Category: literary fiction

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.

Genre Fiction

genre fiction, literary fiction, writing life September 20, 2010

My name is Nikki and I write genre fiction.

There. I said it.

I don’t write literary fiction. Did you say that with the proper amount of breathiness? Say it with the italics. Literary fiction– the kind of cerebral writing that means the writer has done an adequate amount of soul-searching, of yoga, meditation and hand-wringing to make it existential and meaningful. Literary fiction is preferably written on a windswept beach or in a squalid kitchen surrounded by poverty.

Nope, I write genre fiction, specifically mystery fiction. I write the kind of fiction that requires me to research poisons and firearms (which led to some really awesome hobbies, but more on that another day), the kind of fiction that leads to hesitant comments from my kids’ teacher during conferences- “Your child says his father pretended to be dead under the dining room table while you planned his discovery.” *sidelong glance* “And that the topic of discussion at the dinner table was whether belladonna or divinorum would have the grossest side effects.” I write my fiction in my attic office, accompanied by the sounds of arguing, barking and lawn mowing.

From About.com:

Definition: “Webster’s” defines “genre” as “a kind; sort; type: said of works of literature, art, etc.” On this site, and in general, “genre fiction” refers to nonliterary works and include the categories of mystery, science fiction, fantasy, romance, western, and horror. Genre fiction tends to be written and read primarily for entertainment. Though it may certainly aspire to and attain other goals, entertainment is the primary objective. However, as David Mamet points out in his essay, “The Humble Genre Novel, Sometimes Full of Genius,” many works now considered great literature were originally genre novels. Raymond Chandler, of course, exemplifies this phenomenon. (Mamet goes so far as to open his essay with the line, “For the past thirty years the greatest novelists writing in English have been genre writers.”)

If you’re unsure whether your story or novel can be considered both genre fiction and literary fiction, it’s worthwhile trying both camps. It certainly doesn’t hurt to have more options for publishing your work, especially if you’re not too proud.

That’s kind of insulting, particularly that last line. I’m fine with defining genre fiction as something being written for entertainment. Why else are movies made? Hollywood wouldn’t exist if we didn’t like to be entertained. But that last line… “especially if you’re not too proud.” Excuse me? So I can only have pride in my work if I sell it as literary fiction? (Read it with the italics, come on now. If you can get a sigh out, even better.)

I, and my closest writer friends, write the books that everyone loves to read, but tend to hide on the bus or train. Why is this?

Is there really some social stigma to genre fiction? There are definitely genre writers who have straddled the fence, in the sense that their genre fiction has become acceptable. Stephen King, James Patterson, Janet Evanovich, Dean Koontz, and, gee, J.K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer come to mind. Hmmm… Most of what we consider classics today started as genre fiction. Pride and Prejudice wasn’t the great work of art we consider it today. When it was published in 1813 it was considered a “fashionable novel.” What about a piece of work blurs that line between genre and literary fiction?

In terms of sales, the romance genre outsells everything else. Why is that? Aside from the fact that more women tend to make book purchases than men, I believe it’s because romance novels tell a timeless tale. Everyone can relate to the joy and pain of loving another person. Literary work often deals with subjects that are relatively unrelatable or even painful (Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye comes to mind here- beautiful but horrible at the same time). Reading is an escape. I want to laugh, I want a puzzle, I want a thrill, I want to laugh, I want a happy ending. I think most readers do. I’m not surprised that romance outsells everything else- I am surprised that a lot of people don’t like to admit they read it.

So before you rest your book in your bag so fellow commuters can’t see the title, think about it. Think about the merit of genre fiction. If it’s good enough to be in your hand, be proud.