Saturday, June 8, 2013

Horror Novel Review

Zone One (2011):  I don't usually review novels, but I came across this zombie apocalypse story and thought I'd share my impressions.  Let me explain something first.  I have a degree in English but am not what you'd call a "literary snob."  I'm not a fan of Shakespeare or Dickens.  I think Hemingway is a hack and the most overrated author of all time.  Updike is just plain nuts...  So when I read reviews from Esquire and GQ that this is one of the best books of the year, I was worried.  Turns out, I was utterly and completely justified in my anxiety.

A plague, zombies, war, clean-up.  The story starts years after the outbreak during the clean-up phase of reconstruction.  A section of Manhattan is staked out to be reclaimed, referred to as Zone One.  A military-ish HQ is set up and teams of sweepers go from building to building, room to room clearing out any straggling zombies.  Protagonist Mark Spitz is part of a three-man sweeper team known as Omega.  His teammates are Gary and Kaitlyn.  Gary's the clown and Kaitlyn's the stickler for rules.  Mark Spitz is...average.  Not just average but clinically average.  Never anything but a B student.  Strings of jobs and relationships that were satisfying without being great or awful.  The epitome of Everyman.  Author Colson Whitehead goes above and beyond to shove this notion down our throat, so I wanted to be clear.

Turns out, Mark Spitz has an affinity for bedlam and horror.  The chaos awakens a part of him, and he discovers his latent talents are surviving and killing zombies.  In other words, while he simply existed in the "normal" world, he thrives in this new one.  Although he suffers from PASD (Post Apocalypse Stress Disorder) like everyone else, Mark Spitz is more alive now.  You may ask, "Does this mean Zone One is a thinly veiled satire on modern society?"  The answer is, no.  It's not at all veiled.  Whitehead has not written a horror novel, rather he's written a sweeping critique of American culture under the guise of the most popular medium of the day:  zombies.  Anyone else see the glaring irony, if not outright hypocrisy here?

So what does Whitehead critique?  What doesn't he?  Every profession from Wall Street banker to janitor, from politician to barista is unworthy of respect because everyone works for money and just tries to get by.  No television program is worthy of respect whether it be sitcom, medical drama, police procedural, or reality.  And so on.  And on.  It gets old fast.  One line sums up his disdain:  "New York City in death was very much like New York City in life." 

There's very little dialogue in this book which I feel is a mistake.  Of course, how else could the author beat us over the head with his message other than with extended exposition?  The most irritating aspect of Whitehead's style is his protracted and unnecessary use of flashbacks.  No joke, there are flashbacks within flashbacks.  Listen, I've read Chaucer in Middle English and understood it; but there were times in Zone One where I was totally lost.  I honestly feel literary critics heap the most accolades on books that make the least sense because they don't want to admit that they don't know what the hell is going on. 

The story itself isn't bad.  I kind of liked it, actually, although don't expect an ending full of flowers and sunshine.  Parts of this book reminded me of Catch-22.  There's a little Yossarian in Mark Spitz.  And a bit of Major Major in Mark Spitz's lieutenant.  I'm not saying this is a good thing or a bad thing.  Just an observation. 

Ultimately, Zone One won't satisfy fans of the zombie genre.  It will, I suppose, satisfy those folks who enjoy reading GQ and Esquire.  If you want to read satisfying book about the zombie apocalypse, read Max Brooks' World War Z.  If you want to watch a zombie flick with a satirical slant, you can't do better than Shaun of the Dead

Without my usually Breakdown, I don't know how to end this review.  How about this:  if you're a zombie nerd, don't read it. 

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