Friday, October 18, 2013

Zone One

Zone One
By Colson Whitehead

I've said this before and I'll say it again and again: The zombie genre is, by nature, limited. Films, television and books that are written within the genre appeal to a very specific sub-section of horror fans and rarely find purchase among a wider audience. Case in point, the relative failure of this past summer's film adaptation of World War Z. If Brad Pitt can't generate a wider audience for zombies, I doubt anyone can (though the failures of that film run far deeper, but that's another blog post for another day).

In fact, more often than not there is little effort made by creators of zombie lore to appeal to a wider audience. Why? With such a solid, rabid core following, why would an author or director bother to expand an audience in a genre that is notorious for being limited in scope and hopelessly bereft of innovation. The dead reanimate, infect the unsuspecting living, a motley crew of lucky people eke out a corner of survival where they wax philosophical on the nature of the apocalypse and what it all means. The fundamental themes of these stories tend to be hopelessness, desperation and the contrast between the living and the walking dead. I'm not slag gin on this formula. Obviously I'm part of the rabid core, but that's the essential alpha and omega of zombie stories. There are only so many avenues for the zombie to shuffle down and the widest ones also happen to be the most profitable.

But despite the rigidity of the genre, there is a certain degree of wiggle room and there have been a slew of Very Good Books written in the past few years that intersect the zombie genre with literary fiction. Here I'm thinking of Max Brooks's World War Z and Joan Frances Turner's novel Dust. But the best of the literary zombie lot (that I have read) is Colson Whitehead's Zone One.

Zone One refers to the southern tip of Manhattan Island. It is several months since the beginning of the zombie apocalypse and the remains of humanity are busy. A provisional government has sprung up in (of all places!) Buffalo and the world is in full clean up mode. The novel is told from the perspective of a nameless protagonist only known as Mark Spitz. Mark Spitz is part of a sweeper team that is charged with sweeping though Zone One building by building, room by room eliminating stragglers and making the city once again inhabitable. It's slow going, but things seem to be looking up for humanity.

The narrative is non-linear and tangential. Given that most of the survivors are suffering from what one psychologist refers to as post-apocalyptic stress disorder (PASD), the narrative structure fits the tone of the novel perfectly. It becomes a wonderful tool for keeping the reader in the dark about a lot of things until Whitehead is ready to reveal them. The reader only begins to get a full idea of the state of the world by the middle of the novel. And that idea is that survival is a great deal more boring that we all expected.

And that is really the over-arching theme of Zone One. Past the typical themes of hopelessness, isolation, and the psychological repercussions of mass death, Whitehead tackles a subject that few writers in the genre would dare to tackle: The sheer monotony of survival. The tedium of scavenging food and water, avoiding the walking dead and finding an adequate place to sleep the night. Unlike other novels in the genre Zone One is large swaths of tedium interspersed with First Night stories, a full reversal of the usual formula of viscera and victory.

Indeed mendacity is revered in Zone One and the novel break down the fetishization of the zombie apocalypse. In that respect Zone One is the very antithesis of the fanboy novel. Mark Spitz the very definition of an average man. There is literally nothing extraordinary about him except his complete lack of extraordinariness (the irony of his nickname is not lost). And that's the point. The survivors of the zombie apocalypse won't be the extraordinary. They will be the hopelessly average. The fact that the provisional government sets up shop in Buffalo, a cookie-cutter sort of American city devoid of character or flavor only accentuates that point (sorry people of Buffalo. I grew up in Toronto. Of course I was going to slag your fine city. It's my duty). Survival is not the stuff of action, adventure and romance. It is an oblivion of banality.

Beyond that, Whitehead uses his vast swaths of free time within the narrative to build a thought-provoking comparison between our modern world (of iPods, tablets and streaming videos) and that of a post-apocalyptic zombie wasteland. Whitehead constructs and then deconstructs (all too cleverly) the age old question of whether we are already zombies, asleep at the wheel of society. But Whitehead takes it a step further by applying modern business jargon and newspeak to the equation by introducing the notion of marketing and branding to the world of survival noting that we will all bring our particular strengths to the table in a post-apocalyptic world. It's just a matter of whether our strengths have any benefit. In this sense Zone One skirts precariously close to satire and the point is crystal clear. Whitehead has a lot to say about us as a society without zombies and he has full license to rant away now that he's done away with the vast majority of it. And the rants are fun to behold and satisfying in their hypothetical outrage.

Zone One is a thinking man's zombie novel. While it does have it's fair share of gore, it is expressed in matter of fact tones and is not intended to shock or terrify the reader, rather it is presented as the unfortunate reality of the world of Zone One. And while I am certain that I would catch a lot of flak for comparing this novel to Cormac McCarthy's The Road, there are obvious similarities that cannot be ignored. All of this makes Zone One the top of the heap among zombie novels and the first of its kind that I can confidently categorize as capital L, capital F Literary Fiction. If for no other reason that Zone One has the courage to drag zombies out of their traditional realm and placed under full literary examination. If you are only ever going to read one zombie novel, make it this one.


Adrienne Reiter said...

Hi Ryan,
Cool site. I found you on book blogs. I'm your newest follower. Interesting premise for a zombie apocalypse sci/fi-horror. I'll have to check it out.

Brian Joseph said...

I have never actually read a Zombie novel. I agree that the genre is limited and way too populated these days. With that said I like Zombie films and the general outlines of the stories appeal to me. Of course there are worthy books in every genre. This one does sound good. When I eventually get around to reading one or two books this might be among them.

Anonymous said...

Ryan can you please contact me at johngrantross at yahoo dot com


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