Book Review: Colson Whitehead’s Zone One

book review, genre fiction, literary fiction September 28, 2011

My degree is in writing popular fiction, which lands me squarely in the genre field of writers, mingling with those folks eating cheese puffs and drinking beer, rather than with the literary novelists noshing on canapes and wine. Rarely do the camps socialize, preferring instead to turn their noses up at one another and pretend like we’re not all actually doing the same thing… writing to an audience with the intent to evoke emotion, to get the mind-wheels spinning, to create a moment of illumination or escape.

But! <here’s me with my aha finger in the air>

But sometimes a novelist will straddle the space between the writing forms and take the best of both worlds. Colson Whitehead accomplishes this feat in Zone One, his literary zombie novel.

A literary zombie novel? What? Yeah, I said the same thing when I was asked if I’d like to read this book for review.

“I thought you might be interested in reviewing Colson Whitehead’s new literary novel of the undead, Zone One,” read the email. I scratched my head and thought, okay, hey, let’s do this.

I’m incredibly glad I did.

My regular readers know that I try hard not to use spoilers in my reviews. I will do the same here.

Zone One immersed me immediately in the beautiful, urban atmosphere of New York City from the point of view of a child version of Mark Spitz, our protagonist. The Big Apple is a character in the book, the setting itself so intrinsically tied into Mark Spitz’ perception of the world that the story cannot extricate itself from the skyscrapers, the subways, or the tenements. The city comes alive, even as it dies.

Mark Spitz is a sweeper in Omega team, one of several civilian teams tasked with “sweeping” an assigned area of New York City– Zone One– clean of stragglers and the occasional skel. During a three-day sweep, the reader learns the background behind Mark Spitz’ integration into Reconstruction and the events that lead to the apocalypse. Mark Spitz is extraordinary in his mediocrity, lending a wry vision of life both before and after the events that unfold in the novel. He’s a solid B-average kind of guy, still living in his childhood home, eking out an existence, but not really living, when the world ends. He fumbles his way through the new order, in and out of other characters homes and lives, and into the Reconstruction effort, incredible only the sense that he’s alive. In the Zone, survivors deal with PASD, Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder, and the rigors of cleansing and recreating sections of New York. Whitehead’s protagonist is relatable, easy for the reader to identify with, but he is observant and thoughtful. His coping skills, including finding something familiar and holding on, are in every reader’s personal arsenal and bring his struggles closer to home.

Whitehead alternates scenes of action with narrative passages, comparing and contrasting life before “Last Night,” life in the Wasteland, and Mark Spitz’ present circumstance in Zone One. The action sequences, what I consider the “genre” aspect of the book, abound with elements that appealed to the horror writer and fan in me– Whitehead is not squeamish– and Mark Spitz’ bland acceptance of the ruin around him led my inner genre reader down the path of acceptance as well. Whitehead uses many familiar details to keep the reader grounded– indeed, the juxtaposition of the familiar onto the alien is one way Mark Spitz copes with his own horror and the clues that something is changing for the worse. His wry, matter-of-fact view of the world brings the fantastic elements into sharp clarity.

The narrative passages show us another side of the zombie apocalypse– the imagery evocative of both the horror of human ruin and the devastating beauty of a city falling apart. When we learn how Mark Spitz rationalizes dispatching skels or stragglers, the break in the action does not distract from the story, but rather serves to illustrate the need to maintain humanity in the face of anguish. This narrative, Whitehead’s literary side, adds depth to Spitz’ journey, it pauses the story to reflect on the human meaning of the zombie trope.

I noted very few mechanical issues with the book; a POV shift here or there, but they were tough catches. My only other pet peeve type problem involved an enthusiastic use of the word “leak” and it’s variations. Corpses did an awful lot of leaking in Zone One. I did appreciate the fact that this book forced me to my dictionary more than a few times, and I love an author that can use words like a gunslinger.

I love it when a book needs tabs.

Literary or not, I found myself completely drawn into the journeys of Mark Spitz. His is a story of the most basic of human trials– survival in the face of desolation and loneliness. The action in the story satisfied the genre reader in me, while the literary side of the story forced me to consider the social issues at hand. Could I survive the violence Mark Spitz is subjected to and still believe in the value of humanity?

Highly recommended reading for both my genre peers and my literary friends. My copy is now studded with tags and post-its and the margins are busy with my comments.

Zone One by Colson Whitehead is due for release on October 18, 2011.


Tattooed writer with an attitude seeks like minded people who appreciate snark and ink. Or snarky ink.

Comments 9

  1. Kristin Dearborn says on September 28, 2011

    Oooh…I think I will definitely check this out. I often get wary when books straddle genre and literary, I find that books often tend to retread ground that’s already been done without making anything new or exciting. But when it can be pulled off…I think of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s “Let the Right One In” and “Handling the Undead” as good examples of this…the results are stunning. Thanks for reading and sharing!

  2. Charlie Krone says on September 28, 2011

    Intrigued! I prefer video games that have subplots and depth to those where the only goal is to carve a tunnel through human (or otherwise) flesh to a boss. Similarly, I like the idea that even in a genre where suspension of disbelief is a prerequisite and gore is a given, you’ve alluded to a depth-of-character that has raised my eyebrows. I’ll go find the book. Thanks, Nikki!

  3. Meg Mims (@megmims) says on September 28, 2011

    WOW! great review, Nik. I did enjoy Maberry but I am squeamish about stuff… I may have to try this, since you made it sound like a “don’t-miss-this” book!

  4. KL Grady (@KL_Grady) says on September 28, 2011

    Sounds like a fresh and interesting addition to zombie fiction. I can’t pass that up!

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this book, Nik. It sounds similar to The Handmaid’s Tale, where spec fic met narrative passages with stream of consciousness. I’m not sure if you’ve read HT, but would you say the narrative passages were similar in form and intent in Zone One? And would you recommend this for reading in a pop fiction class?

    • Nikki says on September 28, 2011

      I have not read The Handmaid’s Tale, but will look for it now. I would definitely recommend this for reading in a pop fic class, just based on the unique use of a pop fic trope. Whitehead took the undead and put a new face on them– worth a look for any writer using tropes. It’s an excellent compare and contrast study for both literary and genre writers. Excellent question, thank you!

  5. Diane L. Kowalyshyn says on September 28, 2011

    This would not ever be a typical read for me, but you have piqued my interest. The fact that you say “the break in the action does not distract from the story, but rather serves to illustrate the need to maintain humanity in the face of anguish” brings the story full circle– it shows the how and tells the why. I’ve put this on my list because it strikes very close to home. I have a critique partner working on a horror story that features–“survival in the face of desolation and loneliness.”
    The only thing that puts me off is the protagonist’s name. Mark Spitz is emblazoned in my mind as the 1972 seven gold medal winner of the Munich Olympics.

  6. Pingback: NAIBA 2011 « thecompleatbookseller

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