Words In: Zone One by Colson Whitehead

This book came to my attention with Glen Duncan’s review in the New York Times, which opens with the line, “A literary novelist writing a genre novel is like an intellectual dating a porn star.” Duncan himself was a literary novelist who wrote the (wonderful, five stars, loved it) genre novel The Last Werewolf so I figure he’s being a little cute here. Various genre writers and editors and readers were irritated by Duncan’s remark, which didn’t surprise me much. Science fiction, fantasy and horror writers, editors and readers tend to be easily irritated when it comes to comments on the level of respect genre fiction deserves.

My take-away from the review was that Glen Duncan came from the literary mainstream and wrote a fantastic werewolf novel, and the fancy-pants NYT book review hired him to write about another mainstreamish writer who wrote a zombie novel. And lots of genre people are talking all about Zone One, just like they talked all about The Last Werewolf. So maybe Zone One is just as good?

No, not really. Where The Last Werewolf is as entertaining as it is literate, Zone One is more solemn and introspective. In fact, I had to give up my “This is gonna be like Last Werewolf but with zombies, yeah?” preconception before I was able to see what Zone One really is. It’s much less about story and even less about character, and almost entirely concerned with lamenting a lost way of life. At its most cheerful, the book is melancholy nostalgia, and more often it dwells in a sort of numbed, cheerless enervation.

The main character (the amusingly nicknamed Mark Spitz, whose real name is never given) keeps moving, trying to survive. Sort of. I like the narrative voice, but kept hoping for the guy to kick it into gear, to encounter either some truth or some transforming circumstance, or meet some compelling human counterpart to move him. I wanted him to care about what’s ahead of him more, and not just obsess over what he’s left behind him. He seems much more caught up in his thoughts, in a free-associative expository swirl unstuck from time.

The prose here is strong, at times even extremely impressive. I wonder, though, if readers who picked up this book wanting a well-written zombie tale aren’t going to mostly going away disappointed at the slowness and even occasional stagnation of the plot. Colson Whitehead crafts a nice sentence, and comes up with some intellectually compelling images and connections, yet having read this I don’t quite feel driven to explore his other work. In fact if the writing weren’t so technically proficient I’d grade this only three stars rather than four. This one’s not so much about what happens as it is about a character’s look back, and inward.

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