The Part About the Book
By Colson Whitehead
ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS
It was probably clear last week that I’m really excited about zombies. And the book that prompted my enthusiastic screed was ‘Zone One’, by Colson Whitehead.
I love Colson Whitehead. Whitehead is doing what I would want to do, if I were a novelist: using fantastical premises to ask moral questions. He loves alternative histories, weird metaphors (racism explored via elevator repair philosophies), apolocalypse dramas. And he’s incredibly smart – his novels are fast-paced and unsparing. He revels in complexity, never reducing or simplifying the problem or the prose. You need to pay attention, because Whitehead isn’t going to do you any favors.
If you had asked me to pick a writer to write a zombie-apocalypse novel, Whitehead would have been in the top five easily. He’s an author who marries a very vivid novelist imagination with a love for moral exploration. So, when I learned that he actually had already written a zombie novel, I jumped on it.
‘Zone One’ lived up to my expectations, all of them. It is exactly what I wanted a zombie novel to be: vivid, bleak, brutal, hopeless, specific, convincing. It’s the kind of book you want to read all the way through in one go, but you have to take breaks because you keep getting upset.
‘Zone One’ takes place in New York City several years after the zombie apocalypse. After a near-total collapse of civilization, survivors have begun to rebuild. There are emerging population centers, headed by a new capital in Buffalo. Now, the new American authorities have decided to clear New York City of all the undead. To do this, survivors have established Zone One,at the southern-most tip of Manhattan as a jumping-off point for the clean-up operations. The marines have already been through; now it is up to small, three-man crews to go in and take care of any straggler zombies. Mark Spitz is on one of these crews, working his way, block by block, through the dead city, finding and tagging bodies, and putting down any zombies missed in the first pass.
Most zombie stories take place up close. The drama of zombie stories usually lies in devastating choices forced on the individual: Dad has been exposed – do I kill him now, as he is begging me to, or wait, and risk his turning and killing us all? Most zombie stories are intimate – they dwell on personal love, familial bonds.
‘Zone One’ doesn’t really dwell in this space (or, very little). Rather, it takes that intimacy for granted, and then widens the scope. I loved ‘Zone One’ so much because it exploited the full brutality of the zombie story on a societal level. It is a novel not about the impossible decisions of individuals, but about the effect of the total collapse of civilization on the human psyche.
There are moments of individual poignancy, of course, but Whitehead deploys them not for direct emotional effect, but rather to show how, in the case of total social destruction, such choices are commonplace. All survivors will have a horror story; trauma no longer makes you special. In fact, the ubiquity of trauma, the fatigue of it, is one of the most affecting parts of ‘Zone One’: how can you build a civilization when everyone in it has experienced the stuff of nightmares? When the nightmares are reality?
Every person still alive at the time of ‘Zone One’ has watched unthinkable things happen to someone they love. Mark Spitz, for example, came home one night to find his mother eating his father. However, instead of leaning into this kind of personal tragedy in the normal, zombie-story mode, Whitehead imagines this sort of pain on a large scale. He imagines what it would be like if everyone felt the same pain – personal, but the same.
OK, you might be asking, but how is that any different from normal post-apocalyptica? I’ve read ‘The Road’ – does ‘Zone One’ have anything to add?
The answer is: yes, two things.
First of all, unlike other apocalypses (plagues, nuclear blasts), zombies are active. Not only do they destroy civilization, they literally chase you around afterwards. You may survive the initial event, but you will never be able to let down your guard. You will never be really safe again.
Whitehead is less interested in communicating the relentlessness of the threat than in showing its effect, but he does this extremely well. ‘Zone One’ isn’t about the initial panic – it’s about the debilitating effect of constant panic over years. The characters in ‘Zone One’ aren’t scared to die. On the contrary, they have been scared to die for so long that they almost welcome it. The tone is more of defeat, of irreparable loss, of how chronic fear can shrink a human spirit into dull nothingness.
Second of all, Whitehead is a better, funnier writer than most people attracted to the genre of civilizational-collapse. He’s exactly who you want thinking about zombies. One of Whitehead’s strengths has always been his attachment to specifics. He is a wildly inventive writer, and he imagines not just on the grand, moral scale, but also in the details.
‘Zone One’ is rich in detail, dense and complicated without ever feeling like a slog. And it’s scary, but not the way zombie stories normally are. It doesn’t elicit the fear of pursuit, the sort of fear you might feel if you were being chased by an actual zombie. Rather, ‘Zone One’ caused me to feel a vague panic, a general feeling that everything I love in this world is vulnerable. While I was reading ‘Zone One’, I kept imagining how I would feel, wandering this empty landscape alone, my family destroyed, my loved ones eaten (or worse).
Now, I am not a particularly imaginative or empathic reader – it is not normal for me to suffer emotional discomfort while reading about the suffering of fictional characters. That I did in this case is entirely a testament to Whitehead’s skill as a world builder, to how convincing his imagination is. I loved ‘Zone One’, but, more than that, I was badly rattled by ‘Zone One’. It made me feel small and overwhelmed and unsteady. It gave me a taste of loss on a scale I hope never to experience. It scared me.