Written by: James Keen
“I tread water perfectly.” – Mark Spitz. Zone One.
In a question and answer piece for ‘The Village Voice‘ in July of last year, Colson Whitehead was asked whether his novel ‘Zone One’ should be considered as a literary response to the current resurgence of interest in the ‘zombie culture’ arena and the author replied, “I feel that my zombie influences and apocalyptic influences are drawn from movies I saw when I was young in the ’70s and ’80s, so I’m not as up on the current crop of zombie books and movies.” He goes further in the article citing his love of Romero’s cinematic contributions and the apocalyptic themes expressed in such films as Carpenter’s ‘Escape From New York‘ and the Charlton Heston fronted ‘The Omega Man‘ (an adaptation, of course, of Richard Matheson’s ‘I Am Legend‘). It’s an intriguing insight into his motivation for writing ‘Zone One’ but it also happens to draw attention to the book’s failings as an innovative addition to the genre.
‘Zone One’ takes place over three days, following the twenty-something Mark Spitz – a sobriquet whose amusingly ironic relevance is revealed later in the book. This is a man who, as Whitehead puts it, is , “exceptional only in the magnitude of his unexceptionality.” Spitz is part of a team of ‘sweepers’, a militarised unit charged with eradicating and disposing of the hordes of the re-animated dead after an ill-defined ‘plague’ has apparently engulfed the world. The corspe-laden city of New York is center stage for much of the novel’s run and the devastation and subsequent rot is sharply delineated by Whitehead in often touchingly lyrical detail, where victims of the apocalyptic scourge are sometimes “plague stricken unfortunates who had been locked away in attics like the photo albums of bad weddings.” Even the depiction of army assaults on the Skels (Whitehead’s alternative noun for the reanimated corpses) has a striking visual quality, “The soldiers eliminated targets on fire escapes, where they slumped like moths caught in wrought-iron cobwebs.” The three day time-span is expansive enough for Whitehead to explore this bleak conceit in a meditative fashion that is somewhat unusual for the genre, but arguably it’s his reliance on “borrowing set pieces from horror and sci-fi movies that I love” that finally sabotages this ambitious narrative.
The character staples of the various disaster scenarios we have witnessed in other examples of the genre such as the hard-drinking stoic Lieutenant whose persona is made readily transparent through his espousal of gallows-humour and grim wit, the at-times offensively cavalier grunt with a misguided, though endearing desire for self-improvement, the nerdy tech-savvy youngster with his version of events coloured by an upbringing centered around video-game culture..and on and on. It’s evident that Whitehead is deliberately toying with these stereotypes to highlight the shortcomings of the genre itself but in so doing undermines his socio-political intent. “The dead were predictable. People were not,” Whitehead observes at one point. Unfortunately, his characters are just that: predictable.
Despite all of this there’s much to admire in reading Zone One; Whitehead’s prose is carefully layered, the narrative restrained in terms of excessive descriptions of blood-letting and there are choicely placed moments of humour that deftly counterpoint the dour circumstances the protagonist is cast into. In the limited canvas that Whitehead allows himself we are rewarded with sobering judgements on the human condition, “we never see people anyway, only the monsters we make of them”, the glum nature of the “ersatz human connection” and the awful epiphany experienced by the Mark Spitz character as we head towards the book’s coda, “He was smiling because he hadn’t felt this alive in months.”
Were this novel to have been published even twenty years ago it may have had a much deeper impact upon the genre as a whole. As it stands, Zone One may prove annoyingly presumptuous for those who have kept tabs on the development of the form in films, fiction and most notably television. It’s beautifully written – Whitehead’s use of language is rich in subtext, his diction robustly complex – but the novel is only routinely diverting as it’s ultimately an all-too familiar literary excursion that frankly adds very little to the ‘zombie’ sub genre canon.