Zone One by Colson Whitehead


There was a barrier at the end of one’s life, yes, but nothing on the other side. How could there be? The plague stopped the heart, one’s essence sloughed off the pathetic human meat and dog-paddled through the ectoplasm or whatever, and then the plague restarted the heart. What kind of cruel deity granted a glimpse of the angelic sphere, only to yank it away and condemn you to a monster’s vantage? Sentenced you to observe the world through the sad aperture of the dead, suffer the gross parody of your existence. Outside Zone One, the souls sat trapped in the bleachers, spectators to the travesties committed by their alienated hands.

Zone One is a rather contemplative zombie  novel.

Much like The Walking Dead (in my mind one of the better zombie books/TV shows/games), Zone One takes place after most of the world is devastated by the zombie epidemic. The Marines have done their bit, flushing out the hordes and eliminating them. Now it’s the turn of the sweepers, who check the buildings of Manhattan, working in small teams, removing any stragglers, hauling the bodies down for the Disposal teams to collect.

Mark Spitz is part of the three-person Omega team. That’s not his real name but it’s what he goes by now.

He’s a survivor this one.

Mark Spitz believed he had successfully banished thoughts of the future. He wasn’t like the rest of them, the other sweepers, the soldiers up the island, or those haggard clans in the camps and caves, all the far-flung remnants behind their barricades, wherever people struggled and waited for victory or oblivion. The faint residue of humanity stuck to the sides of the world. You never heard Mark Spitz say “When this is all over” or “Once things get back to normal” or other sentiments of that brand, because he refused them. When it was all done, truly and finally done, you could talk about what you were going to do. See if your house still stood, enjoy a few rounds of How Many Neighbors Made It Through. Figure out how much of your life from before still remained and how much you had lost. This is what he had learned: If you weren’t concentrating on how to survive the next five minutes, you wouldn’t survive them.

It’s not a plot-driven book. There’s not much in terms of zombie-chasing (or being chased by zombies), there’s only a little gore and horror, nothing that will make you keep one eye open at night.

It’s a different kind of horror, knowing that the next zombie you see (and kill) could be your friend, your teacher, your relative.

And that hope is futile, that refuges will crumble, that their defenses will never hold, that supplies will run out. And that the next zombie will eventually be you.

The monster-movie speculations of his childhood had forced him, during many a dreary midnight, to wonder what sort of skel he’d make if the plague transformed his blood into poison. The standard-issue skel possessed no room for improvisation, of course. He’d hit his repugnant marks. But what kind of straggler would he make? What did he love, what place had been important to him? Job or home, bull’s-eye of cathected energy. Yes, he loved his home. Perhaps he’d end up there, installing himself in his worn perch on the right-hand side of the sofa (right if you are facing the entertainment center, and where else would you be facing). Perhaps there.

This zombie novel won’t make your heart race or gross you out (much), but it will make you reflect on love and loss. It meanders a bit here and there but Whitehead’s beautiful writing pulls the reader back in again and again.


Colson Whitehead’s bibliography

The Intuitionist (1999)
John Henry Days (2001)
Apex Hides the Hurt (2006)
Sag Harbor (2009)
Zone One (2011)

The Colossus of New York (2003)
The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky & Death (2014)




I read this book for Diversiverse and RIP IX