A few years back, we all put up with the book-length mashup Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Now there’s Zone One, the fifth novel from protean New York writer Colson Whitehead, which attempts the same manoeuvre but with the proportions reversed: rather than shoehorning the undead into an established literary milieu (e.g. Jane Austen’s English countryside), Whitehead starts out with a sweeping, standard-issue zombie storyline, then adds a coat of intellectual varnish on top.
Yet this kind of genre alchemy is still, at heart, just a trick, and as such can only sustain itself for so long in the best of circumstances—and Zone One is far from the best of circumstances. Its vision of a postapocalyptic New York City, where teams of amateur soldiers roam the streets in search of any stray remaining undead, is foreboding and appropriately caked with ash and grime. It’s also absolutely suffocating.
The problem, in a nutshell, is Whitehead’s vocabulary. Dear Lord. It’s more unrelenting and out-of-control than any flesh eater it’s describing. As a result, the novel’s sentences are overinflated and arrhythmic. There are obviously worse problems for an author to have—but when it results in writing like “Surely an accident unravelled its miserable inevitabilities ahead and now all was fouled, decelerated, the vehicles syllables in an incantation of misfortune,” you wish Whitehead would spend a little more time with one word in particular: restraint.
Zone One focuses on three soldiers, “seemingly unsnuffable human cockroaches protected by carapaces of good luck.” The story itself is difficult to parse for any fine details, and this is as it should be, since none of the boots on the ground in New York seem to know much either, beyond their current week’s assignment. A provisional government has been established in Buffalo, but resources and solutions are still hard to come by. A crop of fresh corn is celebrated like manna from heaven.
In fact, the story is mostly tense and sometimes even gripping, provided you’re able to bushwhack a path through Whitehead’s overgrown prose. And the final section, “Sunday,” comes closest to achieving liftoff; it’s a jarring reminder that when given the choice between gradual rebuilding and complete self-destruction, our species will inevitably choose the latter every single time.
Then again, given the readerly slog it takes to get there, maybe you’ll find yourself rooting for Team Nihilism, too.
Doubleday, 272 pp, $29, hardcover