Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Zone One, by Colson Whitehead

2012 Book 138: Zone One

written by Colson Whitehead, narrated by Beresford Bennett

Reason for Reading: I read Zone One for A More Diverse Universe blog tour, which aims to increase awareness of authors-of-color...-of-speculative-fiction. (Is that the correct punctuation for that term?) Zone One is particularly fitting for this blog tour, since it is being considered for this year's Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. Though this book is a "literary" zombie novel, so of course it is, by definition, genre defying. ;) I also read this book for a the Surreal September LibraryThing theme read, and for the  R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril VII challenge.

My Review

This post-apocalyptic book takes place in on Manhattan Island (Zone One), where Mark Spitz and his colleges work as "sweepers." Their job is to remove all the straggler-zombies from the area and bag them for disposal. This book isn't plot driven so much as world-building-driven. Whitehead uses beautiful prose to describe the "reconstruction" of America. As spell-binding as his sentences are, however, this flowery language distracts from the few action scenes...making this book not so much about zombies as about compulsive and overwhelming mediocrity. I don't mean that Whitehead's writing is mediocre--not in the slightest!--but that the book is about mediocrity. The mediocrity of Mark Spitz is described in beautifully pregnant prose. In fact, Mark had "unrivaled mediocrity" and all the "advantages this adaptation conferred in a mediocre world." The zombies themselves were a metaphor for the mediocre masses of Manhattan. Many of them harmlessly flipped non-existent burgers over ovens that had broken down long ago. They window shopped in front of boarded up displays and vegged in front of dead televisions. Thus, the book had a rather dark view of humanity...that we are descending irrepressibly into mediocrity. 

On top of that mediocre metaphor, Whitehead flirts with an allegory for the post-Civil War reconstruction. He compares the "untold Americans" who were not a part of the reconstruction to "slaves who didn't know they'd been emancipated." I pondered the meaning of this slave metaphor for a long time. Did Whitehead mean that these slaves hadn't been told about the reconstruction? That there were untold numbers of them? That nobody would ever tell their story? Maybe he meant all of that? Following through with his mediocre-zombie metaphor, it seems that Whitehead meant that America is filled both with mediocre masses who live like zombies and their slaves...slaves of technology, slaves to the whim of the mediocre masses, slaves to the unpredictability of a fickle universe. 

I had a hard time reading this book because of all the flashbacks and literary musings--I don't recommend people listen to the audiobook version due to these unexpected and frequent changes. I probably would have enjoyed it much, much more if I had physically read it. :) I think this is an excellent work for its meaning and its prose, but it's going to get bad reviews from the zombie-fiction-lovers out there, because, in the end, it's not really about zombies. 

P.S. After writing that review, I've decided to give it 4 stars because it made me think...I was originally going to give it 3.5 stars because it was difficult for me to get through, and I didn't immensely enjoy it. :) But that may have been the fault of my choice of medium (audiobook).

About the Author
Colson Whitehead was born in New York City in 1969, and he grew up in Manhattan. After graduating from Harvard, he wrote for magazines and has published five novels. On top of that, he's quite handsome. :D


  1. Sounds like something I might enjoy - I've liked several more literary zombie works. One about mediocrity definitely sounds different.

  2. Hmmm. I didn't realize there were other literary zombie books. Seemed like a rather unique idea to me. :) Were the others any good?

  3. I brought this home from the library once, but had too many others going at the same time and had to bring it back untouched. It is definitely on my list, as I've been on a bit of a zombie kick. Good to know it's better as a print book than audio!

  4. Hi Laurie! I thought it was pretty unique as far as zombie books go, but it's a shame that it's simply not going to get good Amazon reviews from all the zombie-lovers out there, because it won't be what they expect. ;)

    You should try it out if you don't mind a little literary meandering. :)

  5. I really liked this book too - it was slow going at first, but I got into it after a while. And although it's dark & depressing, it turned out to be quite interesting.

  6. Yeah, it was a bit slow at first. Especially since the audiobook version was rather confusing for me. I'm glad I stuck through it though. :)

  7. You gave it 4 stars but perhaps the review sounds a bit more like 3?

  8. Haha. Actually, no. I originally gave it 3.5 stars. But then while I was writing the review I realized that the book really made me think. So I bumped it up to a 4. In my opinion, it is certainly NOT a 3. The way I rate books, both the plot and the writing have to be unexceptional. This book had exceptional writing.

  9. Maybe I should rephrase that....if you're looking for a kick-butt zombie novel, this isn't it. If you're looking for an off-the-beaten path literary work with dark humor, this is a pretty good book.

  10. I often wonder how reading a book on audio makes me enjoy it more or less than if I read it in the more traditional format. For example, I did the Chaos Walking trilogy in audiobook and just was NOT as into it as other people were who read it...

    Sorry this one wasn't so great for you, but glad you tried it!

  11. Aarti: that depends a lot on the narrative style and on the skill of the reader. I think some books I enjoyed MORE because I listened.

    I know that I get a lot less out of a book when I listen, but I figure that it's a good way to entertain my mind during monotonous tasks, and a good way to get through books that I'd never get to otherwise. I can always "physically" reread. :)


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