Oh dear. Is it possible to make flesh-hungering zombies seem dull?
While I never thought so, AMC and Whitehead have both been giving it their all by enveloping them in navel-gazing Philosophy 101 monologues and odd series of pastoral flashbacks in the midst of life-or-death situations. Whitehead, at least, delivers his philosophy with amazing prose, while the writers at The Walking Dead (season two) rely on repetition of words like ‘humanity’ more times than Hobbes could shake a stick at. We get it: apocalypse stories are essentially about hope; how we create meaning in survival and and how we cope with a massive breakdown in society. While I’m optimistic for The Walking Dead, I’ll take a pass on Whitehead’s version of humanity–this is the Kafka version, where people are roaches–or mannequins–before transforming into zombies. Nihilism at it’s most uninspiring.
As I began Zone One, I started falling in love with the language, the clear and exacting prose Whitehead uses to describe everything from technology to buildings. As I read on, it became apparent that while Whitehead can turn an apt phrase, he has no love or passion for his story; this is a chronicle of decay, both before and after the plague apocalypse.
There is little in Zone One for the fans of action and plotting, and only the barest of character development. Instead, we are given ink sketches in broad frames, all the better to hang the dirty laundry of Whitehead’s social commentary. The setting is conventional plague apocalypse; ‘something’ starts transforming people, it spreads before awareness of infection, and society melts like a wet tissue, except for small encampments of people. The plot centers on teams sent out to cleanse New York City of the remaining dead once the Marines have swept through. The narrator is an Everyman, nameless until christened by his teammates, who relives his memories as he scours the city for zombies.
Darkness begins on the very first page when we read: “the camera was so backward that every lurching specimen his father enlisted from the passersby was able to operate it sans hassle, no matter the depth of cow-eyed vacancy in their tourist faces or local wretchedness inverting their spines.” Descriptions of people before the plague strangely resemble those of people after, and it’s not because of compassion for the zombies. Right there, I knew the level of disdain for the father, the mediocre, the simple, even for humanity.
Every word is selected with care, conveying decay and blight. Photos are “culled” for an album. The buildings of pre-plague New York aggressively “collided, they humiliated runts through verticality and ambition, sulked in one another’s shadows.” When they are redeveloped, “their insides were butchered, reconfigured, rewired according to the next era’s new theories of utility… sweatshop killing floor into cordoned cubicle mill.” The disdain carries over into people, especially lawyers. “If you’d asked him about his plans… the answer would have come easily: lawyering. He was berefit of attractive propositions, constitutionally unaccustomed for enthusiasm, and generally malleable… Hence, law.” Likewise, design firms, receptionists, number-crunching bureaucrats, fast-food friers, soldiers–none are spared from the contemptuous voyeuristic lens.
Living characters are suspiciously similar to zombies. Gary, on Mark’s team has “fingernails which were seemingly constructed of grime as if he had clawed out of a coffin,” and Kaitlyn, the leader, is a clear “grade grubber before the disaster… maintain(ing) a grade-grubbing continuum.” Even people at the camps. “Everyone he saw walked around with a psychological limp… the all-over crumpling, as if the soul were imploding or the mind sucking the extremities into itself.“
This is one of those books that destroys a rating system. Technically brilliant, structurally competent and ultimately both cynically distancing and ironic, it lacks the heart and characters that truly engage me on a deeper level. Two stars for personal enjoyment, problems with world building (which, in fairness, I believe weren’t meant to be resolved as it is meant more as a metaphorical tale), four stars for deft use of language and general conception, and one star for it’s dim view of human nature.