Zone One is, if you can fathom it, a literary zombie novel. I know, I know…zombie novels aren’t literary, they’re genre. But not this one. This is a zombie novel (and, therefore, a genre novel) written by a literary novelist in a literary style. And, for my money, it’s a lovely union of the two. (Full disclosure: I’m a lover of literary fiction.)
Zone One spans 3 days in the life of Mark Spitz, a man filling his time as a “sweeper,” essentially a member of a military-style team of 3 volunteers out to find, kill and dispose of skels (short for skeletons, a.k.a., zombies) or stragglers – people who’ve been bitten and infected but become catatonic, not really a threat. Though nowhere near as bleak as The Road, this novel is somewhat reminiscent of it. Colson Whitehead, Zone One‘s author, utilizes such beautiful language – the imagery and honesty painting a vivid and stark picture of a world we’ve all seen before: America ravaged by flesh-eating zombies. Yet nothing about it feels recycled.
They say the devil lives in the details, and maybe it does, but I say so does genius. The presence of stragglers and their description is one such detail that adds rich depth to this fictional world. Kudos to Whitehead for thinking up such a unique element to propel his readers into this grim reality. Because the truth is, if any infectious agent were to cause an apocalypse of any kind (not necessarily one involving zombies) there would undoubtedly be some who reacted to it differently. Some who were exposed but still survived, as there were with Smallpox, the Black Plague and AIDS. And there would be some whose symptoms wouldn’t quite match the symptoms of the majority. As is the case with the stragglers. They are infected and slowly dying, but they don’t wander aimlessly in search of human or animal flesh to devour. Instead, something inside trips up and they spend the rest of their ruined lives repetitively reliving some fragment of their former lives. A former psychiatrist, for example, sits in the chair in her office, endlessly waiting for her ever-late patient to arrive. Another woman stands in the dressing room of a deserted bridal shop, cradling a wedding gown, slowly decaying over the dress until she either falls to the ground for lack of physical strength or someone like Mark Spitz happens upon her and ends her mindless existence. These stragglers make up maybe 10% of the infected and their existence causes Mark Spitz to wonder which of the many mundane routines of his former life would consume him if he were to become a straggler. Where would he go, what part of his former life would surface through his plague-ridden brain and summon him back? Details like this set this book so far apart from any other “zombie” novel. From other novels period.
Another beautifully-executed detail of this fearful world is Post-Apocalypse Stress Disorder, or PASD, and every single survivor suffers from it. “PASD had as many faces as there were uninfected.” What Whitehead does so eloquently is showcase the truth of this statement with the varying behaviors of all characters in his novel, including the main character. They all have baggage. They all have issues. They are, each and every one of them, damaged. And they all express the effects of their damaged psyches a little differently. Which is exactly how it goes following any major trauma in people’s lives. Similar though we all are, stress manifests itself in varying degrees and in a variety of ways for each of us. Mark Spitz tends toward extended internal reveries during which he recalls pieces of the world that no longer exists. He has trouble speaking with people; basic language often evades him. Gary, another member of Mark Spitz’s unit, refers to himself in the collective plural we, as he was born one in a set of triplets, his two brothers both long gone. Kaitlyn, the third member of their unit, seeks order and organization anywhere she can find it, trying to create the illusion of control in a world almost completely devoid of it.
There isn’t much of a plot but that’s no complaint. The characters are fully developed and the elegant prose moves the story along gracefully. It’s mostly a 3-day glimpse into an America that’s been transformed by a zombie-creating plague, filled with flashbacks that answer many questions and raise others, its lack of plot more than compensated for by its characterization and its beautifully crafted theme: the devastating but no longer deniable truth that all life, including human life, is random, without design or meaning, and however we might get there, there is but one end for us all. This story is not for the delusionally optimistic. Yet, there was no cynicism in its telling, either. When I reached the end, I felt there was no other place this story could have gone. I hadn’t predicted it, yet I thought, of course, this is the end. And I immediately flipped back 15 pages and read it again.