Thursday, August 23, 2012

Book Review: Zone One by Colson Whitehead

“Mark Spitz” is a survivor. Although mediocre in all aspects of life until the plague hit, he is one of the minority who have survived the worst of the pandemic that has turned most people into zombies.

He has volunteered to be a “sweeper” in Manhattan — a member of a three-man military team that goes door-to-door looking for zombies who weren’t destroyed when the Marines secured half the island and walled off the other half. The government, what’s left of it in the U.S., has established itself upstate in Buffalo. Buffalo is supplying the bite-resistant uniforms and ammo.

“Mark Sptiz” is the ironic nickname given to the protagonist and the only name ever given for him in the novel. He earned it when he refused to jump off a bridge being overrun by mindless human flesh eaters. After annihilating them all, he was asked why he stayed instead of taking the safety route of jumping in the river like his comrades. “I can’t swim,” he replied, even though it wasn’t true.
Mark Sptiz’s ferocity on the bridge was probably the result of his PASD (post-apocalypse stress disorder). All survivors have it to some degree, because they’ve all seen and lived through horrific things. It takes different forms and is treated as nothing more than a personal tic.

Mark Sptiz volunteered to help secure Manhattan in part because he had always wanted to live there, like his rich uncle had. The city left behind after the plague is a ghost town, of course, but it retains its structure and architectural character, the empty office buildings, shops, apartments standing like statues made in tribute to life before the end.

Literary author Colson Whitehead (his latest previous novel, Sag Harbor, was published in 2009) uses this zombie apocalypse to explore Manhattan, American culture, and human nature. What are we when the social contract, with its preoccupation with the material, is broken? In a world where it’s not safe to become attached to others, lest they go out and never return, what’s left?

I found Zone One (released in paperback in July 2012) thoroughly engaging, and it has stuck with me. I became attached to Mark Spitz, but what really struck me was the vivid scenes of Manhattan: the office with zombies kicking around it, withering away for lack of food, still in their office attire; the empty residential street with the fortune-teller storefront among the brownstones.

Unlike many writers of apocalypse tales, Whitehead does not spend time on what caused the plague, no doubt because it doesn’t matter a whole lot for those left behind. They are too busy staying alive.

The post-apocalypse world is a hot topic in publishing, but Colson Whitehead’s offering is not your ordinary zombie novel. It’s a thoughtful monster story that stands out from the crowd.

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