Book Review: Zone One by Colson Whitehead

Book Description from Amazon: A pandemic has devastated the planet. The plague has sorted humanity into two types: the uninfected and the infected, the living and the living dead.

Now the plague is receding, and Americans are busy rebuilding civilization under orders from the provisional govern­ment based in Buffalo. Their top mission: the resettlement of Manhattan. Armed forces have successfully reclaimed the island south of Canal Street—aka Zone One—but pockets of plague-ridden squatters remain. While the army has eliminated the most dangerous of the infected, teams of civilian volunteers are tasked with clearing out a more innocuous variety—the “malfunctioning” stragglers, who exist in a catatonic state, transfixed by their former lives.

Mark Spitz is a member of one of the civilian teams working in lower Manhattan. Alternating between flashbacks of Spitz’s desperate fight for survival during the worst of the outbreak and his present narrative, the novel unfolds over three surreal days, as it depicts the mundane mission of straggler removal, the rigors of Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder, and the impossible job of coming to grips with the fallen world.

And then things start to go wrong.

Mark Spitz is not his real name. Whitehead expends quite a lot of effort describing Spitz as anything but exceptional. “He possessed a strange facility for the mandatory. Two days into kindergarten for example, he attained the level of socialization deemed appropriate for those of his age and socioeconomic milieu…Had they been aware of his location, child behaviorists would have cherished him…He was their typical, their most, he was their average.” It was quite obvious to me before the author blatantly stated it that the name Mark Spitz (7 time gold medalist swimmer) is supposed to be ironic.

Also, *SPOILER – He can’t swim – END OF SPOILER*

And that part about the story taking place over three surreal days? The book is 259 pages long; I compare it, at times, to a televised golf tournament where all the holes are played out of order— three minutes of action distributed among three hours of watching the burmuda grass grow. However, the grass does most of its growing the second half of the book and its worth sticking out the first half just for the last few chapters.

Even though I found Zone One pretentious at times, (“Never in human history had so many delighted in removing a bit of kernel from between canines and bicuspids.” Really? Can’t he just say, “teeth”?), the story had bright spots that kept me going when I got mired in Whitehead’s swamp of Big Words. Wading through Zone One is like walking through the MoMA in San Francisco, pretending to find all the art interesting and then getting really excited to see Starry Night or Water Lilies because it’s something familiar and easy to like. In Zone One those familiar and easy to like moments are Whitehead’s zombies, his humor, and, though it is sparsely sprinkled among pages of cerebral commentary, his witty dialogue.

The Zombies are called “skels” or “stragglers” depending on their level of rabidity. The skels are the violent, cannibal types. The stragglers are dead, but just haven’t realized it yet; often portrayed as forever doomed to repeating mundane, meaningless tasks like making copies or flipping burgers, only the copier is dead and the grill isn’t lit anymore. They don’t fight and take their bullets to the head without contention (for the most part). If Mark Spitz and his team don’t get them, the stragglers eventually languish to death, rather like the plot of this book.

The undead, thankfully, are not solely allegorical.  Sure they are an existential commentary on the commoditization of the human experience, rampant mindless consumerism, the loss of individuality under globalized corporation, but they are also nasty, pestilent, undead monsters of the sort to make Romero proud. “After all this time, they were a thin membrane of meat stretched over bone. Their skirts were bunched on the floor, having slid off their shrunken hips long ago, and the dark jackets of their sensible dress suits stained with kernels of gore.” Kernels of gore? That stuff speaks to my Stephen King soft spot.

Second, the humor: “Finally it was just Doris [pregnant with triplets and living in a bank] …After six months on her lonesome, surviving on who knows what, high-fiber deposit slips and credit-card brochures, she was rescued by a Bubbling Brooks recon unit. She did not survive the delivery, and the Triplets were in a bad way, bank literature being devoid of nutrients essential to prenatal development.” I don’t care who ya are– that’s funny right there.

Third, the dialogue: “The Lieutenant said, ‘And again, please ignore the scuttlebutt about what they use for fertilizer [applied to the corn crop that winds up lodged between canines and bicuspids]. What else, my young friends, what else? Supposedly the new incinerator is going to run double our capacity, so you know what that means—

Ash Wednesday!” yelled someone in the back

“And Thursday and Friday.”

I checked out the Amazon customer reviews. Never before have I seen a straight across the board equal number of reviews from 1 star to 5 stars. It was not universally loved. It was not universally hated. If you averaged out all the stars, then you would likely get a 3. Seems a fitting tribute to a book about Mark Spitz who, in high school, would have been voted “Most Likely Not to be Named the Most Likely Anything.” I think the same could be said for Zone One.

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  1. Trackback: The Returned by Jason Mott | Songs in Squee Minor

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