Zone One, the latest work of fiction by Colson Whitehead, is a zombie novel. Sure, it’s a “literary” zombie novel, with better writing and more complex characterization than your typical tale of the undead. But it is still a zombie novel, through and through, and Whitehead, one of the most critically respected writers of his generation, is unashamed to embrace the genre in all its pulpy glory. Consider this sentence, which comes from the middle of the book: “She was hunched over him, gnawing away with ecstatic fervor on a flap of his intestine, which, in the crepuscular flicker of the television, adopted a phallic aspect.” It’s safe to say that this kind of writing—lurid, over-the-top, borderline obscene—is not what one expects from Whitehead, whose credentials include a MacArthur Fellowship and kind words from the former dean of American literature, John Updike. Whitehead’s previous novel, Sag Harbor, was set in the Hamptons, for goodness sake. How do we get from the tony environs of Sag Harbor, where the palette ran roughly from salmon pink to pastel green, to the bloody nightmare of Zone One? What exactly is Whitehead up to?
The setting of Zone One will be familiar to fans of postapocalyptic fiction. New York City is a ghost town; ash rains down from the sky. A strange pandemic has wiped out most of the human population, leaving small bands of survivors to do battle with the infected. In an interesting twist, the virus has affected its hosts in one of two ways. Ninety-nine percent turn into your run-of-the-mill zombies, called in this novel “skels”: slow-moving, stupid, implacable in their movements, and insatiable in their appetite for human flesh. The remaining 1 percent, however, suffers a different, stranger fate. They become “stragglers,” frozen in one particular location, often in one particular activity—polishing a counter, say, or flying a kite—until a survivor finds and kills them. No one knows why the stragglers avoid the skels’ fate, and no one knows how they choose—though “choose” is surely the wrong word—their one place to haunt. They are, Whitehead writes, “an army of mannequins, limbs adjusted by an inscrutable hand.”
As the novel opens, things appear to have settled down. A provisional government has been set up in Buffalo, distributing supplies to the country’s scattered camps, even coming up with a medical diagnosis—Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder, or PASD—for the psychological trauma the world’s near-end has brought about. (This coinage is one of Whitehead’s many nice comedic touches; Zone One is a darkly funny book.) Trying to project a sense of normality, the government has embarked on a massive reclamation project, complete with PR operatives. As its most ambitious morale-boosting venture, the government decides to resettle Manhattan. First, though, the remaining infected must be hunted down and exterminated.
Zone One follows the adventures of one man, nicknamed Mark Spitz. (We never find out his real name, but there is an entertaining story explaining how he came to be known by the name of the Olympic swimmer.) Spitz has volunteered his services with a team of “sweepers.” He and two other volunteers form the Omega Unit, moving block by block, building by building through the area south of Canal Street, now called Zone One, clearing it of any lingering zombie presence. Spitz is a boring protagonist, and intentionally so: as Whitehead writes, from childhood Spitz’s “aptitude lay in the well-executed muddle, never shining, never flunking, but gathering himself for what it took to progress past life’s next random obstacle.” This patient mediocrity, it turns out, is a good way to survive in a postapocalyptic world: by staying in the middle of the pack, Spitz lives to see another day.
If there’s one thing that haunts Zone One even more than zombies, it’s the past. The stragglers are the most obvious manifestation of this: like some corporeal, decomposing wraith, they return to a strangely significant place and haunt it indefinitely. But the survivors act in a similar manner; they, too, can’t quite disengage themselves from the world that once was but is no more. Spitz often finds himself seeing the features of long-dead loved ones on the faces of the skels he must kill. He even engages in a straggler-like activity, regularly returning to his uncle’s downtown apartment to gaze at it dumbly, longingly. Spitz knows that this “lethal sentimentality” is unproductive in a world overrun by monsters, but he can’t help himself. These more contemplative scenes are punctuated by a series of epic human-zombie battle scenes. The novel’s conclusion is a particularly bloody affair, and not for the faint of heart.
The sheer goriness of the narrative, its disgusted delight in seeping wounds and splattered brains, exists side-by-side with a relentless drive toward abstraction. Whitehead tells us that, walking through the city, “Mark Spitz encountered parables, as usual, in the evidence left behind.” Everything in the novel, from the city’s moldering store fronts to the lurching hordes of the undead, is forced to offer up a latent meaning. The grime underneath the fingernails of Gary, a member of Spitz’s sweeper unit, is not just grime but “the very grime of Gary’s youth preserved as a token of home. It was what he’d scraped off the past and carried with him.” Empty apartment rooms become anthropological case studies, “record[ing] the incomprehensible chronicle of the metropolis, the demographic realties, how money worked, the cobbled-together lifestyles and roosting habits.”
At one point, Spitz wonders what caused a straggler to wander to his particular location: “The most frightening proposition was that he had no connection to this place.... If his presence here was random, then why not an entire world governed by randomness, with all that implied? Solve the Straggler, and you took a nibble out of the pure chaos the world had become.” In a world apparently evacuated of meaning, where things have fallen apart and the center has lost hold, this is all Spitz and his co-survivors can do. Zone One is as much an exploration of the allegorical impulse—how and why we read the world as possessing significance far beyond what appearances might suggest—as it is an exercise in genre fiction.
This allegorical impulse, unfortunately, can also lead to some squishy prose. Whitehead has a bad habit of overwriting. A ten-cent word will never do when a twenty-dollar one is near at hand, and his sentences often reel from one clause to the next: “There was no other entity like New York City, but the silent downtowns bided across the country with their micropopulations, acolytes of the principles of the grid.” At times, Whitehead sounds less like a novelist and more like a cultural critic riffing on the ills of late-capitalist America. (And it’s a problem that these intelligent criticisms come from the perspective of Mark, who is supposed to be an exemplar of mediocrity.) There are also too many unexplained, confusing temporal shifts in the novel. We’re following Spitz as he hunts down zombies in Zone One; then, without warning, we’re back on the Last Night, when the disease first hit; then, we’re shuttled forward to the interregnum, the time before the government established some semblance of order, when the world appeared headed for its end. This feeling of disorientation may have been intended—the narrative’s lurching mirrors the zombies’ lurching—but it compromises what is an otherwise compelling story.
Despite these weaknesses, Zone One is one of the more enjoyable, provocative genre-blurring novels of the recent past. And if you look beyond the ever-growing piles of corpses, it’s also a quietly hopeful work. While trolling the city for skels, Spitz realizes that “he missed the stupid stuff” most of all—banal actions like “rubbing cheese-puff dust on his trousers and calculating which checkout line was shortest,” things that seem “unconjurable in reconstruction. That which will escape.” But part of Whitehead’s point is that these things will never escape, not as long as a single human survives. Even after the zombie apocalypse, the world remains much as it was: people continue to draw parables, remember loved ones, hope, dream, and despair. A dogged ability to survive, it turns out, defines not just the zombie but also the human.