At a glance:
Hardcover, from Doubleday Press, 259 pages, Print
Positive: strong finish, broad vocabulary, interesting take on post-apocalyptic economy
Negative: tries too hard, narrative structure (intentionally but maybe not successfully) convoluted, flashbacks and episodes longer (and less interesting in most cases) than linear plot
Rating: Better than okay.
Fans of zombie fiction: this book is worth a chance, but you have to meet it halfway… actually you have to meet it slightly more than that, that’s when it starts to get good.
If I could speak to the author: Colson Whitehead, though you will likely never read this: thank you. Despite being skeptical (read: picky and harsh) at first, I was won over by the thought that went into this novel. Though it takes you a while to hit your stride, when you get there you produce a gem in an otherwise dull landscape.
Colson Whitehead’s Zone One is a strange tale of post-apocalyptic (or really post-zombocalyptic) survival. What appeared to be its delusions of grandeur made it a hard read to stick with at first — Whitehead’s diction is often odd, the narration distancing one from rather than bringing one closer to his main character. The best example I can think of this is the inconsistent tone and language of the narrator. Fond of lofty vocabulary, he drops gems such as “lachrymose” and “anodyne” throughout the novel. He vascillates between a lofty, poetic voice and a colloquial voice unsettlingly defined primarily by the erratic use of the word “woulda.” Both voices come off cheap and false, the product of an author all too conscious of his narrator, though, can we fault an author for trying too hard? I don’t think so.
In fact, these are problems one rarely gets the chance to have with a zombie novel and it was refreshing to see someone try to craft an intelligent zombie narrative. Whitehead’s view of post-apocalypse society and economy is brilliant. We only see the American version of survival, but this version is — tellingly — defined by a corporate sponsored, privatized security. Society is primarily set up into two classes: the agricultural/industrial force and the security force. This security force is further divided into the military (which does the heavy work) and a volunteer group which maintains outposts and clears areas for settlement. Perhaps the most interesting facet, is the care that the sweepers — the corpse clearing unit — is forced to have in relation to property. They are only allowed to take materials manufactured by sponsor organizations — with a few exceptions — and they are under strict orders not to damage the windows, doors, and furniture in the places that they are clearing of (sometimes ambulatory) corpses. There is a lot of thought put into this aspect of the novel and it seems, to me, the most interesting and rewarding.
My opinion of the novel oscillated throughout. At first, I found it an unenjoyable morass of overblown language and underdeveloped structure; however, my opinion greatly changed about half of the way through the novel, when things really started coming together. Despite some cloying diction and some structural inconcsistencies — a major event is inconsistently foreshadowed out of temporal sync — the novel really pulls itself together. The main character is a bit of a bore, an attempt at an everyman-turned-superman, his persona seems paper-thin until the last third of the book. The supporting cast is a bit more interesting, but sees far too little attention, as we wend our way through the protagonists memories and experiences… constantly living in multiple past moments rather than the — vastly more interesting — present.
I’ve been too harsh, though, as I am wont to do. Zone One really does pull off a deliberate, educated version of the zombie narrative — thankfully devoid of a problematic Patient Zero or an implausible scientific explanation.
In the end, I came around. I would recommend this book based on its interesting take on economy and reconstruction, and its very strong finish. I can be much too harsh, at times, and for this dear reader — and Colson Whitehead — I apologize, now and forever.