|Zone One by Colson Whitehead|
Now, before you get excited at the prospect of another Zombieland-style zombie-apocalypse novel Readers Mine, be warned: this is not your average zombie-apocalypse novel. In fact, what Colson Whitehead has written isn't a zombie-apocalypse novel at all. Instead he has written something both far more original and far more traditional and universal: he's written a novel about the human heart in conflict with itself set in a post(?)-zombie-apocalypse world. This novel is really quite brilliant, but unfortunately the fact that it isn't really a zombie novel has cost Whitehead considerably in terms of high-star reviews on places like Amazon. In the end it is rarely genre-novels that give fields like horror, SF, fantasy,mystery, etc a bad name. It is the fans, and zombie-apocalypse fans have proven true to the type with Zone One. In other words, since it turns out not to really be a zombie-apocalypse novel, those who picked it up expecting a comfortable romp through familiar generic territory are left confused and angry, so they blame Whitehead for betraying their expectations. In the process they miss out on an incredible work of fiction.
To my mind, Zone One is about trauma, and how the human mind and spirit tries to deal with it, and adjust to a world that is irrevocably changed from the one they are familiar with. Mark Spitz spends a lot of time wandering through his past via often sudden, quasi stream-of-consciousness vignettes. These trips give the reader a look into both the pre-apocalypse world, and Spitz's months of survival and constant movement after Last Night, to the eventual beginnings of a kind of national recovery and Reconstruction. The problem is that Spitz grew up in a world very similar and only a few more years advanced technologically than our own, a world with which we are intimately familiar and which is now gone forever, destroyed by the "plague." (Whitehead's use of "Reconstruction" to describe the efforts of the rebuilt American government is a nicely ironic twist on classic "Redemptionist" novels of the early 20th century, which celebrated the antebellum American South and reviled the historical post-war Reconstruction efforts of the North.)
However, Spitz adjusted to the post-First Night world, and actually became extremely good at surviving, at staying alive and uninfected/eaten in a country where the revenant dead vastly outnumbered the living. His problem is that he cannot seem to adjust to this third era, where, supposedly, the survivors are to take back what was theirs and rebuild the lost world. Yet everyone knows that a true resurrection of the past is impossible. Too many have died, too much has been endured by the survivors. (Indeed, Whitehead gives the reader a wonderfully dark strain of comic relief with the universal effects of PASD, Post-Apocalyptic-Stress-Disorder, where modern psychology meets the end of the world.) Spitz is separated from the two worlds where he knows the rules and now is being asked to adapt to a third, where no one knows the rules.
Spitz's trauma(s) run deep and true, and Whitehead's style gives the reader a continuous sense of weightlessness, of being adrift, and trying to find an anchor or sure footing on a fun-house floor. Anyone who has ever experienced the death of a parent or loved one, especially at a young age, will recognize this uncomfortable micro-gravity. How can the world continue to go on after X? Why does it? It has been irredeemably changed, yet doesn't seem to recognize the fact! Trauma challenges our necessary assumption of personal importance, and in the case of Zone One, our assumption of human importance. Individually, in predictable environments, we usually manage to adapt. But what if, as Whitehead asks, the environment is fundamentally unpredictable? How much change do we have in us? How malleable is the human mind, how adaptable the human spirit?
And given a choice in worlds to live in, would we really make the apparently obvious and sane choice?
This is a great book, and deserves to become a classic, cult or otherwise. It's available for Kindle as well, so go and grab it. You'll dig it.