Sunday, November 13, 2011

Book Review: "Zone One" by Colson Whitehead

The literary world over the last few years has been somewhat obsessed with the undead—novels featuring vampires, zombies, werewolves, mythical creatures, etc. are more popular than ever before. Yet there hasn't quite been a zombie novel like Zone One, Colson Whitehead's thoughtful and thought-provoking new book.

It's a time in the distant future and the world has been hit by a pandemic (referred to as the Last Night) which divided its citizens into two classes—the living and the living dead. While an initial military operation killed many of those who turned into zombies following the Last Night, brigades of citizen soldiers, at the behest of the provisional government in Buffalo, have been tasked with clearing out the rest of New York City so it can eventually be resettled. Mark Spitz is one of those citizen soldiers, and over the course of three surreal days, Zone One follows his efforts and those of his fellow recruits as they sweep city buildings and kill any remaining zombies that had been able to hide, or were trapped when the plague hit. The book cuts between the present day and accounts of Mark's attempts to survive in the early days of the pandemic.

I've referred to this as an "intellectual zombie novel," because while there is no shortage of lurid violence as the zombies attack and are captured, the book spends more time exploring themes of survival, courage, mediocrity, and the fight to distinguish yourself in a world characterized by unique people. Whitehead is a tremendously gifted writer and his use of language is mesmerizing at times, but I felt at times that the book moved very slowly, because despite the action, everything unfolds at a fairly meditative pace. This is a book worth reading, but it's important you keep in mind that this is a book much heavier on contemplation than action. But Colson Whitehead has made a worthy, if somewhat unique, contribution to the zombie "genre."

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