Over the last 15 years New York novelist Colson Whitehead has penned several literary style novels including a classic coming-of-age novel, a book about a mid-life identity crisis, and a story of a female elevator inspector who inhabits a parallel universe. In this latest novel he immerses himself in an entirely new subject area – the shambling world of the catatonic zombie.
Like many modern zombie narratives, Zone One kicks off with a plague. A pandemic has wiped out America, sorting humanity into two camps, the living and the walking dead. But now the worst is over and Manhattan is being resettled. Armed forces have reclaimed an island south of Canal Street, and squadrons of human "sweepers" are clearing out the remaining "stragglers" – a sub-species of flesh-eating cadaver. Working for this citizen militia is Mark Sptiz, a boy from the suburbs who's always longed to reinvent himself as an urban sophisticate. As he patrols the streets of post-apocalyptic down-town, he imagines ushering in a new age of metropolitan chic.
Colson's gender-bending fantasy is as much a satire of modern consumer culture as a visit to the land of the living dead. He has re-branded his native city in the advertising-speak of corporate sponsors and invented a schmaltzy new national anthem. His "stragglers", like Dante's ghosts, have trouble moving on and have taken to occupying key haunts from their previous lives, including shopping malls and the photocopying room at work. Spitz lives in daily terror that at any moment a friend, relative or colleague might suddenly reveal themselves as the monster they've always been. This is the story of hard-won survival of the self-avowedly average. Whitehead's flamboyant juxtapositions of language and cultural tropes are what make the novel both fun and frustrating.
At times his distinctive sentences walk a fine line between the sensational and silly. While the novel might not hit the spot with horror aficionados, it's a good introduction for those tempted to dip a toe in previously unchartered waters.