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.