Friday, 13 March 2015

Zone One by Colson Whitehead

This is a very literary zombie novel. Very artistic. It isn't so much about the zombies, although they are there, as about a world that is in the process of ending, and in denial about that end. As such, it's a bit of a grey, down book to read, but it was also interesting. If I didn't love it, it certainly went up there as a book that I liked. If you like zombie novels, and you like literary dystopias, or if, say, you liked The Road, you'll probably like this. (I didn't like The Road, and I did like this, but that's a whole different kettle of fish.)

The zombies came. Most people died. Some didn't. There are pockets of places all over the world where governments are trying to reform themselves. In the United States, at least on the East Coast, there is a provisional government in Buffalo, and camps to keep the zombies (called skels, but who are we kidding) at bay. As part of a sign that the American Phoenix is rising from the ashes, the government decides to clear part of Manhattan. Or all of Manhattan. My New York City geography is a little shaky.

The army went through and cleared out the streets, the subways, and the large buildings. Now civilians are going through smaller building, killing the few skels they find, as well as Whitehead's innovation here, the few stragglers. The stragglers are people who were bitten, but instead of going all eating-of-the-brains, they returned to a familiar spot and took up a familiar pose, and just...stayed. Little snapshots of the city as it was. No one knows why. No one knows how. But there they are.

So this book is about three of the civilian volunteers, or rather, about one of them, and his two teammates. It's also about a society that, such as it is, is collectively suffering from mass trauma. Of course, in this resurgent U.S., it has an acronym - PASD, or Post-Apocalypse Stress Disorder. People display signs in lesser or greater ways.

The main character was never anyone special in his day-to-day life, neither champion or loser. Until he comes home from a trip to Atlantic City and stumbles upon his parents in a horrible parody of the way you never want to walk in on your parents. Then he's on the run, and we are parcelled out bits of his experiences, as he becomes comfortable enough with us to tell us more.

Although it's about him, and New York, it's even more about habitat collapse. The ways in which it might be recoverable, and how that optimism might be its own form of traumatic denial. It's also about the ghost of a huge city, and the dangers that might be lurking, and the ways people lull themselves into survival.

It's a quiet book. There aren't big action bits here, except maybe at the end. But even that is less pulse-pounding than it is sad. If you're looking for moody atmospheric zombie fiction, try this one.

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