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 ***

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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.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

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

Hardcover, 320 pages
Expected publication: September 13th 2016 by Doubleday

I was really looking forward to this read! I had an interesting relationship with The Intuitionist, having read it in college and not quite grasped it then came back to it later and enjoyed it more. I love everything that Colson Whitehead is about (and I hope to read Zone One soon), but this particular foray into his work turned out to be a little less than a love affair for me.

The Underground Railroad starts on the Randall plantation in Georgia around 1812. This plantation is an amalgamation of every horror and tragedy you’ve ever heard of about slavery. Slaves are beaten and raped for amusement, even on display for the entertainment of guests sipping lemonade; attempts at fleeing from bondage or bucking the system are (often arbitrarily) met with public displays of execution, from being strung up and castrated to a good ole-fashioned tarring and feathering. Life on the plantation is as rough for women—who are used as breeders for more slaves, hence more money, and are constantly at the mercy of male appetites, both from those in the ivory tower and those in the fields—as it is for the laboring men. In the midst of it all, Cora, a stray who’s gained a bit of a scarlet letter because her mother fled the plantation and left her behind years back, starts her long journey to freedom one quiet night with nothing but a sack of unripe turnips, two companions and the North Star as their guide. But the untold horrors that she will face ahead of her on this trek will sometimes rival those that she left behind. With a bounty on her head and dreams of education and freedom beckoning her forward, she will stop through a slew of Southern states—all with their own systems of Southern justice and oppression—and find herself on Whitehead’s re-envisaged Underground Railroad.

Within these pages, you’ll embark on a re-imagined historical truth that could only be a creation of Colson Whitehead. Here, the Underground Railroad is—get this—an actual train (or a single, rickety locomotive, but you get the point), complete with a conductor. At times that term is more allegorical than actual, but even the conductors have their own pasts that, at times, ensnare Cora in their trap-like grasp. Human sterilization to control the growth of the Negro population (which, in some states, “problematically” rivals the numbers of the white population), blackface, and the Tuskegee Project are all touched on here, are all experienced by our heroine in some periphery of her journey.

Those are the goodie takeaways.

Now for my qualms. This novel would’ve been better served being written in first person, for Cora’s chapters at the very least. This is a harrowing journey, a terrifying trek into the unknown for a young woman who has never been outside of the confines of the Randall Plantation for her entire life. She’s never worked for her own wages, never bought her own new dress, never even been to see a doctor. We want to see, touch and taste every moment of what she feels. We want to quiver when she quivers and scream when she hurts. We want to experience these truths re-imagined for ourselves, because this is a remarkable journey set in a harrowing past that our country would rather keep hushed and obscured. To truly break us out of this—to truly immerse us in this and better make the point that he sought to make—we should’ve been squarely in Cora’s shoes, not watching her from above in a slightly removed, vaguely clinical 3rd person.

While Whitehead’s intellectualism serves his plots well, it doesn’t do the greatest wonders for soulful and immersive execution. Perhaps that comes down to being a matter of personal preference. I found his writing style, as was the case in his The Intuitionist as well, to be talented but, yes, just a tad by the way of clinician. And finesse—oh, finesse, thou art an allusive thing! Honestly, there wasn’t a lot of it here, and by that I mean that this was quite the bull-ride read: jerky and rough. I had to re-read several passages, because segues from one event to the next were often non-existent. Suddenly, you were in a saloon, or in the middle of an attack by rogue outlaws, then learning letters in a schoolhouse. Literally, a person could go from alive to dead in a single, four-sentence paragraph! Um, what?? (Shaking head vigorously.) What just happened now?

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Also, I could’ve done without the backstory chapters of the minor characters. Every single one of those “let-me-elaborate-on-this-(minor)-character’s-past-life” chapters could’ve been gutted from this manuscript—all except for one. And that one you’ll know when you read it.

Still, Colson Whitehead managed to touch on the justifications and absolutions that the antebellum South descriptionwhispered to themselves at night to justify their actions, biblical references that laid the way for Manifest Destiny and all the other gluttonous rationalizations that makes slavery possible, in any land, in any era. And for that, I applauded him.

The story itself was great—a truly epic adventure—but the pace at which it jerked, sometimes lullingly slow and others at whiplash-inducing speeds, turned me off. And, I have to say, any novel where I feel even the slightest urge to skim and skip ahead can never get 4 stars from me. But his work is definitely unique in its own right, and for that I would absolutely recommend this novel to anyone who has read the blurb and marked it as to-read, to anyone who’s already familiar with Whitehead’s talents and appreciated them, and for those who have yet to become familiar with them. I have a deep respect for this author; the style just didn’t work for me the way I’d hoped this time, and for that I award 3.5 stars ***