Published on November 2nd, 2012 | by Brian Folan0
Books to Read For Halloween #2
Zone One – Colson Whitehead 2011 – Doubleday
Plague. Zombies. Death. New York.
If you’re still feel the residual spook from Halloween, then perhaps a novel overrun with the living dead will help you transition. Colson Whitehead’s Zone One is a pop-culture thriller that raises the genre the same way George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead made other zombie movies seem shallow. Romero’s film was so grand because it wasn’t satisfied with the commercial stakes of a zombie flick. Instead of relying solely on gore, makeup, and quick cuts, he used zombies as a mirror for the very commercial culture he was rebelling against. Whitehead similarly attacks the genre with a greater breath that only literature can sustain.
Zone One places us well after the outbreak that killed most of humanity and turned them into walking cadavers. The furious flesh eating has mostly subsided, and a large sum of the dead population are innocuous standing skeletons (nicknamed “skels” by most) left exactly where they had been when the apocalyptic outbreak occurred. Office workers left mindless in front of PowerPoint presentations, cafeteria’s full of lunch-ladies forever scooping molded mashed potatoes, and psychiatrists waiting for the patients that will never make it to their appointments.
A provisional government has been established in Buffalo. “The American Phoenix,” is their subsidized sweeping program, cleaning and reconstructing areas for resettlement. “Zone One” is the new name of Manhattan. It is the government’s primary concern. This is where we will get most of our action, as we flash from past to present through the perspective of our protagonist, Mark Spitz. Mark Spitz is part of a sweeper crew who is sent to clear out the “straggler” skels that stand tableau-like within the many skyscrapers of New York.
If the name Mark Spitz rings a bell (and a quick wiki-check should help it register) then the faceted interplay of pop-culture will not be lost on you. If not, there are plenty of other references and homages that will jump out. With four other works of award-winning fiction under his belt Whitehead has an established reputation as an intellectual, but with a genre novel such as this, he constrains himself to both sides of pulp and pleasure. Mark Spitz is a simply written character, noted for his mediocrity, but Whitehead writes around him with dark eloquence. He combines sentences like “He liked to watch monster movies and the city churning below,” with, “The ancient water towers lurking atop obstinate old prewars and, higher up, the massive central-air units that hunkered and coiled on the striving high-rises, glistening like extruded guts.” He is lyrically astute while keeping the reader horrifically agog.
The result is a rich and rewarding horror show. There’s enough suspenseful moments to keep you turning the page, one of which has Mark Spitz shooting his way through an overrun bridge on I-95. Any fan of The Walking Dead will appreciate the lopping off of heads mixed with social commentary. The American Phoenix is like a diabolical figure-head funding the whole operation. With the slogan “We Make Tomorrow,” eerily mimicking Obama’s “Yes We Can,” one can start to see hope as a paper thin commodity. But like the skels endlessly consuming flesh, we endlessly consume hope. And in Zone One commodity and hope are one in the same. In an eyebrow raising moment, Mark Spitz and his crew rifle through a snack-stand’s candy bars for “sponsored” brands. Although the world has ostensibly ended, there is still an absurd life to these objects. Similarly, many survivors reminisce about things they used to own or culture they used to categorize themselves with. In one building, a governmental crew steals NFL jerseys in support of their teams.
Zone One is walled off. Outside is a sea of the dead – endlessly consuming. Inside re-constructionists consume any culture they can get their hands on. How will one survive in Zone One when the familiar is shakily unfamiliar and the unfamiliar is nothing more than a mirror? Readers will have to figure out a lot of plot for themselves. They will have to use their cultural knowledge to fill in the story’s conclusion with pop-culture standards and ingrained stereotypes. At 259 pages, this book will be devoured by any nerd, bookworm, or pop-culture junkie who manages to grab it.