Zone One

Zombies eat human flesh, shamble, are bad conversationalists, and need to be shot through the head. Zombie epics usually end in a dismemberment frenzy or hard-won communal recovery. These things we know. Colson Whitehead knows them too — and much more — as exemplified by his nearly perfect new novel, Zone One, a sad, funny, and frightening tale that revitalizes a sometimes half-baked genre.

In Whitehead’s version of the classic scenario, the world has just wakened from an extended nightmare: the spread of a zombie disease that has transformed millions and overwhelmed the rule of law. Hope has come in the form of a newly established central government in Buffalo and the creation of an experimental vaccine. Set over a period of three days, Zone One chronicles the efforts of a man nicknamed “Mark Spitz” and the other members of his Omega Unit to clear zombies from New York City.
Every good zombie story needs unique variations on its central subject matter, and Whitehead provides not one but two types of zombie: “skels” and “stragglers.” Skels are the dangerous, fast, flesh-eating zombies — they provide the immediate sense of menace and terror in the novel. Stragglers are zombies lost in a memory loop who, oblivious to the wider world, perform some repetitive act, like making photocopies in the business that employed them prior to their transformation. They suggest more existential problems, especially the haunting and pointed descriptions of generic workplaces that force the reader to ask the uncomfortable question, “What was the point of all of this before the zombie attacks?”
As the Omega Unit terminates skels and stragglers alike, the novel also opens up to show how Spitz survived Last Night (the name used for the moment the epidemic began, two years before the novel’s action) and dangerous encounters on his journeys thereafter. In a sample of the surreal wit Whitehead brings to the story, we learn that Spitz, a black man who can’t swim, received his nickname on a prior mission when he shot his way out of a zombie trap rather than escape by diving into a river. Not that it bothers him: “No harm. Affront was a luxury like shampoo and affection.” As the equation of affection with luxury suggests, the physical threat posed by the zombies is often not as dire as the emotional threat posed by other human beings. Spitz has survived by not allowing himself to become close to people who might soon rob him, try to kill him, or be devoured by zombies. He even has three versions of his personal Last Night story, each of which reveals more of the truth: the Silhouette, the Anecdote, and the Obituary.
These flashbacks deepen characterization but also allow Whitehead to deploy almost every possible zombie attack scenario. The novel teems with lovingly staged, truly terrifying scenes, from hiding out in a toy store while “necrotic multitudes” march past in a “sick procession” to a stand-off at a farm that is as much about the psychology of the besieged as about the zombies outside.
These are more than moments of suspense or straight-out horror, though Whitehead (whose early novel The Intuitionist also deployed a fantastical scenario to raise stirringly real questions) is interested in the consequences of the rise of the zombies, social and psychological. For example, survivors are diagnosed with Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder, which, in a darkly humorous passage, manifests through every possible symptom, from “being ‘jumpy'” to “diarrhea.” Although Whitehead skewers aspects of PASD’s description by the government, he also takes the implications seriously. Spitz’s fellow Omega Unit zombie killers are both damaged people. The devil-may-care Gary calls zombies “squares,” “suckers,” and “saps,” as if they were the naïve victims of some elaborate con he would never fall for. The “stickler” Kaitlyn, who survived a terrible trauma on a train, keeps both Spitz and Gary in line as part of her coping mechanism. Other well-conceived touches include looting regulations that protect only those corporate brands that actively sponsor the government’s efforts and the miraculous survival of three triplets born at a compromised outpost held up as both a symbol of hope and of an absurd and outdated sentimentality.
“Every race, color, and creed was represented in this [zombie] congregation that funneled down the avenue,” writes Whitehead late in the novel, as Spitz encounters new threats. “As it had been before, per the myth of this melting-pot city. The city did not care for your story, the particular narrative of your reinvention; it took them all in.” In a similar way, Zone One takes in all the classic tropes of the zombie novel and blends them to create a novel both melancholy and feverishly exciting, one that is as much about our past and our present as any possible future.