“Literary zombie novel” sounds like an oxymoron, no? But there’s really no other way to describe Zone One by Colson Whitehead. It’s the thinking person’s novel about flesh-eating corpses walking around and snacking on their fellow human beings. It takes place some time after the infection/plague and follows a survivor nicknamed Mark Spitz as he bands together with fellow survivors in an attempt to clean out and reestablish New York City.
I need to state up front that I did the novel a disservice by taking sooo long to get through it. It really did take me like a month, which is extremely out of character for me. It wasn’t because I wasn’t enjoying it – I was – but since I had it on the Kindle to keep, I kept putting it down to read libary books that had due dates looming. It made it hard to ever really get a reading flow going. That said, I still liked it a lot. It’s definitely not an easy read by any means. I consider myself an intelligent person and I had to stop several times to look up the definition of a word (which also interrupted the reading flow, come to think of it). One one or two occasions the word wasn’t even found in the Kindle’s dictionary, so I’m not sure if they’re just super obscure SAT vocabulary words or if Whitehead totally made them up. Could go either way, since there was some made-up slang sprinkled here and there throughout the book. The thing is, if you don’t like fancypants vocabulary that will likely challenge you and send you running to a dictionary, you may find it a frustrating read. It’s not purple prose or anything, it’s just very literary (and I confess, I don’t read a lot of literary stuff, so maybe it’s just me?). It’s also very bleak and very slow moving. In fact, until the end of the book, not a whole lot happens. Most of what goes on is just the protagonist reflecting on his life pre- and post-apocalyse. So if you’re looking for a super action-packed page turner where zombies run wild in the streets, you’ll also find this a frustrating read. There is some degree of gore that you’d expect to find in a novel about zombies, but it’s mostly spoken of in a detached way and takes a back seat to the narrative.These characters have seen the worst of everything, they’ve taken to inventing games involving the carnage to while away the hours. Any gore is just another incident in a long string of incidents for them.
You will enjoy it if you’re interested in a well-written, well-paced book that puts the focus on the survivors after an apocalyse. Not even so much how they get by, more how they feel about what’s happened, what they think the future holds, how interesting and various personalities interact together, and how they manage to go on living. It sounds weird to say that I found it to be a somewhat realistic story about zombies, but in many ways the people in the book react pretty much the way you’d expect. The government springs up again and spins a lot of PR to keep the (literally) unwashed masses in line, the rich and important get to insulate themselves against the carnage while the regular people get to clean up the mess for them, looting of necessary and life-sustaining goods is prohibited – but fortunately there are corporations willing to step in and sponsor things like food, cigarettes, and body armor. People adapt, they adjust, and they find a way to profit.
Books about zombies seem to be everywhere these days, some are good and some are not so good. Whitehead’s is *different*.