The zombie apocalypse is the slow-motion nightmare. Even in newer iterations of the myth, films like 28 Days Later where the flesheaters move with feral speed, it’s not the quickness of their attack which terrifies so, it’s the totality. Because there is never just one. Pods and nests and gangs and legions of them are waiting around corners and in darkened houses, flooding across the land like a darkling plague. You might escape this attack, but what about the next? Or the next?
If nothing else, Colson Whitehead’s new novel – a zombie fiction that manages to be both unabashedly immersed in the genre while still tenaciously clinging (for better and for worse) to his usual traits and interests – understands and appreciates the fast-then-slow creep of the zombie menace which threatens the tattered shreds of society. Though imbued with the jarring frights that bring the undead lunging out at its characters from unseen corners, Zone One digs deeply into the horrors of the slow-motion nightmare, where collapse starts to seem not just a possibility but a certainty.
His narrator, Mark Spitz (nicknamed for a particularly daring aquatic escape), is almost as zombified as the victims of the world-spanning pandemic that turned most of humanity into flesh-craving automatons. He works as a “sweeper”, civilian teams one rung down from the actual military, who move into zones that have been swept of the more energetic zombies and clean out the stragglers.
At the novel’s open, Spitz’s team is working on Zone One, the pocket of Manhattan south of the massive containing wall built along Canal Street. They move through office buildings, occasionally coming across knots of zombies who were locked into offices months before when the pandemic first hit and their surviving co-workers fled. It’s ugly work, wiping out the “stragglers” and “skels” (who sometimes keep just enough humanity about them to make their extermination disturbing) but something to do. Being as Mark is a sufferer like many others of PASD (Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder), he needs to stay busy. Nevertheless, optimism isn’t his strong suit:
Mark Spitz believed he had successfully banished thoughts of the future. He wasn’t like the rest of them, the other sweepers, the soldiers up the island, or those haggard clans in the camps and caves, all the far-flung remnants behind their barricades, wherever people struggled and waited for victory or oblivion. The faint residue of humanity still stuck to the sides of the world.
Whitehead’s style is that of Mark: hyper-aware of cultural signifiers and marketing gimmickry, thoughtful, downbeat, resigned for the worst.
Zone One follows Mark over the course of just a few days. The sweeper work is monotonous and so an almost too-perfect structure to hang Mark’s litany of remembrances upon. Mark’s tone is flat and affectless, much as one would expect from somebody who spent so long on the run through deserted towns, avoiding the undead and not sure whether he should seek the living. In relating his tale of woes, Mark doesn’t try for pity, just maybe a bit of understanding: he wants the reader to know that deep down, everything is doomed.
In Whitehead’s imagining, the zombies become a force of entropy, as well as an all-purpose symbol for the deadening aspects of modernity. Even in the shadow of the world’s end, that threat of the undead only seems to exacerbate tendencies already hardwired into society. No matter that the provisional government is holed up in Buffalo, starvation looms with the coming winter, and the battalions of undead massing north of Canal continue to grow, the branding must continue.
So Whitehead, ever tuned to the culture-watcher antennae he deployed in Apex Hides the Hurt, zooms in on the little absurdities of PASD life. The “reconstruction” has a perky tag line, “We Make Tomorrow!”, not to mention its own trying-too-hard song: “Stop! Can You Hear the Eagle Roar? (Theme from Reconstruction)”. Yes, the apocalypse comes with its own marketing department.
Somewhere between the start-and-stop style and Whitehead’s relentlessly downbeat tone (“we never see other people anyway, only the monsters we make of them”), however, the novel’s cleverness and insight becomes frayed. The past and present are not shuffled together as well as they effectively as they could be, and before long Whitehead’s conceit becomes hard to swallow.
When necessary, he knocks out some impressively white-knuckle action scenes and can also convey the bleak turgidity endemic to those who have come through a consciousness-shattering catastrophe. But after a time, it’s difficult to see Mark as a character as much as he is Whitehead’s tool: cool and detached, Mark catalogs and critiques the remnants of the old society and the nervous flowering of the new, even as zombies are nipping at his flesh.