Book Review: Zone One, by Colson Whitehead

Q: What do you get when you cross a literary writer with zombie genre fiction?

A: Zone One.

Zone One is not your typical zombie apocalypse novel. Sure, there are zombies (obvs), and there is the killing of zombies (obvs), but Zone One is more about nostalgia and longing for a city that will never be the same again.

The immediate story takes place over the course of a weekend. Mark Spitz (no, not that Mark Spitz) is a sweeper in post-zombie-apocalypse Manhattan, going from building to building with Omega Unit, exterminating the stragglers that were left behind after the military’s initial sweep to clean up the skels. Being in NYC brings back lots of memories for Mark Spitz, and the bulk of the book is his nostalgia for the old world, and his perceptions of its transformation starting on Last Night.

Zombies are one of two categories in Zone One: skels, which are the typical shambling, chomping zombies; and stragglers, which are the more interesting of the two. Stragglers don’t move. Stragglers don’t bite (or, they haven’t been known to). Stragglers seem to be stuck in a very specific time and place in their minds — like they’re hypnotized — and they end up in places that probably had some meaning to them before they died.

The stragglers posed for a picture and never moved again, trapped in a snapshot of their lives. In their paralysis, they invited a more perplexing variety of abuse. One might draw a Hitler mustache on one, or jab a sponsor cigarette between a straggler’s lips. Administer a wedgie. They didn’t flinch.

You almost feel bad for them. They aren’t dangerous. They don’t react. They are the easiest to kill. Stragglers are the minority. Mark and Omega Unit play “Solve The Straggler” in an attempt to lighten the post-apocalyptic mood.

Mark Spitz’s perceptions of the post-apocalyptic world (and Whitehead’s writing) really make the novel, and Spitz’s perceptions are DEEP. Zone One is less about the zombies and more about a world that when described by Spitz, really isn’t all that different from the world before Last Night. And the only way I know how to talk about Whitehead’s boss writing is by providing quotes. Whenever I think about the way Whitehead writes, I give a contented sigh.

Here are two of my favorite quotes (but the WHOLE BOOK is quotable):

The air filled with buzzing flies the way it had once been filled with the hydraulic whine of buses, the keening of emergency vehicles, strange chants into cell phones, high heels on sidewalk, the vast phantasmagorical orchestra of a living city. They loaded the dead. The rains washed the blood after a time. The New York City sewer system in its bleak centuries had suffered worse.

And later in the book…

It was the sound of the god of death from one of the forgotten religions, the one that got it right, upstaging the pretenders with their billions of duped faithful. Every god ever manufactured by the light of cave fires to explain the thunder or calling forth the fashionable supplications in far-flung temples was the wrong one. He had come around after all this time, preening as he toured the necropolis, his kingdom risen at last.

Sj and I reread this for Zombruary, and we were a *tiny* bit nervous about rereading it. We remembered how much we loved it when we read it six years ago, and there was a small part of us that was afraid it wouldn’t be quite as good as we remembered. We shouldn’t have feared. I loved it as much as the first time I read it, and sj thought it was *better* the second time. That’s high praise.

If you’re into post-apocalyptic fiction, I highly recommend Zone One.

9 thoughts on “Book Review: Zone One, by Colson Whitehead

  1. I seriously am so glad we re-read this! I think I liked it more cos we’ve read more of his work together, and it just shows that no matter the subject, he’s a master.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Right? It was really quite a surprise to everyone who had already been reading his stuff. And this really leans more toward literary fiction…but it’s still about zombies. It’s pretty awesome.


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