Book review: ‘Zone One’ by Colson Whitehead

(no spoilers)

Earlier this year I reviewed Whitehead’s incredible novel ‘The Nickel Boys’ which completely captured my attention. If you haven’t read that book, do it now, do it immediately, do not pass Go.

So when I saw that Whitehead had written a zombie novel, I figured this would be the book for me; my favorite ever book. Having read ‘The Cell’ by Stephen King a billion times, ‘Feed’ by Mira Grant, ‘The Girl with all the Gifts’ by M. J. Carey, ‘Handling the Undead’ by John Lindqvist, ‘The Enemy’ and ‘The Dead’ by Charlie Higson, ‘Bloody Zombies’ by Victoria Leybourne, and watched as many zombie films and TV shows as I can get my hands on, I would call myself an Undead connoisseur (come get me, Doomsday preppers)


‘Zone One’ is a zombie novel with braaaaAAAaaaaaains. By that I mean it takes the well-celebrated, detail-oriented style of Whitehead and attaches it to typically what is quite an action-packed genre. While it makes for a pretty interesting literary performance dressed in the zombie genre, the focus on the slow reality of a world (new advertisements and cleanup crews) after an outbreak meant there was little fast-paced action – leaving a bit of a sour taste in my mouth. 

Alright, I’ll stop. 

It’s a pretty normal premise – we start the novel after the inexplicable zombie plague has erupted on the world population, on what the survivors call ‘The Last Night’. Mostly everyone has turned into flesh-eating monsters, later categorized into ‘skels’ (the Hollywood zombie, fast on its feet and ready to dip its tongue into your brain) and ‘stragglers’ (stuck between zombie and human, carrying out specific tasks on a loop, like photocopying or crossing and uncrossing their legs in the cinema). And now that the army has done the heavy lifting, the government has optimistically decided to send in survivors on ‘sweeper’ trips, to clear out the remaining dangers. First goal: Manhattan aka ‘Zone One’. 

We follow Mark Spitz who credits his survival to his almighty averageness: “He was their typical, he was their most, he was their average”, “Beauty could not thrive, and the awful was too commonplace to be of consequence. Only in the middle was there safety.” Part of the humanity of this novel is in the depressing normalcy of the situation. Governments finding ways to form factions, propaganda being spread, big corporations taking care of food resources and sending out advertisements and merch – your love dying not in a blaze of blood-soaked gory but simply disappearing for good one day on a food run. Just like that. 

Sweeper missions show the ridiculousness of some of the structure of the previous world: “He was the first live human being the dead had seen since the start, and the former ladies of HR were starving. After all this time, they were a thin membrane of meat stretched over bone. Their skirts were bunched on the floor, having slid off their shrunken hips long ago, and the dark jackets of their sensible dress suits were made darker still, and stiffened, by jagged arterial splashes and kernels of gore.” But as the novel wears on, we feel elements of that continue to be implemented, determined to create order, hierarchy and profit in a world of chaos. 

There’s no denying that Whitehead’s prose is gorgeous, and he draws consistently on a link between biology and construction, between humans and the city that they constructed, and lived and worked in. “The massive central-air units that hunkered and coiled on the striving high-rises, glistening like extruded guts”, :”In Mark Spitz’s particular apocalypse, the human beings were messy and did not obey rules, and every lane in and out, every artery and vein, was filled with outbound traffic. A disemboweled city, spilling its entrails, will tend to the disorderly side.”

Whitehead also has a tendency to draw out his sentences – there were a handful of sentences that were longer than a page – which did clash with the staccato action required by this genre, in my opinion. Even in attack scenes, there seemed no rush. Spitz defends this experience by saying “Time slowed down in situations like this, to grant dread a bigger stage” but often it felt like internalizing for prose sake. 

The other part that ‘Zone One’ was missing was plot. Over the course of the novel, we find out more about Spitz, they clear out multiple high rises and boroughs, and they move into another government facility, and eventually experience the breakdown of that. But because the novel started years into the situation, it felt that everything had wound down already. ‘Zone One’ is the aftermath of the terror, not the terror itself. Still a beautiful novel, but not a particularly satisfying one for those who love the intensity of the horror genre.

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