on January 17, 2012
It must be the overwhelming volume of extremely poor apocalyptic zombie novels that are to blame for the shock one experiences when you find one of real quality. Whitehead is an accomplished author who turns his talents to the genre arguably with similar impact as McCarthy had with The Road. The story has us join this shocking new world more than a year after the outbreak. The main character, Mark Spitz (a name given during apocalyptic events), once worked in "Customer Relationship Management, New Media Department, of a coffee multinational" which is one small example of Whitehead's humour and jaded outlook of current society.
The tale is centred during reconstruction efforts in Manhattan when the threat is still real but there is an organized effort to return to the way things used to be. It employs flashbacks of Spitz's previous life, his and other survivor's "Last Night" stories, and vignettes of survival. But what Whitehead does extremely well is he challenges the boring repetition of conventional zombie fiction often framed in what he calls "that interregnum cliche". At various points throughout the book he destroys the recurring myths that have been advanced in so many of these books, such as:
- "The new micro-societies inevitably imploded, on the island getaways, in reclaimed prisons, at the mountain top ski lodge accessible only by sabotaged funicular, in the underground survivalist hideouts finally summoned to utility." (this actually made me laugh when I thought of how many zombie novels involve prisons)
- Inbound lanes to large cities are free of paralyzed vehicles (think of The Walking Dead) while in this "particular apocalypse, the human beings were messy and did not obey the rules, and every lane in and out, every artery and vein, was filled with outbound traffic."
- Gone are the usual archetypes and characters of survivalist heroes, mad military men, marauding gangs, redneck rapists, the rich who try to buy their survival, etc.
In essence, the book asks what if our cozy world of consumerism was jarred irreparably? What would we miss? The author definitely eschews capitalism, materialism, and shallowness as evidenced by the following descriptions:
- "run-down waterfront districts of fabricated historical import that had been tarted up into tourist mills."
- "He had been here before and not been here before. That was the magic of the (restaurant) franchise."
- "The thing about these boutique hotels is that you can be anywhere in the world. They really had it down before the plague - the international language of hospitality."
- "He missed the stupid stuff everyone missed, the wifi and the workhorse chromium toasters, mass transportation and gratis transfers, rubbing cheese-puff dust on his trousers..."
He seems to suggest that our world is experiencing a vacuous, economic apocalypse of sorts right now. Characters in the book offer many reasons for why the dead came back to life altering world order. The most clear supposition is summed by a survivor as, "The dead came to scrub the Earth of capitalism and the vast bourgeois superstructure, with its doilies, helicopter parenting, and streaming video, return us to nature and wholesome communal living." Cleverly, Whitehead refers to one type of zombies called stragglers, those trapped in an unexplained paralysis, as an "aberrant one percent" compared to deadly skels comprising the other 99% of the zombie population. One character muses that it would be a different story if the percentages were reversed.
But do not let me imply that this is a thinly veiled rant against this world's economic 1%. The book provides action and scenarios that are riveting and sure to thrill fans of the genre. And at its core are the efforts in Manhattan. Given it was an island with streets in clear grids, the new authorities thought "It could be subdued and understood." They knew it would be great 'P.R.' to resettle Manhattan for morale amongst the survivors in the U.S. and to brag to other nations struggling to return to order. They set out to do so through a systematic reclamation commencing with Zone One (think Bagdad Green Zone). Then these efforts and others in America experience "reversals, complications" which add an unexpected dimension to the story.
Many of the reviews I have read on Amazon seem to support my theory that given there is so much bad zombie fiction out there that when we actually are given a good one, we may be incapable of recognizing it.
on November 30, 2011
Though the book was a fun ride, I found myself wanting more. I understand that there was a minimalist approach to the themes of this book - both in the past and the present - to let the reader imagine the scenarios on a personal basis, but I found myself wanting more action and a more complete conclusion; but I do understand the ending, as there really is no ending in an 'End of the World' scenario.
I did enjoy the ties made to modern consumerism and trends in North America throughout the book, a very good reflection of soicety.
I would recommend the book, though it would not be number one on my list.
One of the better American writers of my generation is Colson Whitehead, whose "The Intuitionist" was a fine literary debut, with subsequent excellence demonstrated in "John Henry Days" and "Sag Harbor". While I have the utmost admiration for Whitehead's literary craft, that craft stumbles precipitously in his latest novel, "Zone One", a highbrow literary attempt in horror and science fiction that is itself, a literary zombie; one which honors the standard tropes seen in these genres, but does so in a most superficial way, lacking any semblance of empathy for any of the main characters. Yet Whitehead is not alone in doing this, since Margaret Atwood has embarked upon a similar dismal course in her recent bioengineered ecological dystopian science fiction. Among our notable highbrow literary scribes, only Rick Moody has demonstrated a genuine, quite substantial, understanding and appreciation of science fiction as a genre with ample potential as high literary art, via great short fiction like "The Albertine Notes" and the novel "The Four Fingers of Death", though others, such as Jonathan Lethem ("Gun, with Occasional Music", "Girl in Landscape") and Gary Shteyngart ("Super Sad True Love Story"), have demonstrated similar affinity in their respective works.
Anyone who writes a novel of dystopian zombie science fiction will inevitably find their work compared with Richard Matheson's "I Am Legend", widely acclaimed as one of the finest vampire/zombie genre fiction novels ever published, perhaps second only to Bram Stoker's "Dracula". Matheson's protagonist, Richard Neville, is a far more interesting, and more sympathetic, individual than Whitehead's Mark Spitz, a young man who spends several horrific days in downtown Manhattan (New York City) hunting down the stragglers, the lone wolves, of a worldwide pandemic that has condemned the afflicted, transforming them into flesh-eating zombies. While "I Am Legend" is classic genre fiction, its literary style is far more refined than what the reader encounters in "Zone One". Whitehead's novel also suffers from its lethargic pacing; one which is light-years removed from the heart-pounding prose of Matt Ruff's "Bad Monkeys" or the almost machine gun-like prose of Neal Stephenson's "Cryptonomicon".
Science fiction and fantasy is replete with many examples of high literary art written by authors often dismissed by mainstream writers and critics for devoting themselves to this genre. One can think not only of Matt Ruff and Neal Stephenson, but especially, the likes of Iain M. Banks (who writes great mainstream fiction as Iain Banks), Samuel Delany, William Gibson, Ursula K. Le Guin, China Mieville, Michael Moorcock, Bruce Sterling, Michael Swanwick, and Gene Wolfe as among our finest literary stylists working in contemporary science fiction. In comparison with their work - even their lesser examples - Whitehead's latest novel is a far less noteworthy effort. Yet it is a work that will still resonate with his most devoted fans and with those unfamiliar with science fiction and its rich literary tradition.