Colson Whitehead won the Pulitzer Prize for each of his last two novels (The Nickel Boys, The Underground Railroad), an unprecedented literary achievement. Ten years ago, before either of those novels were published, Whitehead blended literary and genre writing and came out with his zombie apocalypse novel, Zone One.
I’ve long been a reader of literary fiction although have never been a reader of zombie novels. I imagine some fans of the genre were disappointed in Zone One, just as some fans of literary fiction were disappointed as well.
Count me among them.
The novel takes place over three harrowing days, and follows a protagonist nicknamed Mark Spitz as he works from Zone One—a barricaded and fortified area below Canal Street in Manhattan, helping to root out and destroy remaining zombies that an initial Marine expedition missed.
A plague without a specified source created the zombies, of which there are two kinds: skels, who roam around looking for uninfected people to bite and eat, and stragglers, a much smaller population of infected who stay in one place and perform repetitive motions that likely held meaning in their previous lives.
Mark Spitz is a middling, unremarkable person by his own admission, which doesn’t do much to make him especially interesting. He’s fine as an everyman, but lacks agency. My main issue with the novel is there is no plot. There are three days of zombie hunting, with exceptionally graphic details about blowing heads off and zombies chewing on faces and entrails. Highly visual and visceral writing. And then there is a lot of backstory about Mark Spitz and his squad. The novel lacks momentum and I found the reading tedious and the constant digressions confusing at times.
I also found myself having to look up the meaning of a lot of words—many of which I hadn’t encountered before. And I’m not what you call unread (or undead, like a zombie). Whitehead has one hell of a vocabulary, but his word choices did nothing to enhance the reading experience. Was he showing off a bit?
I write this review with some misgivings, because The Nickel Boys and The Underground Railroad were such powerful, compelling novels. I guess there’s a reason those were the prize-winners, rather than Zone One.