three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
56-Jan-Feb-2012
user_rating: 
0

A-Zone OneColson Whitehead is the author of novels including The Intuitionist (1999), John Henry Days (2001), and Sag Harbor (4 of 5 Stars Selection July/Aug 2009). He received a MacArthur Genius Award in 2002.

The Story: It's the zombie apocalypse--you know the drill. But the usual shuffling, moaning, and biting has been shaken up a bit by Colson Whitehead, who made his name with literary novels rather than genre fare. Zone One's plot takes place several months after the rising of the dead, as a provisional government based in Buffalo begins to retake Manhattan from the horde. Calling itself the "American Phoenix," the group comes complete with its own theme song and corporate sponsors. Our hero, Mark Spitz (not his real name), isn't sure he buys into the hype, but he does what he needs to do in order to survive as he is enlisted in the effort to clear New York of zombies that range from the usual flesh-eaters to poor souls whose corpses are stuck eternally waiting in fast-food lines and making photocopies.
Doubleday. 272 pages. $25.95. ISBN: 9780385528078

Guardian (UK) 4 of 5 Stars
"Whitehead does have a tendency to overwrite ... but he achieves a kind of miracle of tone. ... There have been sharper zombie tales--the bitter satirical punch of George A. Romero's original Night of the Living Dead film is unimprovable--but I can't recall one this sad and moving." Patrick Ness

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Whitehead, himself a New Yorker, writes about Spitz's travails in that brooding, vertical metropolis with a dark poetry, which makes this harrowing tale not just a juicy experiment in genre fiction but a brilliantly disguised meditation on a ‘flatlined culture' in need of its own rejuvenating psychic jolt." Tyrone Beason

StrangeHorizons.com 4 of 5 Stars
"Zone One may not reinvent zombies, but it does push them, as earlier masters of the genre did before, to someplace modern and adjacent: a place ripe for metaphorical and emotional exploit." Chris Kammerud

Cleveland Plain Dealer 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Every time we start caring about Mark Spitz, some moronic zombie jumps in the way. I never wanted to stop reading--Whitehead's writing is too entertaining--but I could never take Zone One seriously, either." John R. Alden

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"There will be grumbling from self-appointed aficionados of the undead (Sir, I think the author will find that zombies actually ...) 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 pre-emptive wake for its demise." Glen Duncan

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Readers who wouldn't ordinarily creep into a novel festooned with putrid flesh might be lured by this certifiably hip writer who can spin gore into macabre poetry. ... Zone One, a dark paean to the Big Apple, is an undead version of Whitehead's elegant essay collection, The Colossus of New York." Ron Charles

Boston Globe 2.5 of 5 Stars
"For a novel concerned with bone-crunching hellions, Zone One is a curiously slow read. ... Spitz, whose grayscale personality has the effect of making his situation seem dreadfully low-stakes, throws a damper on the book's potential energy." Molly Young

Telegraph (UK) 2.5 of 5 Stars
"As the story meanders through the relative wasteland of its plot, however, it becomes clear that Whitehead has overplayed his hand. ... Spirited satire and poignant arias to New York keep Zone One going, but it is eventually suffocated by an ennui that will send many zombie fans shuffling away in confusion." Benjamin Evans

San Francisco Chronicle 2 of 5 Stars
"[T]he stately, near-Austenian sentences of one of our more interesting and innovative writers [are] pressed into a worn zombie plot that, at best, seems a pale imitation of Max Brooks' much more impressive and entertaining World War Z. ... Mirthless, I'm afraid, is the operative word here for this zombie imitator in a long parade that celebrates the genre." Alan Cheuse

Critical Summary

The premise of nearly every review of Zone One is that the novel would either be too corny and schematic for literary types or too highbrow and esoteric for genre fans. Some critics felt that Whitehead has crafted an inventive take on the zombie scenario, using it to express social satire and modern ennui; others observed that his supposed innovations have been explored to greater effect earlier in the genre. As for the book's literary quality, plenty were dazzled by Whitehead's prose and descriptions of a postapocalyptic New York that avoids every cliché. But others doubted whether his unusually detached main character or scattershot plot live up to the standards of his earlier work. For those who loved the literary upgrade that Justin Cronin provided for vampires in The Passage, Whitehead's effort won't satisfy quite as much.