Zone One is a zombie novel with brains, so says the front cover of the book. I’m going to concentrate on what it means. What someone, the author maybe, or possibly an editor, has announced with that line is that this isn’t your bog standard zombie read. It isn’t schlock horror, it doesn’t linger on entrails and gore, it gets down to the human condition and analyses us as a species.
This is exactly what Zone One does. Set in the aftermath of a zombie outbreak that is killing the World as we know it, we meet Mark Spitz, a sweeper working the titular Zone One. A sweepers job is to sweep up the remnants of skel (zombie) activity left behind after the marines culled the initial outbreak. The zone is housed by giant walls that are protected by snipers and turrets to keep the skels at bay.
At first glance it sounds like your average zombie novel. But it really isn’t. What Colson Whitehead has produced borders on literary content, hence the slogan a zombie novel with brains. I read a fair amount of literary stuff and I enjoy zombie fiction, the two are a perfect match, yes? Not really.
There is no denying that Colson’s writing is sublime, every sentence is littered with such intricate beauty that it boggles the mind that someone can write this way at all. However it constantly hinders the idea of a plot. There is a reason most literary novels often bypass a lot of people and that is that they rarely feature a dramatic and driven plot. They are works of art in their own rights, but that doesn’t work with a zombie novel.
Colson’s depictions of a dying world are spot on. He postulates that the world was already dying before the outbreak as we sat in office cubicles blindly tweeting and buying material items to satisfy and unknown condition inside us. It’s tremendous stuff… but it’s jarring. The zombie aspects are exciting and pulse racing, they’re suspenseful, but when bookended by sweeping prose about the old world it just doesn’t ‘fit’.
The two style butt against each other ridiculously. The biggest issue is that even as a fan of literary work, I became bored by the end. Seemingly all I wanted was the zombie novels of old, ones that shocked. Having said that, Whithead does adapt the zombies into something we rarely see. Of course the book still features rampaging fiends desperate for human flesh, but also find the stragglers.
It is these straggler skels that gives the book a morose and melancholy feel. Stragglers are zombies who haunt places that meant something to them and attempt to get on with life as they knew it. The plague hasn’t wiped their minds fully and they are stuck in a form of limbo until a sweeper comes along and puts them down. These skels are the main focus of the novel and rightly so as it makes it all the more interesting.
Zone One is an infuriating book. I enjoyed reading it but at times I felt as if I was being talked down to. This is where the slogan on the front of the novel comes into play. Be tentative because this isn’t your run of the mill zombie book. I feel as if the novel is going to sit awkwardly on bookshelves. Would I recommend the book? Yes, I would, but with a proviso, to approach the novel without the expectation of a ballsy action packed book. Because that isn’t what you are getting.
Zone One is available on 6th October 2011. Thank you to the publisher for providing the review copy.