I was never much of an enthusiast, to be honest, but I swore off zombie novels for good after being obliged to read the execrable World War Z during my Masters. But last year I read and greatly enjoyed Harlem Shuffle, and figured that it would be worth seeing what Colson Whitehead could do with this tired and (more often than not) racist trope.
It’s fun watching how the blurb writers quoted in the front pages tied themselves in knots, trotting out variations on the familiar “it’s playing with genre, but really it’s a literary novel” routine that gives you permission to slum it downtown for a while—not least because this kind of cultural tourism is an aspect of the late-Noughties scene that Whitehead has fixed in his satirical sights. At the same time, they’re not wrong, at least at the level of style: no simple declarative airport-thriller sentences here, nor the overwrought grand guignol of the horror set. Every sentence sings, from the first page to the last: after a while I stopped marking places that might provide illustrative quotes, because I was marking every second page. Open this book anywhere, it’s all just as good.
I’m hesitant to make sweeping judgements on the basis of only two novels from a large and growing back-list, but voice would appear to be Whitehead’s true mastery. It’s certainly the voice of the man known as Mark Spitz, delivered in a very close third person narration, that makes Zone One work for me. It’s not an easy voice, though. A friend who took up my enthusiastic recommendation remarked that it’s almost paradoxical: evasive yet confessional, oblique yet graphic, circuitous yet—in retrospect—alarmingly direct. You have to surrender to it, I think. Whitehead’s tendency to take Spitz into long and digressional fugues of memory right when you’ve been primed to expect fast-paced action is evidently a deliberate choice; if you let him lead you, it’s well worth the walk.
Not least because you’ll come to realise by the end that Zone One is not only a send-up of the zombie genre and a scathing yet affectionate portrait of USian culture (New York in particular), but is also a novel about the Black American experience—all the more powerful for its not reminding you every few pages or so that HEY BY THE WAY THIS IS A NOVEL ABOUT THE BLACK AMERICAN EXPERIENCE, WHICH HAS BEEN PRETTY BAD, AND STILL IS. Left to work out for yourself how Spitz became the person he is—and how he earned his nickname, a gag which is withheld for a long time—your realisation that his instinct for adaptation and survival are a function of the structural circumstances he grew up in will be all the more pointed when you finally get all the pieces. (I assume it is much more obvious much earlier for readers who share that experience, of course.)
I told my friend, mentioned above, that Zone One “is the last zombie novel you’ll ever need to read”. It’s already much too late to hope that it might be the last one ever written, but here we have a yardstick by which subsequent shambling revenants might be measured.