Friday, May 25, 2012

Zone One by Colson Whitehead

Zone One
by Colson Whitehead

I think I might have accidentally insulted Colson Whitehead when I met him at this year's Get Lit! Festival in Spokane. After his reading/Q&A with Jess Walter at the Bing Crosby Theater, I got in line to have books signed. The only "book" of Whitehead's I had was actually the second issue of Electric Literature, in which he has the story "The Comedian." (More about that when I properly talk about the whole collection in another review.)

I said, "I have this, but I haven't read Zone One yet." He started to flip through the book to find his title page. I continued, "I wanted to, but that library always has it checked out."

"Oh," he said, somewhat surprised, "well, when you do, I hope you like it."

"Yeah, thanks." I took my book and fought the urge to say, "I don't mean I think it isn't worth buying! It's just that I've been trying not to buy so many books when I'm broke to begin with."

But I didn't. I took my book and my now-signed Financial Lives of Poets from Jess Walter, and I tried to assume that everyone thinks they sound more awkward than they actually are.

What I meant was: "Hey! Your book is really popular at my library. That's pretty cool."

But see, now I've got writer guilt because I loved Zone One, and now I want to support the cause. Now I'm thinking, "Well, maybe next time I've amassed Powell's credit..." Most of all, I'm thinking that I'm rather lucky that through this book reviewing gig, I've become familiar with so many great writers, and that the the rabbit hole nature of the internet, while most of the time a vehicle for procrastination, is still so beneficial. Especially for a person who spends a lot of time "resting."

(Total parenthetical side note: A woman in her 40s had Jess Walter sign her forearm and confessed to me, while we were in line, that she would totally leave her husband for him. I didn't really know what to say to her, but it's true that Jess Walter and Colson Whitehead are both good-looking men. I mean, let's be honest.)

Right. Back to the literature at hand. Yes, Zone One is an outstanding book. I've seen it referenced to as the "literary zombie novel," which isn't inaccurate, but it's also about loss, the reassessment of priorities, methods of survival both psychological and physical, and that American dichotomy of cynicism and market-tested hope.

Also, nowhere in the book does the word "zombie" appear. They have more utilitarian, enforcement-parlance names: skels and stragglers. This is neither George Romero nor 28 Days territory, and it's definitely not Shaun of the Dead. It's true that most of our cultural touchstones for "zombie apocalypse" are cinematic, but that's perhaps because of the longstanding assumption that anything remotely "horror" is relegated to pulp/mass market or the domain of Stephen King. Snobbery says those types of books are not "serious" literature. Lines are mentally drawn and suddenly it seems noteworthy that a "serious" writer like Colson Whitehead would have a "hybrid" novel, as though themes of loneliness and grieving have no place in a world where people lose everything. That people find it unusual speaks more about the audience than the writer. Genres are for marketing. Writers want to tell a great story.

They were your standard issue skels, and then there were the stragglers. Most skels, they moved. They came to eat you — not all of you, but a nice chomp here or there, enough to pass on the plague. Cut off their feet, chop off their legs, and they'd gnash the air as they heaved themselves forward by their splintered fingernails, looking for some ankle action. The marines had eliminated most of this variety before the sweepers arrived.

The stragglers, on the other hand, did not move, and that's what made them a suitable objective for civilian units. They were a succession of imponderable tableaux, the malfunctioning stragglers and the places they chose to haunt throughout the Zone and beyond. An army of mannequins, limbs adjusted by an inscrutable hand. The former shrink, plague-blind, sat in her requisite lounge chair, feet up on the ottoman, blank attentive face waiting for the patient who was late, ever late, and unpacking the reasons for this would consume a large portion of a session that would never occur.

Mark Spitz is one of the civilians on Zone One patrol. He and his sweeper teammates, Gary and Kaitlyn, are to canvass lower Manhattan, building by building, room by room, checking for these frozen stragglers. They shoot them, bag them, and leave the bodies (or what remains of them) on the street for the disposal crews. They have to remain vigilant, but vestiges of the former world slip through into idle conversation. Gary talks about his island plans for when the job is done, and Kaitlyn reminisces about old parties and her family. Mark Spitz doesn't volunteer much of anything, but everyone has a story of what happened "Last Night." Whether you get the silhouette, the anecdote, or the obituary depends on how long you will travel together and whether or not you seem deserving of the details.

Although the adjectives tended to be neutral in later retellings, the obituary was the sacred in its current guise. The listener usually responded in kind, unless revisiting that longest of nights dispatched them into a fugue, which happened occasionally. They'd spent some time together. This might be the final human being they'd see before they died. Both speaker and listener, sharer and receiver, wanted to be remembered. The obit got it all down for some calm, distant day when you were long disappeared and a stranger took the time to say your name.

I saw a review recently where the reader complained that they wanted more nightmare-fuel from Zone One, that the contents of the book weren't scary enough. The thing is, this story takes place years after the "main event." This isn't a "What's happening? Where do we run?" story. The worldwide epidemic has already happened. Television, the "cloud" and the mobile service are only memories. Phones have barely made a comeback in limited areas. Same with electricity. Batteries and juice boxes act as currency. Though skels are still out there, some fenced-in camps exist with names like "Happy Acres," and society is trying to recover in the little ways it can. A set of natural triplets born after Last Night have become a source of hope for many. This isn't a story about shock and initial adrenaline; it's day-to-day survival.

Most of the remaining humans have PASD — Post Apocalyptic Stress Disorder, since "trauma" is likely an inadequate word to describe what happened. It manifests in different ways. Gary speaks in the first person plural, as though he is still speaking on behalf of himself and his brothers. Kaitlyn is always chatting and has become a stickler for the rules. Mark Spitz is anxious and wired at night, and everywhere he goes, he sees ash. It doesn't matter if the incinerators packed with skel and straggler bodies is running — to him, it's snowing with their remains all the time. He can taste it. Other people have taken to optimism and what's been coined by some as "the American Phoenix," and by others, "that pheenie bullshit." Everyone tries to cope.

What's especially great about how Whitehead tells this story is that he keeps the scope limited. We don't know everything as readers because it would be near-impossible for anyone in that world, even at the makeshift government in Buffalo, to have all the information. We are confined to Mark Spitz's point of view, both in the Zone and how he got there. Everything else is rumor or a story revised and perfected over the last few years. The wall surrounding the Zone causes the teams to feel even further removed from the world. To many, Buffalo might as well be myth.

This isn't all to say that nothing happens. Plenty does, and it isn't all idle chatter and survival stories. Colson Whitehead has written a fantastic, expertly-written story that occurs over just three days, and I think it's worth reading more than once to really catch everything he has happening beneath the surface. I'm prone to apocalyptic dreams on my own without any encouragement, and so nightmare-fuel is not my benchmark for success. If I'd read Zone One by this past April, I would have been able to tell him that it's one of the best books I've read so far this year. If you haven't already, do seek this one out.

Yes, I did eventually check out this book at my local library. Support yours.


This review is part of Pajiba's Cannonball Read, in which participants aim to read and review 13, 26, or 52 books in one year. The count ends December 31, 2012.

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