by Colson Whitehead
Hardcover, 259 pages
Published October 18th 2011
The story arc of Zone One is a glimpse into the life of one Mark Spitz, zombie-apocalypse survivor cum military seek-and-destroy grunt, enlisted in the effort to reclaim Manhattan from the hordes of undead, commonly known as ‘skels’. But rather than follow Mark’s exploits from the before times until present in a linear fashion, Whitehead chooses to focus on only three days of Mark’s life and illustrate years of his backstory through flashbacks and digressions. Whitehead pursues these diversions at every opportunity, often delving several layers deep into Spitz’s past. In one case, for example, a zombie’s (pardon, skel’s) broken teeth trigger a page-and-a-half reminiscence about a rotting pier seen from one of Spitz’s missions.
Combine this wayward style of storytelling with Whitehead’s relentless abuse of his thesaurus, and eventually the reader becomes hopelessly lost, tangled in a wilderness of words and seeking, yearning to get back to the story. After sixty pages, Whitehead manages to move his protagonist out of the first scene. Ah, now this must be where it picks up. Sadly, this is not the case.
Whitehead’s penchant for prose thunders on, and at some point near the middle of the book, every enumerated style, injury, hairstyle and socio-economic status of every individual thing, inanimate, living or undead, took on the nasal quality of Eric Idle’s ‘Mr. Smoketoomuch’ from Monty Python’s travel agent sketch. I awaited the arrival of the undead adenoidal typists and greengrocers from Luton.
Forward narrative momentum is not achieved until page 228 (of 259 pages; 88% of the book, by my math), when the story finally hits a pace similar to that of a typical novel. But by this stage of the game, the outcome is obvious, both by the events of the plot and the dwindling number of pages.
Slogging through Zone One is not without its merits. Whitehead’s obvious skill at translating people-watching into words is much in evidence. Of greater interest to aficionados of the post-apocalyptic genre is Whitehead’s take on the rebuilding phase of the apocalypse. While still couched in familiar tropes, he moves the traditional narrative beyond the hard-scrabble struggle for survival, with the re-establishment of ‘government’ and all its requisite bureaucracy. Overall, though, much the same effect could have been achieved in a short-story and spared us 200+ pages of self-indulgent, adjectival fancy.
Zone One is the literary equivalent of a visit to New York’s (zombie-themed) Rockefeller Christmas tree, but rather than standing back to admire it and move on, Colson Whitehead insists on taking you on a guided-tour up into the tree itself. Initially this sounds like a grand idea, but soon your over-zealous guide is leading you down every divergent branch and describing each, individual ornament in his own lavish style. You yearn to climb higher, to break the glacial pace, but your resolute guide will not stray from his itinerary, will not pass by even a single branch. Not until the foliage begins to thin does he makes a final push to the summit and what turns out to be a singularly underwhelming view. For Whitehead, the journey is clearly far more important than the destination.