Zone One - Colson Whitehead

 In the efforts of full disclosure, this book is described as "literary," and I really don't do literary. As it turns out, I'm not what you might call an aficionado of the zombie genre.  Please, please keep that in mind when you read my review.

 

I think that this was the first straightforward zombie novel I've ever read. 

Remind me never to read another one.

 

Not to pull punches, I thought that Zone One was dull, uninspired, and--the cardinal sin in my book--pretentious. I admit I'm a reader of pulp; I love authors who can combine fast plotting with a driving intent behind the story, but still manage not to take themselves too seriously.  This book, on the other hand, is a deadly earnest plod through one uninspired character's stream-of-consciousness-style memories.  Whitehead uses a zombie apocalypse as a thin pretence to disgorge his oh-so-erudite ennui, combining a self-indulgent helping of nostalgia with his increasingly dreary attempts at profundity about human nature.  Other than the basics--the same old amateurish attempt at nihilism that I'd rather do without--I can't even begin to guess what the point of the book actually was.

 

It certainly wasn't about characters.  At least for me, everything about the book was as thin as cardboard.  The characters were caricatures, from the mediocre Mark Spitz to the hyperfeminine ditz to the gun-crazy ex-army dude.  And the author seemed to care nothing for any of them.  If the named characters seemed to garner only disdain from Whitehead, the unnamed characters--the tragic dead, the people turned into zombies-- merited only disgust.  They are referred to as things, usually stripped of pronouns, mocked and derided. Maybe I have no proper sense of zombie humour, but I never cracked a smile. To me, the only good reason to dip into the zombie motif is to accentuate a point by humanizing the zombies, confronting the ways in which an innocent might lose agency and be transformed into a brainless weapon even against loved ones.  The real horror comes from the tragedy, the lost humanity; to achieve that, you must first acknowledge that the zombies are--or were-- people rather than things.  In fact, while I understand the oh-so-subtle way in which the following passage was intended to unite the themes of transformation, of the skull beneath the skin, I think it actually ends up reflecting the way that Whitehead treats his own characters:

Mark Spitz had a habit of making his girlfriends into things that were less than human. There was always a point, sooner or later, when they crossed a line and became creatures: following a lachrymose display while waiting in line for admission to the avant-garde performance; halfway into a silent rebuke when he underplayed his enthusiasm about attending her friend's wedding. Once it was only a look, a transit of anxiety across her eyes in which he glimpsed some irremediable flaw or future betrayal. And like that, the person he had fallen in love with was gone. They had been replaced by this familiar abomination, this thing that shared the same face, same voice, same familiar mannerisms that had once comforted him. To anyone else, the simulation was perfect."

The worldbuilding was entirely absent; Whitehead never bothers to thresh out the actual mechanism of zombiehood. Even the few details given are lazy mechanisms of necessity; for example, only "big" (not actually quantified) bites from a zombie will turn a person. As anyone with even the most superficial knowledge of biology or medicine will know, that means it's not a bacteria or virus, because while they would be probabilistic, any bite might do.  Whitehead saves his worldbuilding for "cute" little tidbits like PASD, the zombie equivalent of PTSD, but which is conveniently pronounced "past" so that comments like "suffering from his PASD" could have an oh-so-subtle double meaning.

 

The language did nothing for me either.  According to the back cover, Whitehead is a literary writer, and I don't do literary, so please keep that in mind.  Maybe it's my extremely literal personality showing, but I found it to be incredibly jarring. Personally, I suspect that Whitehead pulled out a thesaurus and went over every sentence, shoehorning in as many multisyllabic words as he possibly could.  In many cases, this led to words with the correct denotation, but the connotations felt off; for example:

The traffic was atrocious and shaming, of that pantheon of traffic encountered when one is late to a wedding or other monumental event of fleeting import.

Maybe it's my un-literary inclinations showing, but who, exactly, is the traffic "shaming"?  How is traffic a "pantheon," where the word clearly carries the connotation of godhood? Sure, you could give Whitehead the benefit of the doubt and stretch the metaphor to say that we worship our roads and our mobility, but it still isn't going to quite fit the usage.  Or:

The Monday vise clenched. Here was that end-of­-weekend despair, the death of amusement and the winnowing of the reprieve.

Leaving alone the whole clenching vise bit, "winnowing" doesn't mean "waning;" it has a connotation of discrimination, of culling the best of the set.  Somehow, that never seems to happen to me on weekends, and I don't think it was intended to mean that here, either. Or:

"The cruel enigma that had decimated their lives."

Really? Decimated?  I do not think it means what you think it means. Or:

"Ms Macy's fingers trundled to a fresh page in her notebook."

To me, "trundled" has similar connotations to "lumbered," and I didn't get the impression that she was overweight or slow. Is "trundle" really what he intended, or was he playing the Pretentious Thesaurus Substitution Game?

The whole book was like that; every five minutes or so, my brain jerked to a stop when it encountered an utterly inapposite word.  I don't mean to suggest that there wasn't plenty of pretty prose and figurative imagery; it's just that those clunky epic fails made me doubt how much actual craft went into the rest.  All the same, every so often, I found myself being lured into the narrative by the language. Even with my scepticism intact, I have to admit that Whitehead can turn a phrase, and he certainly uses his talent in the text. Some of my favourites:

“We never see other people anyway, only the monsters we make of them.”

"Per the myth of this melting-pot city. The city did not care for your story, the particular narrative of your reinvention; it took them all in."

"They had been young and old, natives and newcomers. No matter the hue of their skins, dark or light, no matter the names of their gods or the absences they countenanced, they had all strived, struggled, and loved in their small, human fashion. Now they were mostly mouths and fingers, fingers for extracting entrails from soft cavities, and mouths to rend and devour in pieces the distinct human faces they captured, that these faces might become less distinct, de-individualized flaps of masticated flesh, rendered anonymous like them, the dead."

I especially love the last one, the way it ties the city back to an undead carnivore that chews up its victims and spits out mediocrity.  I know my dissatisfaction is petty and pedantic; I think I just never lost the sense that the words were overworked and overqualified, pushing the text into pomposity.  In the end, it was my own flaws on a reader that caused me to give up on what otherwise would have at least been a lyrical read.

 

Overall, I think I was just an absolutely terrible fit for this book.  I tend to detest "literary" books on sight.  Even the faintest tinge of pretension is enough to lose me, and my good opinion once lost...well, you know what I mean.  I've also discovered, thanks to this book, that zombies just aren't my thing.  It probably didn't help that I probably missed a boatload of references to "classic" zombie stories. I suppose the only redeeming aspect, for me, was the end, or perhaps the other moments in which the living are likened to monsters.  If the zombies cannot be humanized through the narrative, then I suppose the next best thing is to dehumanize everyone, right?