Throwback Thursday: Zone One

Book cover: Zone One - Colson Whitehead (illustration of an eye in close-up, iris and pupil shaded red)

Mark Spitz was the very definition of average, carried along unresisting by the currents of middle class life… until the dead started walking.

Now he’s a traumatised loner – sorry, seasoned survivor – sweeping up the remnants of the apocalypse so that the living can return to Manhattan.

Welcome to Zone One.

I’ve been wanting to read Zone One for years, so it was the obvious choice for Z in my LitsyAtoZ challenge. Zone One has a lot of curiosity value: it’s a zombie apocalypse set after the end of the world, focused on its reconstruction, which sounds like an interesting twist on the genre. There’s a suggestion that all is not as rosy as it sounds, promising shenanigans along the way. Plus it was written by Colson Whitehead, a bloke who went on to win not one by two Pulitzers, and I have a car crash fascination with what literary authors make of genre.

It’s a shame, then, that I was seething on Twitter just a few pages in. Initially, I was darkly amused that the first zombies – encountered during a routine sweep of an office block – are the starving HR team of a downtown legal firm. Aha, I thought, insert your own corporate snark here; Manhattan was always going to be fertile ground for snide commentary on parasites. These three ladies have been locked in their office since the outbreak (remember, you don’t have to outrun the zombie, just your co-workers), so naturally – naturally – their clothes have fallen off to expose their underwear.

Imagine my long, steady gaze to camera. 

One of them wears the same brand of panties as his last two ex-girlfriends; one is wearing a thong. He has time to absorb and pass comment on this. The one he identifies as the first infected reminds him of his sixth-grade English teacher, most notable in his memory for her torpedo bras (I’m not American, so perhaps sixth-graders are older than I think, but really? REALLY?). 

It’s the 21st century folks, and men are still filling their horror with half-naked women. Hungry half-naked dead women, in this case. 

I used to feel obliged to finish every book. Now? Now, I’ve learned to DNF with abandon. There’s too many good books (and not enough time to read them all) to persevere with one that isn’t working for me. But every now and again, some external motivation makes me stick it out. Zone One has the saving grace of being fairly short, and I wanted to cross Z off my alphabet challenge. Egged on by Twitter friends – self-declared rubberneckers who wanted to know how big a car crash this would turn out to be – I gritted my teeth and kept on reading.

Force finishing can very occasionally be transformative, leaving you with a considered appreciation even if you’re never quite won over. Mostly, though, if a book alienates me early on that first mis-step makes it awfully easy to find fault with the rest. 

It’s a shame, as I was genuinely intrigued by the pitch of rebuilding after the apocalypse. But where it delivers on old-school sexism (yes, there’s more, although not as much as the opening chapter sets you up to expect), Zone One doesn’t really live up to its interesting premise.

Much of the narrative is told in extended flashbacks overcrowded with disjointed anecdotes as Mark reflects on his former life and his experiences since Last Night; off-the-shelf zombie tropes made new only by their literary gloss. No need to worry about gore (although brace yourself for the seemingly inevitable scene where eating someone is given sexual connotations); this is mostly low-key fare, rarely punctuated by tension. 

The apocalypse has been good to Mark. It rescues him from meaningless jobs (although I enjoyed his soulless tenure as a social media drone for a nameless coffee chain) and gets him out of his parents’ basement. It validates his self-interest and lack of engagement with or commitment to others. It frees him from having to make his girlfriends less than human to extricate himself from relationships by actually making prospective girlfriends less than human. 

Mark describes people like himself as ‘unsnuffable human cockroaches protected by carapaces of good luck’, defines himself by his limited ambitions (he’d like to live in a Manhattan high-rise and enjoy a progression of disposable girlfriends, sigh), is happy to be average in every way. I could try to make a case for the focus on the mediocre being a bold choice in a genre of heroics and tragedies, if he weren’t so crushingly dull. 

This for me is where Zone One succeeds: it eschews heroics for a crushing conviction that survival is arbitrary, your odds increased – marginally – by assuming the worst will always happen, that any good news story is a mirage. It indulges in gleeful satire, depicting a government that restricts foraging to goods produced by corporate sponsors and spends its energies on post-apocalyptic rebranding exercises (the PR flak stalking Zone One in her high heels – and her acidic scorn at their gullibility – hits me in the Claire Dearing feels).

While I’d like to laud Zone One for allowing apocalypse to encompass the banal, it is less given to celebrating than to sneering at its chosen focus. It evinces no affection for what has been lost, presenting a soulless society that forged community from conformity, walking dead long before infection struck. I should probably read Mark’s scorn as self-defence: however terrible survival may be, there’s little to miss about his former life. 

For all zombie clean up feels like a new angle, in the end Zone One feels horribly overfamiliar in the story it tells, lacking Station Eleven’s affectionate nostalgia or the ingenious immediacy of World War Z to give it fresh life. It’s an everyman’s post-apocalypse, a literary concept that would nonetheless have benefited from somebody involved having just a smidge of charm. Instead, it mostly indulges in misanthropic nihilism, which isn’t really my jam. 

It’s hard not to root for the zombies.

I rooted for the zombies.