ZONE ONE, by Colson Whitehead. Doubleday, 259 pp., $25.95.
It's not inappropriate that celebrated serious-fiction writer Colson Whitehead's latest project would be "Zone One," a short, punchy zombie novel. Look there, decorating every page: braaaaaaains.
Whitehead's uncommonly assured style and his observational gifts make the book a pleasure to read, so long as you can avoid asking yourself, "Is this going anywhere?" Possible spoiler: not for a while.
The story is set deep into the apocalypse, after a plague has turned people into zombies and the major battles have been fought and heroes celebrated. The protagonist, Mark Spitz, is black; colleagues have nicknamed him after the Olympian, demonstrating that even the old "black people can't swim" joke / slur has survived the apocalypse. Mark is a civilian charged by the provisional government in Buffalo with hunting down and killing leftover zombies in post-plague Manhattan.
The book follows Mark as he and his paramilitary unit hunt the mobile deceased and contemplate the dead past. The human race is trying desperately to resettle Manhattan in the face of what one character calls, in a marvelous bit of bureaucratese, "a density problem" with the multitudinous undead outside the newly erected walls around human settlements. "Zone One" isn't filled with too many living characters, but Mark's memories of the world as it was and descriptions of the way it ended include plenty of incidental characters who live just long enough to die. It's a very sad book, as though Max Brooks' blockbuster future history "World War Z" had been written by Camus.
In the book's very first zombie-related encounter, Mark stumbles unprepared across four slavering undead women in an office building's Human Resources department. "After all this time, they were a thin membrane of meat stretched over bone," begins Whitehead. The monsters gaze at our hero, seeing only one thing: food.
"The youngest one wore its hair in a style popularized by a sitcom that took as its subject three roommates of seemingly immiscible temperaments and their attempts to make their fortune in this contusing city," the author explains, for about half a page, and then, finally, somebody gets to chomp on somebody else.
I suppose it's boorish to demand constant action from a horror novel, but the book's mere existence implies an effort by the author (or at least the publisher) to reach a wider audience by coupling prizewinning prose with a beloved movie monster. The first hundred pages of "Zone One" tell the story of a single day in which this is far and away the most interesting encounter; the second day heats up the action, and the third and final section is the book's most trenchant and creepiest, but Whitehead doesn't really merge satire and horror so much as alternate between the two until Day Three.
The satire is funny enough to make you (well, me) laugh out loud in public places, and I highlighted whole pages that amusingly describe the silliness of the reconstruction effort's corporate bureaucracy, or the stupid public obsession with one family's premature triplets amid the rubble of civilization. It's hard to think of a book anything like "Zone One" -- "literary" fiction writers frequently embarrass themselves when they dip into genre (Justin Cronin's "The Passage" comes to mind), but Whitehead obviously knows what he's doing, and the point of his novel seems to be that horror is the same on either side of the apocalypse.
"If they could bring back paperwork, Mark Spitz thought, they could certainly reanimate prejudice, parking tickets, and reruns," Whitehead writes. "There were plenty of things in the world that deserved to stay dead, yet they walked."
Breaking the rules of genre fiction
BY SAM THIELMAN, Special to Newsday
Serious literary authors have often looked to genre fiction for inspiration. Some standouts:
'THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA' Late in his career, Philip Roth tried his hand at alternate-history sci-fi with this 2004 novel about an America in which Charles Lindbergh is elected president and collaborates with Nazi Germany.
'THE PASSAGE' Justin Cronin earned the Stephen Crane Prize for his tender short-story collection "Mary and O'Neill" in 2001. Nine years later, his bloody vampire novel "The Passage" was bought by Ballantine in a bidding war and is set for a film adaptation by "Alien" helmer Ridley Scott.
'THE YIDDISH POLICEMEN'S UNION' After winning the Pulitzer for "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay," Michael Chabon decided to try an alternate-history detective novel set in the Jewish settlement . . . of Sitka, Alaska. Chabon netted sci-fi awards from the Hugo to the Locus to the Nebula for this one.
'TOWARD THE END OF TIME' Towering writer John Updike wasn't just interested in present-day New England; he also wrote about the New England of the future in this novel set after a Sino-American nuclear war.
EXCERPT: "Zone One" by Colson Whitehead
He always wanted to live in New York. His Uncle Lloyd lived downtown on Lafayette, and in the long stretches between visits he daydreamed about living in his apartment. When his mother and father dragged him to the city for that season's agreed-upon exhibit or good-for-you Broadway smash, they usually dropped in on Uncle Lloyd for a quick hello. These afternoons were preserved in a series of photographs taken by strangers. His parents were holdouts in an age of digital multiplicity, raking the soil in lonesome areas of resistance: a coffee machine that didn't tell time, dictionaries made out of paper, a camera that only took pictures. The family camera did not transmit their coordinates to an orbiting satellite. It did not allow them to book airfare to beach resorts with close access to rain forests via courtesy shuttle. There was no prospect of video, high-def or otherwise. The camera was so backward that every lurching specimen his father enlisted from the passersby was able to operate it sans hassle, no matter the depth of cow-eyed vacancy in their tourist faces or local wretchedness inverting their spines. His family posed on the museum steps or beneath the brilliant marquee with the poster screaming over their left shoulders, always the same composition. The boy stood in the middle, his parents' hands dead on his shoulders, year after year. He didn't smile in every picture, only that percentage culled for the photo album. Then it was in the cab to his uncle's and up the elevator once the doorman screened them. Uncle Lloyd dangled in the doorframe and greeted them with a louche "Welcome to my little bungalow."
As his parents were introduced to Uncle Lloyd's latest girlfriend, the boy was down the hall, giddy and squeaking on the leather of the cappuccino sectional and marveling over the latest permutations in home entertainment. He searched for the fresh arrival first thing. This visit it was the wireless speakers haunting the corners like spindly wraiths, the next he was on his knees before a squat blinking box that served as some species of multimedia brainstem. He dragged a finger down their dark surfaces and then huffed on them and wiped the marks with his polo shirt. The televisions were the newest, the biggest, levitating in space and pulsing with a host of extravagant functions diagramed in the unopened owner's manuals. His uncle got every channel and maintained a mausoleum of remotes in the storage space inside the ottoman. The boy watched TV and loitered by the glass walls, looking out on the city through smoky anti-UV glass, nineteen stories up.
The reunions were terrific and rote, early tutelage in the recursive nature of human experience. "What are you watching?" the girlfriends asked as they padded in bearing boutique seltzer and chips, and he'd say "The buildings," feeling weird about the pull the skyline had on him. He was a mote cycling in the wheels of a giant clock. Millions of people tended to this magnificent contraption, they lived and sweated and toiled in it, serving the mechanism of metropolis and making it bigger, better, story by glorious story and idea by unlikely idea. How small he was, tumbling between the teeth. But the girlfriends were talking about the monster movies on TV, the women in the monster movies bolting through the woods or shriveling in the closet trying not to make a sound or vainly flagging down the pickup that might rescue them from the hillbilly slasher. The ones still standing at the credit roll made it through by dint of an obscure element in their character. "I can't stand these scary stories," the girlfriends said before returning to the grown-ups, attempting an auntly emanation as if they might be the first of their number promoted to that office. His father's younger brother was fastidious when it came to expiration dates.
He liked to watch monster movies and the city churning below. He fixed on odd details. The ancient water towers lurking atop obstinate old prewars and, higher up, the massive central-air units that hunkered and coiled on the striving high-rises, glistening like extruded guts. The tar-paper pates of tenements. He spotted the occasional out-of-season beach chair jackknifed on gravel, seemingly gusted up from the street below. Who was its owner? This person staked out corners of the city and made a domain. He squinted at the slogans cantering along stairwell entrances, the Day-Glo threats and pidgin manifestos, a.k.a.'s of impotent revolutionaries. Blinds and curtains were open, half open, shut, voids in a punch card decipherable only by defunct mainframes lodged in the crust of unmarked landfills. Pieces of citizens were on display in the windows, arranged by a curator with a taste for non sequitur: the splayed pinstriped legs of an urban golfer putting into a colander; half a lady's torso, wrapped in a turquoise blazer, as glimpsed through a trapezoid; a fist trembling on a titanium desk. A shadow bobbed behind a bathroom's bumpy glass, steam slithering through the slit.
He remembered how things used to be, the customs of the skyline. Up and down the island the buildings collided, they humiliated runts through verticality and ambition, sulked in one another's shadows. Inevitability was mayor, term after term. Yesterday's old masters, stately named and midwifed by once-famous architects, were insulted by the soot of combustion engines and by technological advances in construction. Time chiseled at elegant stonework, which swirled or plummeted to the sidewalk in dust and chips and chunks. Behind the facades their insides were butchered, reconfigured, rewired according to the next era's new theories of utility. Classic six into studio honeycomb, sweatshop killing floor into cordoned cubicle mill. In every neighborhood the imperfect in their fashion awaited the wrecking ball and their bones were melted down to help their replacements surpass them, steel into steel. The new buildings in wave upon wave drew themselves out of rubble, shaking off the past like immigrants. The addresses remained the same and so did the flawed philosophies. It wasn't anyplace else. It was New York City.
From "Zone One" by Colson Whitehead. Copyright © 2011 by Colson Whitehead. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.