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Colson Whitehead: Zone One

So what is it with zombies? From Jane Austen to Joyce Carol Oates, from Max Brooks to spoofs of the Dummy books, they all seem to be at it. And now Colson Whitehead, of all people, joins the throng. I enjoyed Night of the Living Dead and Shaun of the Dead as much as the next person but as the subject of serious fiction? I suspect that his publishers were a bit worried, too, as they added the subtitle A Zombie Novel with Brains. Don’t zombies eat human brains? I must admit that before I started reading this book, I had no idea it was about zombies and had not seen the sub-title. I read it because it was a Colson Whitehead book and I am not sure that I would have done so had I known it was about zombies. But what the hell, in for a penny, in for a pound.

Actually, it isn’t all that bad a book, indeed quite enjoyable. It seems that the world (probably, though the focus is naturally on the US) has been hit suddenly by a zombie virus, though transmission seems to be only by being bitten, so it is not clear why it spread so quickly but, apparently, it did. The survivors have named the day of the attack Last Night. When the book starts, things are getting better. Some sort of government has been established in Buffalo (Buffalo! Yes, Whitehead has a lot of jokes in this book). The marines have moved through Manhattan, killing off the bulk of the zombies. There are two kinds – the stragglers and the more aggressive ones. All have to be destroyed and various teams have been created for this purpose. We follow a team that is clearing up stragglers in Zone One, which is the southern part of Manhattan. The team is just three people – Kaitlyn, the leader, Gary and Mark Spitz. Mark Spitz is not, of course, his real name but his nickname (we never know his real name). He is, of course, named after the real Mark Spitz. We only find out about half way through the book that the name was given to him when, in his previous assignment, he was in a group clearing up I-95. He was on a bridge when he was suddenly attacked by a group of zombies. Instead of jumping into the river and swimming to safety, as his colleagues did (he claims that he never learned to swim), he shot up all the attackers.

Mark is our hero, if there is a hero. We follow his early life. He is Mr. Average, as Whitehead takes great pains to point out, always doing well but not too well. If yearbooks had voted for the Most Likely To as they did in the past, he would have been voted Most Likely Not to Be Named the Most Likely Anything. Kaitlyn is fairly average, too. She boasted that she had twice been elected student councillor. Gary was one of triplets but his two siblings had been killed by zombies. He still used the first person plural when talking. Mark had been working for a major coffee company, which looks remarkably like Starbucks, when the plague struck. His job had been to promote the company through social networking sites. Unlike some of his colleagues, he managed to escape and survived by hiding in houses and even hiding in a toy store with a Jewish woman who was still calling herself a mother (and nothing else), even though her husband and children had almost certainly died. He had joined the crew clearing up I-95. Some of the team cleared the crashed vehicles, of which there were many, while his job was to look out for stray zombies and kill them. However, as he had lived and worked in New York, when the opportunity came to work there, he took it.

The three of them now fairly easily find the stragglers and dispose of them, though, of course, not without a few incidents on the way. Things seem to be getting better. Buffalo has more of the country under control. There is talk of people moving back to New York. Better equipment is available. But, of course, things are going to go wrong, drastically wrong. We have all the standard zombie set pieces – a secure house surrounded by zombies who, at first, just drift around and then attack, soldiers outnumbered, apparently inactive zombies suddenly attacking and so on. But is this a zombie novel with brains? I take that to mean that it is not intended as a straightforward zombie novel but that the zombies represent something. Interestingly enough, as in Night of the Living Dead, racism is not an issue, despite the presence of blacks and whites. Indeed, it is not till late in the novel that we realise that Mark Spitz is African-American. So are the zombies a general symbol for the decay of or society? Possibly, though Whitehead makes no issue of that. One possibility is that Mark Spitz and, indeed, the others, tend to look at the zombies as everyone else. Is that how we all look at people we do not know, as others, different, zombies? Whatever your interpretation of the zombies this is not a bad book but I hope that Whitehead gets back more to the real world in his next work.

Publishing history

First published 2011 by Doubleday