We are NOT going to discuss the whole literary-writers-doing-genre-fiction phenomenon, okay? Cuz it’s been discussed to death. And I hate the idea of “genre” fiction being classified as such. It isn’t a second-class literary citizen.
And if you needed proof of that, well, I can definitely give you a recommendation: Zone One by Colson Whitehead.
First, let me admit my biases: I like zombie movies. (I even wrote a post about the Zombie apocalypse.) Not all of them, but enough. I’m not crazy about the idea of zombies or anything, but I tend to watch a decent amount of horror flicks and so zombies are part of the deal. However, I haven’t read any zombie fiction. (I couldn’t get into World War Z. Yes, I know, appalling. Just like I really didn’t like The Walking Dead. It’s okay. You’re free to never speak to me again. I understand.) So while I’m open to the idea of zombie stuff, I’m not like a devotee or anything.
But I am a devotee of Colson Whitehead, whose books I started reading in 2009 when Sag Harbor came out. Over the next 18 months I read all his books. So I knew coming into this that he can write pretty much anything. He wrote the strangely quasi-fantasy The Intuitionist, which is about elevator inspectors who just “feel” whether an elevator is working. It also involves a noir-esque crime element. That sound weird enough for you? Compare that to Sag Harbor, which is basically a coming-of-age novel about a summer out at the beach that is funny and peppy and has a real snappy prose. The two books could not be more different. But they both work.
Also. He is both bleak and funny on Twitter.
I really wanted to read Zone One. I wanted to read it so much that I BOUGHT a COPY. (Well, an e-copy. But still!) I am a hardcore library user. I am currently a hardcore ARC-moocher (advance review copy). Buying books is not something I do that often.
Luckily I was not disappointed.
So what is a zombie novel about, anyway? How does it keep from being a retread of all the various zombie retreads that are starting to get rather tired? (That’s being generous, really. Most of them are REALLY tired.)
Whitehead avoids this by changing the timeline. Instead of focusing on the onset of zombie-dom (a la Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, etc.) or the what-do-the-survivors-do-right-after-the-onset-of-zombie-dom (The Walking Dead, 28 Days Later, etc.) he goes even further down the line. This world is a post-apocalyptic world in the truest sense. The major threat has passed. People have been surviving and persisting for years and now they’re starting to re-form society.
The problem is that you can re-form society all you want, but those pesky zombies still manage to get in your way all the time.
Protagonist Mark Spitz is among the lucky. He’s made it through. And now he’s working to rebuild, starting with Zone One in lower Manhattan. The job he and his crew have is to sweep through buildings checking for leftover “skels” (the word zombie is never actually used) so that humanity has a place to go when it returns in full force.
The book is exciting and mundane, as you’d expect from that kind of work. There are regular flashbacks to Mark’s days trying to survive before he joined up with the refugee camp and started work. And if you feel like this is too pedestrian for you, I will give you a glimpse of Whitehead’s prose, because that’s the thing that takes you by surprise here. He is lyrical, lovely, luminous even when describing horror.
On the zombies:
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-individuated flaps of masticated flesh, rendered anonymous like them, the dead. Their mouths could no longer manage speech yet they spoke nonetheless, saying what the city had always told its citizens, from the first settlers hundreds of years ago, to the shattered survivors of the garrison. What the plague had always told its hosts, from the first human being to have its blood invaded, to the latest victim out in the wasteland: I am going to eat you up.
Zone One is a triumph of high and low, of head shots for the kill and of meditations on futility.
It isn’t a book I could read quickly. In part because I started it when I had the flu and couldn’t concentrate well. And in part because the narration flows so unpredictably from the present to the past to a different past and then back to the present that I often found myself having to slow down. Not that it was a bad thing. Who minds slowing down when you get to take in writing like this?
Eric, however, plowed through it with a vengeance. While it took me nearly 3 weeks to read it, it took him 2 days. (He enjoys gloating about this. Give him a pat on the back next time you see him for a job well done.) And since Eric enjoyed it, I think you can say it has appeal to both lit lovers and gore lovers alike.
Zone One is published by Knopf Doubleday and is available at bookstores everywhere. It cracked the New York Times Bestseller List this month, so you shouldn’t have too much trouble tracking it down.