'Zone One' by Colson Whitehead (2011)

Zone One - Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead, Zone One (London: Vintage Books, 2012), 259pp


Zone One is a very good novel; I think the reason it has not been well-received by ordinary readers is because the zombie plotline is rather straightforward. This plot is well-developed, but nothing special. But the reason the book is very good is its efficacy as satire. The zombies, you see, are rather incidental; if you read it not as a zombie story but as a social critique you will enjoy it much more.

It does take a while to get going, as Colson Whitehead seems to be the sort of writer who favours saying fifty words when just ten would suffice. It's very wordy, and sometimes you're half-way through a paragraph before you realise he's talking about a past event in flashback rather than the present narrative. Whitehead goes off on a lot of tangents, so that even though the story ostensibly takes place over three days it takes a long time to get there and the book as a whole seems a lot longer than its 250 or so pages.

But, if you are a tolerant and open-minded reader, you should find Zone One to be a very agreeable book. Though wordy, Whitehead does occasionally throw in a good nugget of lyricism. In one of my favourite examples, describing a mob of zombies staggering aimlessly down a road, he notes "the compasses in their veins quivering at no true north save the next square in front of them." (pg. 122). In another example describing a zombie's decrepitude, he begins: "She was around Mark Spitz's [the protagonist] age. not yet thirty when the plague dropped her in its amber..." (pg. 224). Occasionally, this lyricism does get out of hand. Early on, describing an office, he mentions how "The surfaces of the desks were thick and transparent, hacked out of plastic and elevating the curvilinear monitors and keyboards in dioramas of productivity. The empty ergonomic chairs posed like amiable spiders, whispering a multiplicity of comfort and lumbar massage." (pp11-12). But, for the most part, the prose is unobstructive, and it does seem to become less overwrought as the story unfolds.

Overall, my suggestion would be not to view it as a zombie novel; or rather, to view it as a zombie novel but staying mindful of the caveat that this is not its main focus. It's not about blowing zombies' brains out, or even about survival in a post-apocalyptic world. It's about using the end of the world trope as a black mirror for reflecting on our contemporary Western world. The book's targets, in its raison d'être as a social satire, are wide-ranging and the vast majority hit the mark, though hard to classify in a review. Even the plotline improves towards the middle and end. There is some foreshadowing of what is going to happen, a general atmosphere of impending doom (or, as Whitehead phrases it, "a disquieting under-tremor to every movement and sound." (pg. 192)). It is a rather clever book, and I think some readers are just so disappointed that it wasn't the page-turning zombie thriller they were hoping for that they overlooked its merits. While not exceptional, it cleverly uses a post-apocalyptic scenario to make us think about the current state of our existence and where we are headed: our society, our motivations, our humanity. It asks the question: if this world were to end, would we have it in us to respond and rebuild? Like all good satire, it doesn't answer the question - rather it expertly crafts the question and lets an enterprising reader make up their own mind. Mark Spitz put it at even money (pg. 139). What about you?