Review: Zone One by Colson Whitehead

*This review contains minor spoilers so please read with caution*


"Hope is a gateway drug, don’t do it.”

"There were plenty of things in the world that deserved to stay dead, yet they walked.”

As I wend my way through Whitehead’s novels, I’m struck by how different they each tend to be, though with common themes. Much of his work thus far has focused on the American Black experience from different times and perspectives. And then Zone One, right into the belly of the zombie apocalypse. Is it just me, or does it seem like a zombie apocalypse is an inevitability? It doesn’t matter that they’re fake, it feels like an unavoidable impossibility.

I wonder if he got the idea to write a zombie novel from that wonderful passage in Sag Harbor, his last book, about the hordes of ice-cream seekers that flock to the gelato shop daily at the beach: “I know now that when the living dead come, it will not be at the mall that they gather but at the ice-cream shop.” I picture him pausing at that image, and hastily scratching a note to himself on the back of a drugstore receipt: “Idea: New York zombie novel.”

This is one of my favourite of his books so far, but then I’ve always had an affection for the zombie universe. Here, an everyman named Mark Spitz does duty as the main character. He’s a stand in for most of us: exceedingly ordinary in many respects. His one true talent over the years is his mediocrity.
“He’d never had trouble with the American checklist, having successfully executed all the hurdles of his life’s stages…with unwavering competence and nary a wobble into exceptionality or failure. He possessed a strange facility for the mandatory…His aptitude lay in the well-executed muddle, never shining, never flunking, but gathering himself for what it took to progress past life’s next random obstacle. It was his solemn expertise.”
It proves to be a decent sort-of-skill for survival in this brave new world. He’s well-drawn, and a wonderful guide as he and Omega team “sweep” for zombie stragglers one highrise at a time in Manhattan.

We don’t get the details of this plague’s origin; rather, we’re dropped in the middle of it. The novel takes place over three days, but Whitehead does a magnificent job of telescoping his timelines. This isn’t an easy read, to be sure: you have to pay attention. But it’s fun to follow the story in a story in a story to glean the details of what’s happened to each character since Last Night happened and the world they knew ended. Whitehead metes out details sparingly and things that are casually mentioned as par for the new course of things are explained later. This structure worked for me.

In some ways, a zombie book review writes itself. There’s the straight-up fun of the zombie narrative: how did the apocalypse happen, what’s your origin story? In Zone One, Mark Spitz has three different Last Night stories that he tells those with whom he meets up in the after: the Silhouette for those he’ll see only briefly; the Anecdote for those he’ll stick with for a few days; and the detailed Obituary, for the few people he truly connects with.

There were some great details that made me both chuckle and shake my head. As a pseudo-government tries to carve out order from chaos they seek corporate sponsorship for various items, like whiskey or socks. There are popularised feel-good news stories: everyone is rooting for the triplets born against all odds in a nearby settlement. There’s a useful new diagnosis: PASD (Post Apocalypse Stress Disorder) that basically has a prevalence of 100%. Sloganeers have been hard at work: “We Make Tomorrow!”

This novel offers some fun zombie story for sure, but that’s not where its strength lies. This is Whitehead, right? Metaphor is strong here.

The novel got more interesting as it went along, and also more melancholy. Zombies are usually a metaphor for our fear of death or disease: it comes for you and you’ll always succumb in the end. That’s one read here. I noticed my sense of dread increasing as I progressed. I felt heavy, sad, and scared, and I had to examine why. For me this zombie horde represented a trio of recent global challenges: the Coronavirus pandemic; the failure of civil society and democracy; and climate change. Perhaps this book was “of the moment” for me. We’ve been through a pandemic, and even though things are better, they are not normal. And now that we had that experience, there’s always that nagging voice in the back of my head telling me that the next one will be worse.

Polarisation is growing in Western societies. I’ve grown up with a certain paradigm of democracy and good government that seems threatened now.

And of course, climate change. This was perhaps the most troubling metaphor in the book. I think that Whitehead may have been thinking about this too. “The ocean had overtaken the streets, as if the news programs’ global warming simulations had finally come to pass and the computer-generated swells mounted to drown the great metropolis,” he writes. I’ve been on a mission to inform myself about climate science and it’s not a rosy picture. I’m reading a lot of books on the subject, and dipping my toes into activism, so zombies as stand-ins for climate catastrophe seem about right.

Our lifestyle and our ignorance (or perhaps our denial) hint at a possible cause for our undoing. Mark Spitz tells us about his perky squad leader Kaitlyn, who led a charmed life pre-zombie. “She had been bioengineered in the birthing vats of a sanctified midwestern principality, and upper-middle-class Kingdom of Bruiselessness.”
“Kaitlyn’s implacable march through a series of imaginative and considered birthday parties–her parents were so thoughtful, here was a blessing bestowed from one generation to the next–each birthday party transcending the last and approaching a kind of birthday party perfection that once accomplished would usher in an exquisite new age of bourgeois utopia….Maybe, he thought one night, it wasn’t utopia that they had worked toward after all, and it was Kaitlyn herself who had summoned the plague: as she cut into the first slice of cake at her final, perfect birthday party, history had come to an end. She had blown out the candles on the old era, blotted out the dinosaurs’ heavens, sent the great ice sheet scraping forth, the blood counts zooming up into madness.”
Whitehead is almost unfailingly bleak in his outlook. I’m not seeing many solutions in his story. When Mark Spitz and his company come upon zombies in the subway tunnels, he writes:
“They fired until all that needed to be killed had been killed, and they stood numbly looking into the darkness for more, the next apparitions hiding in the wings, for surely they were not finished. They were human beings, after all, and full of things that needed to be put down.”
So yes, the book made me feel heavy and sad.

This feels unique to my world now–unique to me–and that’s fair, because this book speaks to me in my current situation. It’s also thought-provoking, because I know I am not unique. Most individuals have their moments of realisation that the world is not fixed, and that everything changes. Perhaps this is what becoming an adult is. I was lucky to have a childhood marked by (perhaps the illusion of) stability. It was a gift. History tells an inevitable story of change. Many generations have lived through their own catastrophe: war, genocide. Even today many people live with horrible instability and loss. At some point we all wake up to the fact that nothing is safe, that things will always change, and there’s no way out.
“Their mouths could no longer manage speech yet they spoke nonetheless, saying what the city had always told its citizens, from the first settlers hundred of years ago, to the shattered survivors of the garrison. What the plague had always told its hosts, from the first human being to have its blood invaded, to the latest victim out in the wasteland: I am going to eat you up.”
At this point, I’d love to have a happy ending, but Zone One gave me no such thing. All is not hopeless, but a positive outcome for the human race doesn’t seem likely. Is this a prophecy or a warning? A done deal, or a call to change our ways now or rue the consequences? I have to choose to believe the latter.
“Why they’d tried to fix this island in the first place, he did not see now. Best to let the broken glass be broken glass, let it splinter into smaller pieces and dust and scatter. Let the cracks between things widen until they are no longer cracks but the new places for things. That was where they were now. The world wasn’t ending: it had ended and now they were in the new place. They would not recognize it because they had never seen it before.”


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