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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In and Out of Genre

Following on from minutes-ago post about going from Stephen King’s Dreamcatcher to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road

A reasonable first reaction would be to say that these two are about as far apart as two writers could be. The sun-bleached lines of McCarthy, which manage to be terse even when they are poetic, stand in dramatic contrast to the casual, slang-filled conversational style of King. One is less, one is more-more-more.

On the other hand, both are quirky with punctuation, and both frequently construct sentences to feel like internal stream-of-consciousness.

Beyond that, there’s another similarity I would like to discuss. Both have written genre fiction (McCarthy dabbling in SF or apocalyptic horror this once, King obviously working in horror most of the time) that appeals widely to readers outside those genres. This ability is rare enough — and make no mistake, most genre writers very much want their work to appeal to readers outside the genre ghetto — to bear consideration. Why is Stephen King’s work so popular among readers who never read horror except King’s work, and more often read mainstream books or thrillers? Why do critics treat The Road with the same respect they give All the Pretty Horses or Blood Meridian, rather than saying “I’ll pass on this one — he’s just writing end-of-the-world shit?”

Despite the stylistic gap between these two writers, I think the explanation for trans-genre appeal is the same in both cases, and also explains writers like Vonnegut, Palahniuk, Atwood, and even Tolkien reaching way beyond the usual genre boundaries (in some cases to the point they are no longer considered genre writers even when what they’re doing plainly uses all the tropes). That is, the placement of the characters’ emotional drama at the forefront of the story in such a way that we are tangled in their experience. We experience their fears and hopes, and directly project ourselves into their place.

This seems a simple matter — all writers know they’re supposed to engage the reader on an emotional level — yet very rarely does that engagement occur in such an intimate way as with these writers. It’s about putting the “people stuff” ahead of the “trans-warp tachyon drive” or “vampire/zombie plague” or “Venusian cloud colony” bullshit. Most genre writers think they’re doing this, but they’re not. That’s because most genre writers get their start out of a love for the tropes and McGuffins, and not out of pure storytelling. They may try to figure out how to write relationships and emotions, but it’s not what drives them.

I haven’t read enough about McCarthy to know if this is true, but from reading him I’d say he’s strongly influenced by Hemingway and Faulkner (which probably says a lot about why I’m so smitten with him, because those are two of my favorites). Obviously King has more roots within horror than without, but I think it’s telling that his favorite writer is Elmore Leonard, and not Lovecraft or Machen or Blackwood or Shirley Jackson. Leonard is another writer whose primary focus is individual fears and desires. It’s incidental that his characters are murderers and thieves, con artists and detectives.

Sometimes a genre writer wants to break out, give themselves a shot at appealing to a broader readership, outside their own genre. Sometimes they try a different style to which they’re not really suited , such as Greg Bear writing an awful supernatural thriller with minimal SF content, Dead Lines. I think a better idea would be to focus on writing stuff with a more human appeal.

Lots of people love Friday Night Lights who don’t care about high school football. Normally I don’t like Westerns, yet I loved Deadwood crazy-much, because the characters and conflicts were so compelling. To my mind, the foremost goal of any writer should be to make their work appeal to people who normally dislike the subject matter or genre.

Peter Straub asks: What about genre?

A quick outside link to an article by Peter Straub, bestselling author of Ghost Story and a couple of collaborations with Stephen King, discussing the matter of genre. If there’s one category of writer even more touchy about genre than science fiction people, it’s probably horror writers.

Straub says…

Just for beginners, let’s admit that literary fiction is a genre, too, shall we? Expectations guide its readers, that of respect for consensus reality and the poignancy of seemingly ordinary lives, of sensitive character-drawing and vivid scene-painting, of the reversals and conflicts characteristic of the several sub-genres of literary fiction.

Link to the full article.

I’ve touched on this subject several times already in a blog that hasn’t yet seen two dozen posts, and that’s because I’ve gone through three periods of writing in my life, each time in a different style. As a teen I wrote horror/supernatural stories influenced by Twilight Zone (both the TV show and the magazine), somewhere halfway between the short fiction of Harlan Ellison and Stephen King. In my twenties I wrote more straightforward stuff meant to be “literary” but couldn’t stop myself from adding strange flourishes that might have been postmodernist or magical realist, or might now be called slipstream or “new weird.” Now I’m writing science fiction, but with a great emphasis on people, relationships, internal thoughts or feelings, as compared to “spaceships, aliens and planets” kind of science fiction.

Having come out the other side of these transformations myself, I realize: The same kinds of ideas and surprises have always interested me, and in a sense I’ve always written about the same things. The settings and the clothing are different, and that’s the biggest thing “genre” really is. How is everything dressed up?

I suspect most writers wish the boundaries of any given genre were more flexible.