Friday, October 28, 2011

A Literary Zombie Novel? Yes! But Only Colson Whitehead Could Pull It Off

In this wry take on the post-apocalyptic horror novel, a pandemic has devastated the planet. The plague has sorted 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 civilization 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—but pockets of plague-ridden squatters remain. While the army has eliminated the most dangerous of the infected, teams of civilian volunteers are tasked with clearing out a more innocuous variety—the “malfunctioning” stragglers, who exist in a catatonic state, transfixed by their former lives.

Mark Spitz is a member of one of the civilian teams work­ing in lower Manhattan. Alternating between flashbacks of Spitz’s desperate fight for survival during the worst of the outbreak and his present narrative, the novel unfolds over three surreal days, as it depicts the mundane mission of straggler removal, the rigors of Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder, and the impossible job of coming to grips with the fallen world.
And then things start to go wrong.

Both spine chilling and playfully cerebral, Zone One bril­liantly subverts the genre’s conventions and deconstructs the zombie myth for the twenty-first century.

Jackie says:
"I have, by design and general constitution, largely avoided the whole zombie craze.  It's just not my thing.  But when a publisher's rep came cloyingly into my office with the latest Colson Whitehead (of "Sag Harbor" fame, among other novels), I happily snapped it up.  Then, to my earth shaking surprise, he says, "It's about zombies."   Whitehead is known for his high literate style and intense content, something that I though could never be paired with flesh dripping undead beings looking for their next meal.  But he does it, and he does it well.  I will fully admit that I was bewildered for the first 70 or so pages, because this book starts out smack dab in the middle of the battle of the infected (a plague creates ravenous zombies of it's sufferers) and the (relatively) healthy.  The armed forces have done a great deal of the initial extermination, but now there are organized citizen troops looking for the "skels" in a second wave through part of Manhattan--Zone One.  Mark Spitz (a nickname, but the only name he's got any more) is the narrating character, and he's learned to be very good with a gun.  For the first third of the book, we follow him through his gruesome days, but eventually we start to get the back story of his life and of the massive changes (or ARE they?) to the government and the surviving people--now called "American Phoenixes" in the massive marketing/rebranding of survival created by a brilliant team of spin doctors cached away by what is left of the government (now headquartered in Buffalo).  As the book continues, more and more of the whole picture come into place, and Whitehead's critique of today's world, the one I'm writing you from,  becomes clearer and sharply pointed.  His writing is mesmerizing in its ability to set you down firmly in this horrifying new reality, making reading this book a very visceral experience.  I won't lie, his command of the English language sent me to the dictionary more times than I am truly willing to admit to find out what a sentence meant, but it was worth it each time.  This man tells a story like no other, and I am deeply, deeply impressed.  The blurb on my reader's copy says "dazzling and devastating"--I couldn't agree more."

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