What has marshmallow for brains, a candy coated hollowed heart, and a soft spot for the enfeebled? The answer is alarming and tri-fold if you’re so dexterous: Zombies, Colson Whitehead, or yourself after reading his latest book.
Zone One, Whitehead’s latest effort (pending the release of The Underground Railroad) at pining in on an already burgeoning fad, is a novel about the living dead, or zombies, as they’re affectionately renown. A zip-line through the ‘plot’ reads as follows; man trudges through a post-apocalyptic hazardous wasteland with the help of a few post-cataclysm drones who, similarly, have manufactured a tested system of dealing with the imminent onslaught of the dead. That’s all folks. Regrettably.
As expected there are runs through dilapidated sentries of the ‘old world’, fevered escapes, narrow victories, scavenging and surviving–likely, zombie elitists and horror aficionados, respectively, would see to it that Mr. Whitehead would surely hang for their omission. He offers instead flat-lined poetics:
What kind of cruel deity…sentenced you to observe the world through the sad aperture of the dead, suffer the gross parody of your existence. (227)
Amidst the violence and dreariness and epagoges about life as it were juxtaposed to what remains one can almost hear themselves screaming in bloodcurdling anguish for the characters! Mark Spitz, the morose, understandably affected protagonist is never developed satisfyingly. Whitehead offers up sympathetic braces by the barrel with tropes about hopes for romance, childhood memories and heroic feats but it just doesn’t satiate the appetite. Mr. Whitehead’s a literary writer, he should know full well that plot is low on the totem pole and character outranks all. In this endless array of human disintegration it would have been nice to meet a human.
This is not to say the Whitehead’s intentions are not well appreciated, if not redundant. However what was the real intention of this book anyhow? One can only assume. Then again, two years after creating a teen’s bildungsroman tale, and now a Zombie novel(with an intentional capital “z”) Mr. Colson seems to be acclimating/digressing into the bone marrow of his laymen worshiping contemporaries–Stephen King most immediately–instead of outpacing them. The literary novel is a tortoise business after all. Ironically Zone One feels more like a lengthy afterword to Don Delillo’s White Noise ( a tome dissecting the flaccid culture of America and its demigods) or the late David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (a satire of them).
Makes no bones about it, Whitehead has concocted a philosopher’s cookbook out of spare parts; a little of Friedrich Nietzsche here, a pinch of Orwell there, of which he intends to make pureed slush of society’s most desperate nightmares. What lasts is something like Frankenstein’s monster, existing but not feeling, truly– an avatar for weighty ideas about humanism (arguably the distinction being a human born in America) bogged down by readily accessible (and lazy) parameters of a mouse trap of a dystopian existence.
With sentences that chug and simultaneously whiz in dense unedited prose it’s a hard thing to openly suggest Zone One to any reader who loves anything Zombie. Heck, it’s hard making a case for it if you are disposed to souls in general; infected or otherwise. Mr. Whitehead got it right in his novel Apex Hides the Hurt, with less wordy prose; and to add insult to injury, its a novel who’s protagonist uses words for a living. There, we were allowed to mine through the imposed feelings and create markers of our own. Here Whitehead tries to highlight them with a big felt pen. The result is something like a cartoon anvil tied to a balloon; what’s expected will make a fool out of you…or worse, insult the intelligence of your soul.