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Zone One, Colson Whitehead


Although the zombie craze is starting to peak in the media, it has not infiltrated the realm of novels to the degree that it has in movies and television, and certainly not to the extent that the vampires have. Whitehead’s novel, oddly labeled “African American Fiction” where I got it from, is best described as the post-apocalyptic horror genre similar to “The Road.”

“Zone One” recounts three days in the life of Mark Spitz, a member of the Omega sweeper team, one of many assigned to clear the undead from Manhattan and prepare it for resettlement. There are two primary types of zombies in this scenario — the rabid, dangerous skels, and the pitiful, oblivious stragglers. The military has already passed through the area, eliminating most of the former, and the sweepers are to clear each building, each apartment, each office, a laborious, painstaking, tedious, and still dangerous job. Although framed by the three days recounted in the novel, flashbacks tell us of his path from The Last Night, the night when the plague came to bear on each survivor’s life. It is a story that Mark has distilled into three versions for telling: The Silhouette, a mere sketch of the facts told to those he only briefly encountered; The Anecdote, which tells just enough information to make the listeners trust Mark; and the Obituary, which he only shares with a select few. We also learn about some of the other survivors that Mark encountered and his narrow escapes from the skels, as well as information about the slowly recuperating government and their plans to retake the cities.

Whitehead’s writing is eloquent, descriptive, and poignant, especially in his portrayal of the stragglers who are trapped in a mindless existence until being put down by the sweepers. The unnatural eerie emptiness of the city is captured in one scene when Mark is in a relatively undamaged area of the city, “where he strolled down a movie set, earning scale as an extra in a period piece about the dead world” (64). I found out about this book through an NPR review, which points out the parallels between the isolation of the stragglers within Whitehead’s cities and the isolation of the inhabitants in our living cities. The novel does not linger so much on the zombies, the science, or mechanics, but rather on how people go on after a catastrophic event: who snaps first, who persists, what happens when reality comes to light and it isn’t a hopeful picture. A sort of grimly inevitable humor laces the story, which can also be found in his NPR interview. Although not a typical blood and gore horror novel, this is an excellent addition for those who enjoy the zombie genre.

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