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Zone One by Colson Whitehead (2011) 219 p.

I’m not really interested in reading zombie fiction, having had my fill of the genre in years gone by, but how many zombie stories are out there written by a Pulitzer winner? (A two-time Pulitzer winner, in fact, one of only four novelists to ever achieve that and the first to do it in such quick succession since Faulkner).

Zone One takes place in Manhattan after the worst of the zombie “apocalypse” has passed; the protagonist, nicknamed Mark Spitz, is a member of a military clean-up crew tasked with mopping up the last few zombie stragglers as the reconstruction government in Buffalo slowly reclaims the island. Stragglers are the 1% of zombies who are completely non-hostile, found standing silently in places that meant something to them in life. The novel takes place over the course of a weekend, mostly inside Mark Spitz’s head, presenting a non-linear narrative laden with flashbacks.

There’s little in this short novel resembling a plot. What Zone One does instead is present all the myriad scenarios and tropes of the post-apocalyptic genre – scavenging, the ad hoc formation of disparate groups of survivors, the initial collapse, the psychology of survival, suicide, memories of the old world – in the accomplished, professional prose of a literary heavyweight. There are too many segments I’d like to post; here’s one, part of a description of the initial marine operation to retake Manhattan:

Some of the marines died. Some of them didn’t hear the warnings until too late for all the gunfire. Some of them lost their bearings in the macabre spectacle, drifting off into reveries of overidealized chapters of their former lives, and were overcome. Some of them were bit, losing baseballs of meat from their arms and legs. Some of them disappeared under hordes, maybe a glove sticking out, waving, and it was unclear if the hand was under the direction of the fallen soldier or if it was being jostled by the feasting. Funeral rites were abbreviated. They incinerated the bodies of their comrades with the rest of the dead.

They nozzled diesel into the bulldozers and dump trucks. The air filled with buzzing flies the way it had once been filled with the hydraulic whine of buses, the keening of emergency vehicles, strange chants into cell phones, high heels on sidewalk, the vast phantasmagorical orchestra of a living city. They loaded the dead. The rains washed the blood after a time. The New York City sewer system in its bleak centuries had suffered worse.

Most of the novel reads like this: Cormac McCarthy meets Godspeed You Black Emperor. It’s not a novel for everyone – even people who happily read both literary fiction and genre fiction, like me, might be put off by its snaking narrative and confusing flashbacks. I wouldn’t say I loved Zone One – it’s not the kind of novel you love – but I certainly appreciated it and admired it.

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