Tuesday, March 6, 2012

"Zone One" by Colson Whitehead (2011)

There's this thing the genre fiction community likes to do every few months that involves shovelling mouthfuls of hate towards the "literary" fiction community--a thing that, arguably, doesn't exist--for stealing away all the greatest works of fantasy, science fiction and horror and labelling them literature. So I'm surprised that I have yet to stumble across a hate-piece excoriating Colson Whitehead's Zone One, a post-apocalyptic zombie novel if ever there was one, which also undeniably deserves a place in the literary canon.

The thing that sets Zone One apart from your standard zombie fare is not that Whitehead terms his zombies "skels" and "stragglers" (a convention that might pass for innovation in some circles). Rather, it's that his survivors fully understand the virtues of running away. Whitehead's book is about the people that have lived through the first wave of the zombie apocalypse, and, instead of coming out unscathed--as popular movies might lead us to believe that the only survivors of a zombie swarm are the quick (and sexy) and the dead (qua wretched)--they've come out irrevocably damaged. All the characters in Whitehead's Zone One--the geographic area of Manhattan south of Canal Street, where the interstitial American government has begun a zombie-free cordon--suffer some sort of PASD: Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder. In other words, everyone is totally strung out because their loved ones are brainless and hungry for flesh--or have already become someone's (something's) meal.

"He had nerve damage: input could not penetrate. The world stalled out at his edges. Sometimes he had trouble speaking to other people, rummaging for language, and it seemed to him that an invisible layer divided him from the rest of the world, a membrane of emotional surface tension. He was not alone. "Survivors are slow or incapable of forming new attachments," or so the latest diagnoses droned, although a cynic might identify this as a feature of modern life merely intensified or fine-tuned with the introduction of the plague" (53).

Whitehead's book is so interesting because it reminds us of everything about our lives that most of us probably totally hate, but that, if it were taken away, we might just love. He has a knack for conjuring the simplest corporate artefacts of North American existence without really naming them: "the popular spreadsheet software," "the box store with the discount prices," "the coffee company started in the Pacific Northwest." And in so doing--littering the landscape of Zone One with reminiscences of these various people, places, and things that have a tendency, for me at least, to stir a little loathing--he reminds us of what exactly we might miss beyond the edge of the apocalypse: not anything in particular, per se, just all of it.

He even reminds us of humour, and what hilarity we might find in a world where we're lost among the dead, in a world frozen at its final hour:

"...the former ladies of HR were starving... Their skirts were bunched on the floor, having slid off their shrunken hips long ago... One of them wore the same brand of panties his last two girlfriends had favored, with the distinctive frilled red edges. They were grimed and torn. He couldn't help but notice the thong, current demands on his attention aside. He'd made a host of necessary recalibrations but the old self made noises from time to time. Then the new self stepped in. He had to put them down" (14).

Not that the book is without its flaws. The protagonist of Zone One, Mark Spitz, is a hyperbolic everyman, the ideal "B"-tester, neither excelling nor failing. It's as if Whitehead wished to say: this could be you. But this approach fails, because when Spitz speaks, when he shares an anecdote that is more than utter archetype, we receive a confused image of a man: a man who is not a man, a man who is a sort of belief, an idea, but at the same time a real living thing. This jives incredibly poorly. I found Mark Spitz's dialogue to be the most awkward thing ever: how could this being--this creature--speak? Heresy!

Overall, though, this is a fantastic book. To bring it back to the curious confrontation of the "literary" (defined as narrative that is concerned with form and style) and the "genre" (a French word meaning type), this will probably appeal more to those who are "cultured and rarefied" or "pretentious snobs," depending on your point of view. Whitehead has a strong sense of style: he mashes up his tenses and his timings, and makes you crane your eyeballs into the text to figure out where you are in the story. It even took me a while--a pretentious snob if ever there was one--to figure out the sort of meta-frames Whitehead was using, constantly zooming and unzooming to tell, effectively, an incredibly short story with a lot of flashbacks. After all, despite its preoccupations with the end of the world, this isn't a story about apocalypse, but what comes after: 

"When he used to watch disaster flicks and horror movies he convinced himself he'd survive the particular death scenario... He was the one left to explain it all to the skeptical world after the end credits... By his sights, the real movie started after the first one ended, in the impossible return to things before" (135).

But if you're willing to struggle--or revel--in this style, it will also appeal to that part of you that loves a good monster hunt or survival tale. This book is not just literary or genre: it is a fusion of both. And it is those things, together, very well.

My only real regret? That Zone One, at 259 pages, wasn't just a little bit longer...