Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Review: Zone One

In Colson Whitehead’s Zone One, a plague has descended onto the world, rendering a sizable proportion of its population “undead.” The undead are divided into two categories, “skels,” rabid, ferocious, dangerous to the living, and “stragglers,” infected but benign, frozen into the same environments and positions they occupied in life, non-threatening to survivors. The novel takes place over the course of three short days; our protagonist, Mark Spitz—not his real name; an appellation whose provenance we discover only near novel’s end—is a “sweeper,” one of a voluntary team assigned to rid Zone One, an area which encompasses Manhattan, of the skels and stragglers the initial military operation missed or left behind. There is very little plot in the novel; instead, extended digressions—digressions on top of digressions—fill in the back story of who Spitz was before the plague hit, what happened to him on his “Last Night" (the night the zombies descended), and what he did during the “interregnum” (the period between the descension of the zombies and the resurgence of civilization).

I liked two things about this novel. The first was Whitehead’s unusual vocabulary, which read, to borrow words from one uncharitable reviewer, as if the author had “just discovered how to use a thesaurus.” This sounds like a criticism, and indeed it is, but as tortured and unnecessary much of the language was, it did succeed in teaching me new vocab. For example, “subcutaneous” means under the skin, “exsanguinated” means bloodless, “instertitial” means in between—and those were just the few I bothered to write down!

Seriously, though, I thought the language was impressive in one way and entirely superfluous in another, serving mostly to obscure the story, the imaginative landscape Whitehead presumably wants us to enter, and to blur whatever social critique he intended to deliver. It made me wonder if Whitehead, the Macarthur Genius and renowned literary novelist, felt some insecurity about working in the genre form and, as a result, tortured his novel into a soulless, exsanguinated(!), near-meaningless thing. Every time I came across a sentence like, “The citizens were programmed by the vista-less city to utter such things at the correct triggers, so diminished were they from crippled horizons,” or “The skateboarder posing on the filigreed manhole cover at the bottom of his favorite declivity," I felt my eyes glaze over, zombie-like, as Whitehead’s narrative ground to a halt.

I did legitimately like one thing about the novel, though, which was its temporal positioning of the narrative in relation to the apocalypse. I haven’t read many post-apocalyptic novels, or even seen very many post-apocalyptic movies or TV shows, but my sense of the archetypal zombie narrative is that it takes place just at that moment when the plague or meteor or aliens have begun to descend: that defamiliarizing moment when civilization begins to slip into the abyss. The freshest thing about Whitehead’s take, for me, was that the novel opens not at the moment of collapse but during the period of revival. “The superstructure”—a Marxist term for the large institutions that govern society which Whitehead employs several times—was initially decimated but, at novel’s beginning, is beginning to reconstitute itself. “Buzzwords had returned,” Whitehead writes, “and what greater proof of the rejuvenation of the world, the return of Eden, then a new buzzword emerging from the dirt to tilt its petal to the Zeitgeist.” In a similar vein, the mandarins holed up in Buffalo are in the process of “rebranding survival…some of them hard at work crafting the new language.” And perhaps most interesting (although it takes 230 pages to get there), Whitehead has his protagonist, Spitz, wonder whether “the old bigotries [would] be reborn as well…if they could bring back paperwork, Mark Spitz thought, they could certainly reanimate prejudice.” For me, these moments of insight were the most interesting, and, incidentally, the most literary aspect of the novel. If the generic post-apocalyptic narrative is interested in what happens after the meteor falls, this book, in its better moments, is interested in what happens after civilization begins to put itself back together.

The biggest problem for me, I think, was simply that the social critique—ostensibly the reason such a thing as a “literary zombie novel” exists in the first place—was alternately lacking, obvious, or simply lame. At various points, Whitehead lampoons consumerism (“The acquisitive debit-card swipers and the easily swayed”), gambling addiction (“It should be noted that the slots maintained their sturdy population of glassy-eyed defectives, the protohumans with their sleepless claws”), and misogyny (“In the time before the flood, Mark Spitz had a habit of making his girlfriends into things that were less than human”). But we already think of slot machine addicts, mall rats, and misogynists as zombies, or at the very least despicable. To insert these observations into a zombie novel seems to me, somehow, redundant. Certainly it is not fresh or illuminating. Various other observations about post-apocalyptic New York fall flat, as well. “New York City in death was very much like New York City in life. It was hard to get a cab, for example.” Hardee har har. “Obviously sightseeing had taken a hit in the last few years." Yes, obviously. “It was Mark Spitz’s first glimpse of Manhattan since the coming of the plague, and he thought to himself, by God, it’s been taken over by tourists." Tourists as zombies. Huh. Never thought of that one before.

The best moments of social critique come when events in the novel echo real-life historical events—that is, when the narrative begins to take the shape of allegory. “The rich tended to escape,” Whitehead writes, while “a larger percentage of the poor tended to stay, shoving layaway bureaus and media consoles up against doors.” Here, there are clear echoes of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and the force of the fictional universe takes on new power, it seems to me, when tethered to real-world circumstances. Similarly, when Whitehead nods to global warming—“the other, less flamboyant, more deliberate ruination altering the planet’s climate had been under way for more than a hundred years”—he succeeds in inducing a chill in the reader, who can’t help but regard his constructed universe with fresh eyes.

Ultimately, however, these moments of light are few and far between. The combination of turgid prose, overstacked observation, and uninspired social critique results in a very bad book—the kind produced by a mid-career novelist who can line sentences up fluidly and has a strong command of the English language but is not sure, precisely, what he wants to say.

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