Zone One by Colson Whitehead

Hardcover, 259 pages
Published October 18th 2011 by Doubleday (first published October 18th 2010)

In this wry take on the post-apocalyptic horror novel, a pandemic has devastated the planet. The plague has sorted humanity into two types: the uninfected and the infected, the living and the living dead.

Now the plague is receding, and Americans are busy rebuild­ing civilization under orders from the provisional govern­ment based in Buffalo. Their top mission: the resettlement of Manhattan. Armed forces have successfully reclaimed the island south of Canal Street—aka Zone One—but pockets of plague-ridden squatters remain. While the army has eliminated the most dangerous of the infected, teams of civilian volunteers are tasked with clearing out a more innocuous variety—the “malfunctioning” stragglers, who exist in a catatonic state, transfixed by their former lives.

Mark Spitz is a member of one of the civilian teams work­ing in lower Manhattan. Alternating between flashbacks of Spitz’s desperate fight for survival during the worst of the outbreak and his present narrative, the novel unfolds over three surreal days, as it depicts the mundane mission of straggler removal, the rigors of Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder, and the impossible job of coming to grips with the fallen world.

And then things start to go wrong.

Both spine chilling and playfully cerebral, Zone One bril­liantly subverts the genre’s conventions and deconstructs the zombie myth for the twenty-first century.

“The dead had paid their mortgages on time…graduated with admirable GPAs, configured monthly contributions to worthy causes, judiciously apportioned their 401(k)s…and superimposed the borders of the good school districts on mental maps of their neighborhood, which were often included on the long list when magazines ranked cities with the Best Quality of Life. In short, they had been honed and trained so thoroughly by that extinguished world that they were doomed in this new one.”

Zone One is full of colorful melancholy descriptions, of varying levels of cerebral-ness, of an ashen, grey Manhattan post-plague apocalypse. Imagine a world where post “apocalypse-as-moral-hygiene,” as one character put it. A world where, “the dead came to scrub the Earth of capitalism and the vast bourgeois superstructure, with its doilies, helicopter parenting, and streaming video, return us to nature and wholesome communal living.”

I’d be remiss—not to mention completely misleading you—if I didn’t note that Zone One is not an action novel by any means. (Really, any reader of Colson Whitehead would probably figure this before even picking this one up from the shelf, so this is really a note for those as yet unfamiliar with his writing style. 😊)

**SPOILER** There is no real “action” in this novel so much as there’s deliberations, flashbacks, and several run-ins—some eerie, some semi-dramatic, some thought-provoking–with “skels,” the dead who are not quite dead. **SPOILER END**

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing—depending on the reader—because it allows for the Sci-Fi-like descriptions of an otherworldly scenario that oft-times need to be drawn out in such a fashion. However, I yearned for some action after a while—some way to ignite the gloom of ash and barrenness described.

Mark Spitz, the main character and the only one to be constantly referred to by his whole name, spends his days as one of the sweepers for Zone One, killing “skels” with a bullet to the head and collecting the info on their IDs, when he can, so that information of plague victims can be turned into the higher ups and turned into spreadsheets of data. Can this data help them to get a larger view of what happened—how the plague spread so quickly, how it can be prevented in the future? That’s the hope and the new purpose of Mark Spritz’s days. Of course, his cynical humor, narration (which seemed to drone on at times with a cadence of monotony) and outlook on life help to pass the days as well.

The majority of the novel passes via cerebral recollections from Mark Spitz conveyed to the reader in all manner of both wryness and dryness—pulling a “skel” who looks like his old elementary school teacher into a body bag elicits pages of narration on what it was like for him as a young student. Shooting a gorilla-costume clad “skel” in the head elicits imaginings of what their life must’ve been like before the plague, why they were even in such an outfit, etc. The at times mundane musings of one of the last people on earth. Really, I suppose the mundane nature makes the novel all the more real. Wouldn’t our thoughts turn to the ordinary, the routine, the yesterdays and yesteryears, when all that stretches before you is a life more quiet and routine than the one you experienced in the loud, capitalistic, busy world that’s now fallen?

Of course, there’s always that bit of action in the end to get you through. Apocalypse junkies: never fear; there will be blood, gore, gunshots in the night…

Though relatively short, Colson Whitehead’s Zone One was not necessarily a quick read, because of the density of its language and the vaguely cerebral, and at times seemingly intellectual ramblings. In reading this novel, you’re likely to get carried away in this deluge of narration. Wry narration laced with appealing satire here and there, shrouded in the grey gloom of overcast skies and a metropolis covered in soot and ash. Like this one as they fight their way through “skels”:

“She aimed at the rabble who nibbled at the edge of her dream: the weak-willed smokers, deadbeat dads and welfare cheats, single moms incessantly breeding, the flouters of speed laws, and those who only had themselves to blame for their ridiculous credit-card debt. These empty-headed fiends between Chambers and Park Place did not vote or attend parent-teacher conferences, they ate fast food more than twice a weeks and required special plus-size stores for clothing to hide their hideous bodies from the healthy. Her assembled underclass who simultaneously undermined and justified her lifestyle choices. They needed to be terminated, and they tumbled into the dirty water beside Gary’s dead without differentiation.”

How’s that for a healthy injection of social commentary?

They say, “The third time’s the charm,” but with the conclusion of Zone One, after The Intuitionist and The Underground Railroad, I think it’s safe to say I have immense respect for the obvious skill and intellect of Colson Whitehead, but his writing, overall, simply does not move me, yet, the ending did save this one. 3.5 stars ***

Goodreads   Twitter

Colson Whitehead He’s the author of the novels Zone One; Sag Harbor; The Intuitionist, a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway award; John Henry Days, which won the Young Lions Fiction Award, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; and Apex Hides the Hurt, winner of the PEN Oakland Award. Colson Whitehead has also written a book of essays about his home town, The Colossus of New York, and a non-fiction account of the 2011 World Series of Poker called The Noble Hustle. A recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a MacArthur Fellowship, he lives in New York City.

Whitehead’s latest book, The Underground Railroad, is an Oprah’s Book Club pick.

Advertisements

The Devil Crept In by Ania Ahlborn

Paperback, 384 pages
Expected publication: February 7th 2017 by Gallery Books

Ania Ahlborn’s The Devil Crept In is the new Are You Afraid of the Dark? for adults–a lot of you will know that reference *wink*. Centered around a small town in Oregon, this novel had just enough bite to be entertaining, yet, the jury is still out on whether or not anyone’s going to be kept up late at night thinking about this one.

Stevie Clark is a 10-year-old loner—rather, he has no friends other than his best friend and cousin, Jude. His slight speech impediment (echolalia) and missing fingers on one hand make him an outsider, the weird kid in the eyes of other kids. Add to that his abusive father-in-law who knows his way around a belt, and you can image how distraught Stevie would be when, one day his best friend, Jude, goes missing. When Jude suddenly turns back up, he’s…different: blank in the face, unresponsive to questions…his skin is peeling and itchy and…well, he’s attracting all the mangy, sickly neighborhood cats like some sort of sick beacon for wildlife…

All the makings of an excellent novel are here. Ahlborn even did a good job of stepping into a 10-year-old’s shoes and showing us Stevie’s world through his eyes. Stevie was as unreliable a narrator as you would expect from an elementary schooler, seeing shadows in the night and tripping and falling all over himself every time he sensed something—a moving shadow, a twitch in his periphery—out of the ordinary. His relationship to his peers and neighbors, his possibly overactive imagination—it all bundled together to work in this package. The Devil Crept In featured two converging story lines, which Ahlborn did an okay job at integrating—I say “okay” because I was prepared to throw the back of my hand to my forehead with a melodramatic sigh at the cliché-ness of the some of the plot angles. Rosie’s story line, for example, I felt I’d read somewhere already—lots of places, actually. It read like a horror-movie cliché that’d been overdone too many times. Yet, just as I was ready to heave an annoyed sigh, Ahlborn got it together and recovered pretty nicely, definitely helped along by a few awesome turns of phrase that warranted an appreciative pause. Eventually, the creepy crept in and the story lines did, indeed, tie together.

For those of you who are fans Stephen King’s child-centered scary fiction, this one may be a real treat for you! I couldn’t help but think of his “Mile 81,” because of Devil’s tone, descriptions and insight through a determined, though easily frightened, young boy’s eyes. This one read authentically from the POV of a 10-year-old, while using adult language to describe the happenings surrounding these characters. Honestly, I both appreciated that and felt jarred by it. Like, hmm, would an elementary schooler really describe a demon as having “cauliflower ears like a boxer…?” (Thinking face—probably not.)

All in all, Ania Ahlborn’s The Devil Crept In was a fun little read that could’ve been shortened down to 300 pages or so, to make it more streamlined and faster to the action. It had its pros and cons, as many novels do, but there were also more than a few loose ends here left flapping in the breeze, let me tell ya!

With that in mind, I would recommend this novel to anyone in need of a quick jolt of excitement. If you’re not interested in looking under the hood of a read to see how it all connects together—at what every little turned screw and nuance might mean for the overall performance—but you just want to get on with the creepy, pick this one up. It’ll definitely get you where you need to be. But, maybe, don’t read it alone…in the woods…

3-3.5 stars ***

I received an advance-read copy of this novel from the publisher, Simon & Schuster, via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

* To see more reviews, go follow the blog on Twitter @thenavireview and on Goodreads under Navidad Thelamour!

Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor

Paperback, Reissue, 256 pages
Published February 6th 2007 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (first published 1952)

“…that church where the blind don’t see and the lame don’t walk and what’s dead stays that way. Ask me about that church and I’ll tell you it’s the church that the blood of Jesus don’t foul with redemption…there was no Fall because there was nothing to fall from and no Redemption because there was no Fall and no Judgment because there wasn’t the first two. Nothing matters but that Jesus was a liar…”

Wise Blood is the story of Hazel Motes, a recently discharged twenty-something war vet who returns home to Tennessee to find the town abandoned and his childhood home dilapidated and deserted. So, he leaves the town behind and takes a train to Taulkinham, where he meets the crude, ignorant and possibly OCD/mentally ill Enoch Emery. Together, they encounter a blind preacher turned sometimes street beggar, Asa Hawks, and his 15-year-old daughter, Sabbath (her name in itself an ironic play on the themes of this novel). Motes becomes entangled with the Hawks’ as he embarks on the notion of atheism and—fully embracing it partially out of resistance to Asa Hawks’ idea that Motes needs to repent for his sins—starts his own church, the Church Without Christ. As he starts preaching his message of salvation through truth from the nose of his old car, he encounters a street-preaching swindler, Hoover Shoats, who steals Motes’ idea of the Church Without Christ and uses it to get rich, also preaching a varied version of that message on the streets, which effectively pushes Motes out of his own market and idea. When he finds out that Asa Hawks is also a crook, he takes up with his daughter, who proclaims of him:“I said look at those pee-can eyes and go crazy, girl! That innocent look don’t hide a thing, he’s just pure filthy right down to the guts, like me. The only difference is I like being that way and he don’t.Soon after, Motes’ disillusionment starts its descent into completeness, as a series of events pushes him to enraged murder and finally to self-mutilization and recluseness. Meanwhile, Enoch Emery’s story line branches off into him becoming enamored with, and then literally turning into, a gorilla, which came off as a little slapstick in its presentation and fell flat for me as a whole.

Wise Blood seemed to hit the ground running toward something definite and profound from the very first page. Rushing toward an abandoned home in Tennessee, then rushing toward Hazel Motes’ warped coming-of-age prophecy of atheism and a “new jesus” (yes, lowercase). O’Connor hit on salient, hard-hitting moments of ironic verity and outright cultural authenticity in true Southern Gothic fashion: Christianity versus atheism in the post-war South, Christian hypocrisy, redemption, isolation, and coming of age. In that way, it had its moments of dazzling literary insight. The characters were, for the most part, well realized, each offering a necessary ingredient to this Gothic tradition. And yet.

A little-known fact of this this novel is that it was originally not a novel at all but a collection of short stories (published in various publications). The first chapter of Wise Blood was an expanded version of Flannery O’Connor’s Master’s thesis, and several of the other chapters were reworked versions that she revised so that they could all fit together as a novel. Hence, Wise Blood was born, but the thing is, it didn’t work 100% as a fluid work of literature. For the most part, it did. For the most part, this novel read as a cohesive story with fully realized narrative arcs and satirical if not poignant realizations throughout. Yet, Enoch Emery’s character dragged down the latter part of the novel, because the short story that he derived from, “Enoch and the Gorilla,” did not fit with the theme of the rest of the novel. It felt disparate, like it didn’t belong, which, of course, is true since it was originally a separate short story, but it should not have felt that way to the reader.

O’Connor’s use of vernacular was spectacular.

The sense of setting was complete.

And yet, though we make a habit of saying here in the South, “One monkey don’t stop no show,” in this case, it certainly did. 3.5 stars ***

The Most Dangerous Place on Earth by Lindsey Lee Johnson

I received an advance-read copy of this book from the publisher, Random House, via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

It’s funny how novels are often published in waves—we’ll see a flood of multi-cultural books, an influx of war novels or a deluge of high-school-centric reads at once, proving for those who don’t believe it already that books come in trends much like shoes. The Most Dangerous Place on Earth instantly reminded me Everything I Never Told You (which I loved and rated highly) and of another new-release competitor and recent review, Everything You Want Me to Be see my review of it here, which will be published around the same time by a different publisher. But I’ll resist squaring them off in a boxing-like match and stick to Lindsey Lee Johnson’s debut novel.

If The Most Dangerous Place on Earth had anything going for it, it was bite. Set outside of San Francisco, it was a setting that was like every chicly suburban town we’ve ever heard of—a town that reeks of wealth and privilege, kale smoothies and European SUVs. It is a place where teenagers wreck their BMWs and are utterly confused at the idea of poverty in Rwanda. In that way, Lindsey Lee Johnson used this setting as a springboard to explore the culture of privileged teens today, but also as the occasional trigger for insightful nuggets.

The format is a unique crossroad between short story collection and full-length novel, where Johnson takes turns telling the kids’ stories in 3rd person vignettes meant to give us glimpses inside their minds. Each vignette-type chapter tells part of one larger story, of which they are all a part of, and is then tempered by a chapter from the POV of Molly Nicholls, the 23-year-old 1st-year teacher who has the self-altering experience of teaching them all in English. This device can, of course, be great for offering us depth and insight, but here proved to be bad for readers who want to intimately know each character.

Why, you may ask?

Because you only get each student’s perspective for one chapter, never to hear from their voice or see their outlook again (hence the earlier comparison to a short story collection). At first I thought the novel would follow just the teacher into this dangerous habitat, or perhaps even the first student spotlighted in this book. That we’d follow them and settle into seeing and learning the world around them through their eyes. But the multi-vignette approach turned the tables on my expectations—not, in itself, a bad thing. Yet, I ended up torn on my opinion to this narrative tool: I loved being inside of all of their heads, seeing what they saw and feeling what they felt (some more so than others), but the page count would’ve been better expanded so that the reader could really get to know each of the students better, because without that, it just read as a tease.

Likewise, the page count of this novel also proved to me something else: that too much of a good thing can, indeed, be bad. In that regard, I’m talking about Johnson’s narrative prose.

Don’t get me wrong: the descriptive prose of Lindsey Lee Johnson’s debut novel is lovely. But there is so much of it within this relatively small page count of 260 pages that the novel feels consumed by it, and the action feels slow-coming after the first few chapters, so much so that I found myself skimming past long descriptions of bus rides and in-home décor to get to the good stuff. Truly, the endless pages of descriptive prose would’ve been better placed in a longer book, in a book that had the room for such descriptions. But with only this many pages in which to get this story across—more than enough room to do it well; we’ve all seen it done before—it was allowed to take over and edge out insight and layer peeling, leaving me feeling that something was missing.

And then, of course, there’s that resonating feeling that all readers long to be left with. For some of us, it’s “feels,” for others “insight.” In reading The Most Dangerous Place on Earth, it always seemed that Johnson was on the verge of something great, brushing up against really thoughtful writing set against a sharp and intuitive peep into this teenage realm. She was almost there, but it never quite made it. Long chapters stretch out before you only to end with no kick, no umph or truly thoughtful nugget to hold on to. In the end, each chapter was just that, viewing the world through a high-schooler’s eyes (albeit, entertaining ones) with enough of a changed personality to be detectable, just the smallest dab of irony as to be discernible, but not a lot more than that.

Lindsey Lee Johnson offered up a sharp glimpse at this lifestyle, this culture, but then failed to really do much with it after that. With the short page count coupled with the fact that there was no zeroing in on any particular character—instead, a kaleidoscope of vignettes with brief connections and overlays with one another like criss-crossing tree branches in a breeze—I never really felt for any of these characters the way that I’d hoped. Maybe, with the better chapters, I felt that I understood them, if not knew them, because I’d just read a 30-40 page spread about them. But because I’d never see them again this intimately for the rest of the novel, I found that I didn’t really care about them or feel invested in their outcomes as I could have. The plot this author offered was a 10, yet the execution fell short of expectations, leaving The Most Dangerous Place on Earth an above-average read, that didn’t quite push far enough to gain 4 stars. 3.5 stars. ***

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith

Hardcover, 304 pages
Published April 5th 2016 by Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux

“How do you know you didn’t ruin my life forty years ago?”
“From what I can see, you never looked back.”
“I looked back, believe me,” she says.
“That makes two of us.”

Firstly, let me say to those who have read this novel, I have no idea why the Goodreads summary made me think I was going to be getting this:

description

For those of you who haven’t read it and are considering it, it’s not that. 🙂

**CAUTION, this review contains (mild) spoilers**
In 1631, Sara de Vos is a painter ahead of her time who is plagued with debts and personal losses. Centuries after her death, her last known attributed work hangs on the bedroom wall of a wealthy lawyer, Marty de Groot, in 1950s Manhattan, until one day, it doesn’t. Marty discovers that the painting, which has been in his family for generations, has been stolen and replaced with a brilliantly executed fake. So brilliant, in fact, that it took him months to even notice the switch. It is Ellie Shipley, a graduate student from Australia with a talented eye for art and a desire to push her artistic capabilities, who is hired to forge the painting, forever joining their lives in a complex weave of events and emotions. 40 years later, Ellie is a celebrated art historian and curator who is putting on an exhibition on the topic that has compelled her and her work for her entire adult life: the Dutch Golden Age. The last known painting of Sara de Vos, At the Edge of a Wood, still haunts them both, for the forgery that Ellie painted decades before will now resurface at the same exhibit that she’s curating, threatening to end her career and tarnish her name forever.

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos is a novel that straddles the line between contemporary and historical fiction. Let me take this opportunity to say that I was truly on board with this one at the start, but then it lost me a little about midway, maybe a little before, and then picked me up again in the last quarter or so. This novel was a good combination of fiction and research. Not brilliant, not mind-blowing, but good. Strap yourself in and get ready to be fully immersed in a painter’s world, from a how-to on mixing rabbit hides for paint to entire narrative passages how to deconstruct a 400-year-old canvas. I’m on the fence on how I feel about how the research was displayed, leaning towards positive but not all the way there. On the one hand, it allowed me to trust the narration, made the world that Smith painted (no pun intended) far more believable, and I learned a few things from this read, which is always a plus.

BUT on the other hand, I definitely felt that I didn’t need allof it. It wasn’t quite info dump, but it was a bit much at times. For example, reading pages of 17th century minutiae such as making “apothecary blends of Ceylon loose leaf.” Honestly, I don’t even know what that passage was about. Possibly 17th century teas? Maybe? These were nice touches in and of themselves, but too many of them began to weigh me down a little. That can be a problem with fiction based heavily on research—or research-based non-fiction that tries to read like fiction—the author doesn’t know when tolay off of the research and dive into the plot; they want to include every. little. piece. of information that they found in an effort to set the setting (which was my main gripe withThe Witches as well, by the way—at times the 17th century chapters here read similarly to those).

What I can say is that I never felt that any of the story lines suffered, though there were at least three in play at once, occurring in different time periods and on various continents. The Last Painting was almost Brontë-esque, which I can see a lot of people really enjoying. The settings were meticulously set; the story line seemed to meander on leisurely, as if on a stroll through Central Park, reminiscent of those good ole’ days—pre television—of classical writing, which left me, in a way, nostalgic.

There were times when the writing was tender, but it always stopped just shy of being emotive, often somewhere between clinical and touching. I felt I was an onlooker, a 3rd party staring in through a window on tip-toe, seeing and feeling it all second-hand, perhaps even slightly removed from that. I wasn’t made to sympathize with these characters, though I loved the fundamentals of Ellie’s narrative. She didn’t grab me, but most of the time, I didn’t mind watching her. I couldn’t tell if Smith was writing in this fashion deliberately or if he was just inexperienced with handling emotions as a writer. (I suppose a deeper foray into his works would answer this question for me definitively.) I realize that this novel was not meant to be the next great love saga—Marty and Ellie are not Rhett and Scarlett by any means—but their love affair, or rather their reactions to it, came off as unrealistic, not quite believable and definitely not emotive, possibly because that side of them was underdeveloped. Intellectual, I think is the word that I’m looking for. Their story line and the handling of it was intellectual, even when it wasn’t meant to be, and that didn’t grab me.

However, I must say that I am content with how this one ended. At various points in the novel, I hovered between giving de Vos 3.5 and 4 stars. Ultimately, I’m going with 3.5 because many of the novels I’ve given 4 or 5 stars truly moved me—or educated me in a way that will always stay with me—and this one was just shy of that. 3.5 stars ***