takes place over a three-day period, as a motley crew of “sweepers” works the buildings of lower Manhattan to clear out the skels and stragglers that pocket the island. An unnamed catastrophe has rendered most of humanity zombies, and the humans left unaffected have banded together in various scattered groups to try to stop the dead. Our protagonist, Mark Spitz (whose nickname is explained mid-way through the novel), is part of a small band of sweepers whose job is to look for the remaining skels (the walking, shambling, dangerous dead) and stragglers (the dead that don’t move and are frozen in mid-activity, but are presumably harmless) that are left after an initial military sweep and exterminate them. As they move through the city’s skyscrapers, floor by floor, guns at the ready, the story skips from present to past and back as Mark Spitz remembers the terrifying events of “Last Night” and other significant moments since then.
Colson Whitehead loves words. And that love is evident in every paragraph of this book. Fair warning: for some readers, this love of words will get in the way of the story, and for those who experience his wordiness as a mountain too tall to climb and give up before the end, I’m sorry that you will not get the full reading experience of Zone One. Whitehead’s descriptive talents are vast. He can take a seemingly irrelevant experience and turn it into poetry, and he does so throughout the book. Because the world is ending, these descriptions become laced with a nostalgic yearning for times past. As things start to go downhill, Mark Spitz remembers with a cynical fondness the better times since Last Night. Even the grim reality of this ash-drenched world contains moments of small happiness: a brief stay in a toy store with a woman named Mim, a stretch of time living in a farmhouse in Massachusetts with a group of survivors and their fabulously executed kitchen, a woman called the Quiet Storm who leaves messages by arranging abandoned cars in artfully staged installations. Even the sight of his Uncle Lloyd’s city apartment as he trudges through his sweeper duties reminds him of how he used to visit his uncle as a child, and how much he has always wanted to live in New York. Wish granted. And as the massacred zombies pile up, the body disposal teams are forced to incinerate them to keep the plague from spreading. What results is a constant rain of ash, “the dust of the dead.” Even in this horror, Whitehead finds poetry.
What sets this novel apart from other zombie novels, however, is Whitehead’s ability to skewer the human condition in the midst of the world falling apart. His wry observations on everything from smartphones to internet auctions serve as a warning: don’t get too comfortable with modern life because sooner or later the world will end. Instead of worrying about climbing the corporate ladder, you will be running from a dead person that wants to eat you. It’s a standard zombie story allegory: the consumers become the consumed. In Whitehead’s hands, though, the reader can actually step aside from the horror and appreciate the subtle humor.
Zone One is a series of out-of-order vignettes that when patched together form a pastiche of horror. To jump around in time and still manage to tell the tale takes skill. In the case of Mark Spitz, reading his story out-of-order makes a certain sense. The world is no longer functioning, and so the tale becomes fractured. Take heart, readers. Be patient. By the end you will be able to look back and appreciate the madness.