Zone One by Colson Whitehead

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“If they could bring back paperwork, Mark Spitz thought, they could certainly reanimate prejudice, parking tickets, and reruns. There were plenty of things in the world that deserved to stay dead, yet they walked.”

Zone One is a literary novel and as such is more focused on poetic language than action. The prose is filled with metaphors, similes, foreshadowing, personification, thesaurus words, and pages of description. So even though it’s a zombie book, it’s one your English teacher will be proud of you for reading.

It starts with an unnamed boy falling in love with New York City. We never learn the boy’s real name, but his nickname later in the book is Mark Spitz. We’re told his defining characteristic is how extremely average he is. (Although, he does have an unusually rich vocabulary for a someone who routinely got Bs on his vocabulary tests.) Like most people, he only survived the initial wave of zombies due to luck.

I appreciated many things the novel did that differed from standard zombie fare. For one thing, it focuses on the effort to rebuild society post-disaster rather than dealing with a small group of people just trying to survive (although, we get that too in the form of flashbacks). Most people have become religious to some degree, which makes sense given the circumstances. Also, everybody either has PASD (post-apocalyptic stress disorder) or a preexisting mental condition exacerbated by the plague.

Unlike standard zombie novels, the survivors in the U. S. have contact with other countries and the fact that nuclear meltdowns will happen if nobody is left to maintain the power plants is mentioned. Also, the armed forces actually exist and are able to take out most of the zombies with relative ease. The zombies eventually die on their own after enough time. Isolationist communities who try to go it alone inevitably end up with a power-crazed leader and the community always ends up getting infected. The only chance for survival is joining one of the remaining cities.

The zombie themselves don’t make sense, of course, because they never do. The infection is spread through bites and takes less than a day for symptoms to appear. Given what we know about disease, an infection that spreads this way would be easy to contain. It would make more sense for the disease to be airborne and for symptoms to not appear for a while if you want it to spread rapidly.

Mark is part of a trio who clean up the few straggler zombies left behind. His team members are Gary, a former mechanic who refers to himself using the royal we, and Kaitlyn, a bubbly overachiever who likes doing paperwork. The novel meanders around in a stream of consciousness way full of flashbacks and reminiscing so it takes a while for anything to happen.

It’s light on dialogue, but what little there is tends to be funny. We get a dream sequence at one point which uses the classic “zombies are us” metaphor. When you think about, we’re the real zombies right? We all just mindlessly perform our jobs, watch TV, and consume services without really living. That’s the metaphor anyway.

For the most part, Zone One is surprisingly optimistic for a zombie novel, although it does get just as pessimistic as the rest of them by the end.

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