I decided I’d read Zone One because the prospect of a well-respected literary author trying their hand at a zombie novel was too tempting to pass up. Plus, I’m anticipating the October return of the heart-poundingly great zombie show The Walking Dead. Zone One is a section of Manhattan that is being prepared for re-habitation after the worst of the zombie plague appears to be over. The novel follows the exploits of a young man nicknamed Mark Spitz, jumping from his present as a sweeper in Zone One, eliminating any leftover skels, to his memories of Last Night (the night the zombie apocalypse began), and his fight to stay alive in between.

Zone One is exceptionally well-written, albeit in a meticulous way. Colson Whitehead’s writing is full of, often poetic, long, winding sentences. Often I found it to be a little too wordy. And Whitehead also has the tendency to cut between the present and the past at a moment’s notice. Reading Zone One definitely required my full attention. If I didn’t focus the words started to wash over me, losing meaning:

Fewer people milled about the tables, there were subdued shrieks at the craps, roulette stands shrouded in plastic, although it should be noted that the slots maintained their standard population of glassy-eyed defectives, the protohumans with their sleepless claws.

Focusing on rebuilding after the zombie threat has lessened is an interesting slant. Yet, despite passages detailing the dead viciously tearing apart the living, the overwhelming impression I got was of politeness. Instead of the bloody battle for survival between zombie and human we have the return of bureaucracy, law and order, regulations, and paperwork. Whitehead has created an interesting, cerebral, philosophical novel that just happens to be about zombies.

Whitehead does include flashbacks to the bloody battle itself but they tended to be contemplative and lacking immediacy. With anything to do with zombies, I want to feel the terror and I didn’t really. Perhaps Whitehead’s style isn’t best suited to zombie/horror/action. Often the action is cut through with musings and minutiae, breaking any tension. But when Whitehead really focuses on action he achieves a chilling vision of fear and urgency; a flashback to a New England farmhouse comes to mind as a perfect example.

Zone One isn’t just contemplation and zombies, it has the bite of satiric humour and wit. There’s the ridiculous new diagnosis, PASD (Post Apocalyptic Stress Disorder), which seems to encompass all strange behaviour exhibited after the zombie attack, everyone has PASD in some form. The invention of PASD is nothing more than a bid from humanity to gain back control by putting a name to their many problems, in an attempt to civilise a savage situation.

The novel contains many knowing mentions of an invented popular culture. Even in the face of apocalypse memories of TV shows and movies are embedded. They still serve as reference points despite how the world has transformed. Mark Spitz reflects on how pop culture has portrayed apocalypse again and again, and now he is in the unenviable position of being able to see what they got right. A skel reminds Mark of a character named Marge (with a much-imitated hairstyle) from a once-ubiquitous TV show that presented an unrealistic portrait of Manhattan life. There is an unnamed restaurant chain that Mark Spitz ate at with his parents as a child, the walls filled with fake celebrity memorabilia and nostalgia (something reminiscent of a Hard Rock Cafe or Planet Hollywood). Our worship of pop culture is mocked as hollow and fake and yet these are the very things we’ll miss after the apocalypse.

Zone One is well-written and intelligent but I can’t escape the feeling that Whitehead is trying too hard to make zombies highbrow. Classics of genre don’t have to try to be ‘literary’ in order to be classics. Something like Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend (a vampire novel with zombie-like post-apocalyptic features) is undoubtedly a horror novel but despite this it still says something profound about humanity.