Book Review: Zone One by Colson Whitehead

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2.5/5 Stars.

As I learned from reading The Underground Railroad (one of my favorite books of 2016), Colson Whitehead is all about taking a genre that you think you know and turning it on its head. Zone One is a zombie novel, but it’s not what we’ve come to expect from this sub-genre: it’s a snarky satire that focuses its commentary more on modern society than innate humanity.

In Whitehead’s post-apocalyptic world, survival is re-branded by teams of overseers who recognized the importance of good marketing. Those who are still alive aren’t called survivors, they’re called “the American Phoenix.” The camps and safe zones have names like “Babbling Brooks” and “Happy Acres” that make them sound more like suburban condominiums.

Mark Spitz, the book’s protagonist, is a mediocre man who thrives in this new world where he notes that “intellect and ingenuity and talent [are] as equally meaningless as stubbornness, cowardice, and stupidity.” Here he has taken on the job of a “sweeper,” tasked with clearing the streets of Manhattan of zombies.

Even Whitehead’s zombies are interesting. There are two different categories: the skels are your typical modern zombies, making up 99% of the infected. But then there’s the remaining 1%, dubbed the stragglers, who become frozen in place repeating a mundane task until they’re put out of their misery.

There are so many cool ideas here, but unfortunately cool ideas don’t make for a compelling story. As much as I appreciated the cleverness of Whitehead’s post-apocalyptic world, I felt bored for the majority of this book. Not a lot happens. The tension is minimal. The prose is verbose.

Zone One would have made an excellent short story. Whitehead is great writer with an enviable imagination. But that wasn’t enough to carry this full-length novel.

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Book Review: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

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It goes without saying that any story about a slave fleeing a plantation in 19th century American is going to be harrowing, but it doesn’t surprise me in the least to learn that Colson Whitehead is familiar with the horror genre: the relentless feeling of dread and terror he evokes in The Underground Railroad is palpable. But this isn’t the only thing that makes this novel truly brilliant.

The story follows Cora as she embarks on a journey North in search of freedom, tracked state by state by a ruthless slave catcher with a personal vendetta against her.

If you’ve ever wondered how a post-modernist would approach the topic of slavery, The Underground Railroad is your answer. In Whitehead’s imagining, it’s literally an underground railroad, and there are unique horrors that await Cora at each stop. While it’s no secret that Whitehead has cleverly departed from historical accuracy, the lines are blurred just enough for discomfort: each state that Cora enters is a sort of alternate history designed to represent America’s actual racial history.

It’s the cat-and-mouse narrative that propels the story forward — and Whitehead is a masterful storyteller proficient in the fine art of foreshadowing. He has this way of recounting events and dispelling information in a non-linear fashion that brilliantly and dreadfully sets the scene for what’s to come.

At the heart of The Underground Railroad  is a damning yet warranted thesis about America: “This nation shouldn’t exist, if there’s any justice in the world, for its foundations are murder, theft, and cruelty. Yet here we are.”

When Whitehead describes the dehumanization of black people in the 1800s, and how the slave owners and slave catchers rationalized their actions, it’s difficult not to draw parallels to present day America. In a world where white people are still desperate to own (and revise) the historical narrative — think Bill O’Reilly’s recent comments about the slaves who built the White House being well-fed — here, it’s Whitehead who is in control. The irony — and power — in his choice to present his own version of American history is certainly not lost.