“Zone One” by Colson Whitehead, A Zombie Novel You Can Read in Public Without Embarrassment

December 7, 2011

“So tentative bureaucracy rose from the amino-acid pools of madness, per its custom.”

– from Zone One by Colson Whitehead

Anyone who knows me well, knows how much I like zombies, as a horror genre. (If they were real, I’d probably turn against them, for purely practical reasons). There are a lot of very low-budget zombie films that are pretty much unwatchable and indefensible, but the genre does contain a few classics and some great, entertaining if decidedly “B” caliber movies.

Why, for example, critics routinely bash the Resident Evil films I will never understand. They deliver exactly what they promise. I do have to admit to great bias here, however. I would watch a movie of Mila Jovovich breathing.

In literature, the pickings are far slimmer. I found a well-regarded short story compilation, Book of the Dead, edited by John Skipp and Craig Spector to be mostly forgettable with the exception of 2 or 3 entries. There were also a couple where gratuitous sex ruined the narrative for me. The implausible double-penetration of a waitress via a zombie father and son in one story made me wonder if the author was 14 years old and had never seen a real lady naked. I mean, Zombie sex? Really?

The Walking Dead: Rise of the Governor by Robert Kirkman and Jay Bonansinga is part of the Walking Dead TV show and comic book franchise. I was an early fan of the comic book and think the AMC show is an excellent adaptation. The book, however, is for completists only. It adds almost nothing to the experience of the comic or the TV series.

And, although it is completely authorized and co-authored by Walking Dead creator Kirkman, there are continuity errors between the book and the comic (the sign outside Wiltshire Estates was one that stuck out for me). Where have all the proofreaders gone, I wonder?

If you want to experience your zombies on the printed page I would recommend Otto Penzler’s  Zombies! Zombies! Zombies! a massive 832 page anthology that includes the best stories from Book of the Dead as well as the first reportage in English about Haitian zombies, W.B. Seabrook’s “Dead Men Working in the Cane Fields.”

In the category of novels, there are only two that I think are worth your time: Tony Burgess’ Pontypool Changes Everything from 1998 and 2011’s Zone One by Colson Whitehead.

Zone One has gotten phenomenal reviews from publications that matter like The New York Times Book Review, Los Angeles Times, Entertainment Weekly, GQ, USA Today, Esquire, New York Observer, The Washington Post, Houston Chronicle, Publishers Weekly and more.

However, genre fans are dissing it long and loud on Amazon.com. Not enough red meat for them, I imagine. This is the crowd that Skipp and Spector’s Day of the Dead was compiled for. I disagree with almost every criticism they throw at Zone One.

Whitehead is a well-regarded mainstream novelist and a MacArthur Grant recipient, dipping into the zombie genre for the first time. This fact alone seems to outrage the double-digit IQ crew. There are similar criticisms in the letter pages of The Walking Dead comic whenever the focus stays too long on the living, trying to cope with the post Zombie Apocalypse world.

This is the difference between reading (and thinking) and contemporary porn. In the 1970s era of porno chic, X-rated films had actual plots and attempts at characters, albeit with regular as clockwork hardcore sex scenes. Now porn has gone ‘gonzo’ and it’s all one semi-pneumatic scene after another. The critics of Zone One seem to desire a zombie novel that is simply one gore fest after another. Just give me the ‘good parts’, they demand, and don’t make me think. Just like porn.

Personally, I loved Whitehead’s prose style and the pacing and originality of his storyline. It’s also filled with wonderful lines like the one quoted above. Zone One wasn’t written for the fanboys. Ignore the critics on Amazon. It’s a literary zombie novel for adults with a brain. A big, fat juicy bra-a-a-a-a-in!





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