Zone One Summary

Colson Whitehead

Zone One

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Zone One Summary

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Blended genres like the prose poem or creative nonfiction are tried and true and come as nothing shocking to readers.  In Colson Whitehead’s Zone One, however, genres collide in a most unexpected and untraditional manner.  Whitehead, lauded for his literary fiction (The Intuitionist, John Henry Days), couples his Pulitzer Prize winning voice with paeans to horror fiction in this multi-layered novel of a zombie apocalypse.

The narrative of Zone One begins after a zombie uprising has existed for some time and rebuilding of American society is underway.  Perhaps symbolic of race and class distinctions, two types of zombies have emerged as part of the aftermath of a civilization-changing plague.  One surviving, though rapidly deteriorating, group of the infected are the stragglers who slowly wander New York’s lower Manhattan region, now known as Zone One. The region has already been mostly cleansed of the more aggressive skels who had been removed by the reigning military power.  Mark Spitz, a survivor who has become a soldier is working as a sweeper, one charged with combing the streets to rid them block by block of the remaining dead.

The national regime now in power is a corporatized government centered in Buffalo and known as “American Phoenix” while the seat of local power is in Manhattan’s Chinatown area.  Whitehead enlists satire and social commentary with the effects of recession and life in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks blatantly and/or metaphorically providing thoughts and imagery.  Paralleling and eventually merging past and present becomes a device that can both enlighten and confuse.

Spitz’s past and the early days of the plague that led America into the zombie apocalypse (from which he is doing his part to help the country rise above) are illuminated through the novel’s structure which makes liberal use of flashback that can at times blur the line between past and present.  This, however, is not necessarily problematic as it can be seen as consistent with, or at very least a reflection of, Spitz’s increasing PASD, the acronym for the newly emerging psychological disorder, Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder.  PASD, intentionally or not, sounds like “past” even though it is emerging in the present.  In flashbacks, Spitz recalls at length his friends and family and his life before the plague.

Through flashbacks Whitehead juxtaposes the past and present and in so doing does the same with hope and despair.  The desire to recapture normalcy is continually squelched by the abnormity of what present day society has become.  The bureaucracy of a corporate sponsored government, it appears, is even more than that of a traditional ruling body.  Spitz and those working to literally and figuratively clean up the mess know that if and when the job is done, Manhattan will not be theirs.  It will be for the elite and powerful.

Critical reaction the Zone One was positive though with qualifications.  Writing in the New York Times Glen Duncan warned, “There will be grumbling from self-appointed aficionados of the undead…and we’ll have to listen for another season or two to critics batting around the notion that genre-slumming is a recent trend, but none of that will hurt Zone One which is a cool, thoughtful and, for all its ludic violence, strangely tender novel, a celebration of modernity and a preemptive wake for its demise.” (“Sunday Book Review”, October 30, 2011, page BR21)

Similarly, Chris Barton of the Los Angeles Times lauded the novel as rising above the potentially base subject matter.  “Because as much as Whitehead was inspired by and occasionally references the ‘70s disaster movies that share DNA with Zone One, it’s his remarkable turns of phrase that lift the story above the gory rubble of a midday matinee.  Whether charged with bleak sadness or bone-dry humor, sentences worth savoring pile up faster than the body count.”  (Los Angeles Times, October 30, 2011)

At the nub of apocalyptic literature is the theme that the present is not a good time in which to exist and that some sort of change, a purging, is needed.  Further, there is an inherent need to pit good, or more precisely, God, against evil.  Zone One references a past filled with the problems and challenges of any modern city including the power plays of big business and government, and a present that along with those societal ills, has roving bands of zombies with which to contend.  Putting the undead into the mix makes it necessary to approach Zone One on symbolic/allegorical levels lest one view it as nothing more than an exercise in writing pulp by an author whose previous work suggests that to be too simplistic an approach.

Revelation is a key theme in apocalyptic literature and in Zone One it is not something discovered by or revealed to a hero, but rather an awakening that grows in Mark Spitz, not a god-like hero, but an “everyman” doing his small part to pick up the pieces of a shattered world.  Rather than a lightning bolt shattering the sky, Spitz’s biggest revelation may well be that trying to rebuild society is just a painful as living through its destruction.