A pandemic has devastated the planet, sorting humanity into two types: the uninfected and the infected, the living and the living dead. Now the plague is receding, and Americans are busy rebuilding civilisation under orders from the provisional government based in Buffalo. Their top mission: the resettlement of Manhattan. Armed forces have successfully reclaimed the island south of Canal Street - aka 'Zone One' - eliminating the most dangerous plague victims, but pockets of uninfected squatters remain. Teams of civilian volunteers are tasked with clearing out the 'malfunctioning' stragglers who exist in a catatonic state, transfixed by their former lives, but who are lethal when roused.
Mark Spitz is a member of one of the civilian teams working in lower Manhattan. The novel alternates between flashbacks of Spitz's desperate fight for survival during the worst of the outbreak and his present narrative, unfolding over three surreal days as he undertakes the mundane mission of straggler removal, suffers the rigours of Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder, and attempts to come to terms with a fallen world. And then things start to go wrong.
When Zone One came out, there was a lot of hype about it. It was touted as the first literary zombie novel. I don't usually read zombie fiction, but I have watched my share of zombie films and series, and I love literary fiction. I thought it would be a really cool book. And it was, but at the same time, it wasn't.
Colson Whitehead can write. His sentences made my head spin. They are beautiful. Reading this novel was a pleasure, style-wise. And, for a zombie novel, it had lots of humour:
"New York City in death was very much like New York City in life. It was still hard to get a cab, for example."
"The Statue of Liberty scrolled before you in their stillness. Give me your poor, your hungry, your suppurating masses yearning to eat."As a literary novel, Whitehead wouldn't leave it as an entertaining read, and felt compelled to neatly tuck a message for the reader to take away with him when the fun ends. However, zombies have been explored to exhaustion by every possible medium, and I couldn't find anything new between these pages. After all, Zone One is another thinly-veiled metaphor for our big-city alienation, for globalization. Ironically, it is also an ode to the citiest of cities - New York.
The expected zombie-novel elements were present: there was thrill, there were adventures and grim stories of survival. There were moments when I was tense and glued to the pages. On the other hand, the ending was lackluster. I understand it was really intelligent. I understand where Whitehead is coming from and what he tried to do. He made the reader feel the alienation and nihilism of a zombie. It's the ultimate zombie novel, because it turns the reader into a zombie. However, it didn't do it for me. The odd pacing and the unrelatable, flat characters, both necessary to achieve this zombification goal, could have as well been clumsiness or carelessness, and bored me to tears. It really prevented me from engaging with the story.
In short, while I appreciate Zone One from an intelectual point of view, I wouldn't recommend this novel.