Stephen's Reviews > Zone One

Zone One by Colson Whitehead
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Dec 28, 11

bookshelves: 2011, audiobook, dead-heads, post-apocalypse, science-horror, ebooks, literary-fiction
Read from December 18 to 27, 2011 — I own a copy

Attractive, well-dressed writing and some buxom, sexy phrase-turning make this novel’s surface shiny and pretty. However, its hollowness, lack of depth and monotone emotionlessness make the interior a soulless, vacuous fail. It’s prose porn with no emotional money shot, and like traditional porn Zone One dispenses with plot, character and any hint of deeper meaning in favor of excessive, gratuitous word humping. The language is technically proficient and has an appealing shape, but inside is shallow, detached and mechanical.

Just like an adult film star while on screen. Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

It’s literature with none of the heart and emotional depth that make the good stuff stick to your soul and nest inside your memory. The emperor is well-spoken but naked.

When I first started reading this, I was jazzed by the language. Whitehead can spin a sentence and has a comfortable familiarity with the English language. For example, early on in this “literary” zombie novel the reader is introduced to Mark Spitz, our narrator, who is described as the quintessential everyman always existing in the middle of the pack:
He nailed milestone after developmental milestone, as if every twitch were coached. Had they been aware of his location, child behaviorists would have cherished him, observing him through binoculars and scratching their ledgers as he confirmed their data and theories in his anonymous travails. He was their typical, he was their most, he was their average receiving hearty thumbs-up from the gents in the black van parked a discreet distance across the street.
I like that. It has a slickness to it that I found enjoyable. In addition, there’s a fun layering of pop-consumer excoriation and decrying the disconnectedness of people to their fellow man. This was easily my favorite part of the novel and I was reminded of Ellison’s American Psycho.

This was a very good start for me because I am a promiscuous word-whore and I love lyrical language. Nothing heats up my cockles more than masterful phrasing that suavely struts across the page and causes multiple eyegasms on its way into your brain. This is why I have such a massive gush on for writers like Charles Dickens, Jane Austen and, more recently, Umberto Eco and Cormac McCarthy.

But here’s the thing...as much as I love lush, musical writing, the pretty packaging of masterful prose isn't, ultimately, what makes my happy rise. It’s the combination of the ability to eye-hug with fulgurant writing while ratcheting my heart up into my throat** with characters and story.

**Or, in McCarthy’s case, ripping my heart into bloody chunks of useless muscle.

Good novels should make...you...feel...something. One of literature great virtues is being able to stun us with the lyrical, wondrous descriptions while using the prose as a clandestine delivery system for revealing a truth intended to resonate within us. It doesn’t have to be happy truth filled with teddy bears. It can be deeply unpleasant and make you cringe with despair that life is an untethered, meaningless exercise in futility (yes, I’m looking at you Kafka).

Basically, I am saying that pretty words are not enough and books should have a purpose (e.g., tell an entertaining or important story, express a feeling or share a truth). I found none of that here. Nada. Zilch. This book felt more like a corpse. At times, a jaw-droppingly beautiful corpse, but still a cadaver.

Even looking at genre fiction(gasp say the literary snobs as they try to look down over their upturned noses), I can list many authors like Catherynne Valente, Guy Gavriel Kay, Don Winslow and Tim Powers who are marvelous wordsmiths and use their polished writing to entertain, enlighten and/or tell a compelling story...with characters that do things and make you care.

There were no characters to care about in this novel.

Here comes the worst knickers-twisting negative of the whole novel for me: I found the writing not only insubstantial and 100% style, but also intentionally pretentious. It felt snobbish. It didn’t feel like Whitehead was trying to dazzle and amaze (a virtue in my opinion) so much as to impress and self-aggrandize. It felt like Whitehead had decided to “slum it” in the ghetto of zombie fiction and didn’t want to get shit on his shoes.

Literary pretentiousness and elitism is a major bugaboo with me and the fastest way to turn me off of a novel. This was a classic case in point.

So, overall, while there was some terrific, enjoyable prose, I found nothing else in this novel to go gaga over. Add to that the major turn off mentioned above and I can’t bring myself to go higher than 2 stars. That said, given my love of language and prose, I may revisit this at some point down the line to see if I might have missed something over the irritating din of pompousness.

2.0 stars.
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Comments (showing 1-50 of 143) (143 new)


message 1: by Lisa (new) - added it

Lisa This is on my to-read shelf. I'll be interested to hear what you think about it. Apparently a "literary" zombie tale.


Stephen I am half way through it and it's very good. "Literary" zombie tale is a perfect description.


Crowinator You will probably write your review before I do, and I can't wait to see what you think. It took me a while to get into this one, but once I did I devoured it in a night.


Stephen Crowinator wrote: "You will probably write your review before I do, and I can't wait to see what you think. It took me a while to get into this one, but once I did I devoured it in a night."

I am really liking it so far. Definitely a worthwhile read and I love Whitehead's prose.


Crowinator Stephen wrote: "I love Whitehead's prose"

Me too. I had to reset my brain, though, for the long, layered sentences and paragraphs of the adult literary writer. (c: It's been too long.


message 6: by Becky (new)

Becky LOL Stephen... In my update feed, this one cuts off at "...It’s prose porn with no e" and I totally thought you were going there. Hehehe! Saucy!


Trudi Your review:
Yes! yes! yes!



I especially agree with: It felt like Whitehead had decided to “slum it” in the ghetto of zombie fiction and didn’t want to get shit on his shoes.

For a genuine literary zombie novel, that's not afraid to get shit on its shoes, check out
The Reapers Are the Angels


message 8: by Becky (new)

Becky Trudi wrote: "For a genuine literary zombie novel, that's not afraid to get shit on its shoes, check out
The Reapers Are the Angels "


That is a pretty good book... Definitely not afraid of the muck!


message 9: by Bridget (new) - added it

Bridget Love your turn of phrase especially "prose porn with no emotional money shot". To quote a Seinfeld episode That's Gold Stephen, Gold!


Stephen Becky wrote: "LOL Stephen... In my update feed, this one cuts off at "...It’s prose porn with no e" and I totally thought you were going there. Hehehe! Saucy!"

Dammit...if I would have thought of it, I would have gone there in a heartbeat.


message 11: by Becky (new)

Becky Ohhh yeah! ;)


message 12: by Brandon (new) - added it

Brandon Stephen wrote: "It’s prose porn with no emotional money shot."

Fantastic.

Great review, sir!


Stephen Trudi wrote: "Your review:
Yes! yes! yes!

I especially agree with: It felt like Whitehead had decided to “slum it” in the ghetto of zombie fiction and didn’t want to get shit on his shoes."


Thanks, Trudi. Btw, I thought your review was fantastic and captured a lot of what I felt about this book.

Trudi wrote: "For a genuine literary zombie novel, that's not afraid to get shit on its shoes, check out The Reapers Are the Angels."

I will definitely put this on my soon to read list. I have owned it for a while and your praise is all I need to give it a go.


message 14: by Stephen (last edited Dec 27, 2011 08:52PM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Stephen Bridget wrote: "Love your turn of phrase especially "prose porn with no emotional money shot". To quote a Seinfeld episode That's Gold Stephen, Gold!"

Thanks, Bridget and I love the Seinfeld reference. Bania cracks me up.


message 15: by Cortney (new)

Cortney Horror! I don't read horror. How did this end up on my tbr list? I must not have been paying attention when I added it. So you're telling me I won't be missing anything if I remove it right? Lol


Stephen Cortney wrote: "Horror! I don't read horror. How did this end up on my tbr list? I must not have been paying attention when I added it. So you're telling me I won't be missing anything if I remove it right? Lol"

There are definitely better books to read. :)


Stephen Brandon wrote: "Stephen wrote: "It’s prose porn with no emotional money shot."

Fantastic.

Great review, sir!"


Thank, Brandon.


message 18: by Donna (last edited Dec 27, 2011 09:00PM) (new)

Donna Wonderful review. I know I will never read this book, but I have been following reviews of it with great interest because it generates such good ones.


message 19: by Jakob (new) - added it

Jakob I gave up almost halfway into the book. I'm glad I'm not the only one that thought the book empty of content.

Great review :)


Stephen Donna wrote: "Wonderful review. I know I will never read this book, but I have been following reviews of it with great interest because it generates such good ones."

Thanks, Donna.


Stephen Jakob wrote: "I gave up almost halfway into the book. I'm glad I'm not the only one that thought the book empty of content.

Great review :)"


Thanks, Jakob. You are definitely not alone.


Richard Reviles Censorship Always in All Ways has an appealing shape, but inside is shallow, detached and mechanical.

Just like an adult film star.


We know different porn stars, it would seem, since the ones with whom I'm acquainted include some very nice people.

Basically, I am saying that pretty words are not enough and books should have a purpose (e.g., tell an entertaining or important story, express a feeling or share a truth). I found none of that here. Nada. Zilch. This book felt more like a corpse. At times, a jaw-droppingly beautiful corpse, but still a cadaver.

Well said, nicely crafted, just plain right. "Fiction is a pack of lies, organized so they illuminate a truth we can't or won't see any other way. Or else it's masturbation in a mirror." -- me, in teaching novel-writing classes.

I go to sleep in the middle of my movie and wake up to find you've been busy carving a tombstone! Excellent. I should pay more attention to you than to Guy Ritchie. You enlighten AND entertain me. He just puts me to sleep.


Stephen Thanks, Richard. I'm glad you liked it. I love the quote about "masturbation in a mirror." I almost said something similar in the review.

Oh, one point of clarification on my adult film star comment. When I said "shallow, detached and mechanical," I was referimg to their performance of the physical act in the course of their job, not to them personally. I meant that as part of my "all style and no substance" argument. I was less than clear on that point so your comment was well taken.


Richard Reviles Censorship Always in All Ways Stephen wrote: "Oh, one point of clarification on my adult film star comment. When I said "shallow, detached and mechanical," I was referimg to their performance of the physical act in the course of their job, not to them personally. I meant that as part of my "all style and no substance" argument. I was less than clear on that point so your comment was well taken."

It was the mildest bleat of discontent! Not meant to criticize! Just that a friend of mine and her son pursue this line of work, and they're really lovely folks. I try to give the stereotype a little jab whenever I see it as a result. I didn't mean it to be aimed at your vitals, honest.


Stephen Richard wrote: " I didn't mean it to be aimed at your vitals, honest."

Oh, I know. I thought it was a fair comment and I was being honestly contrite for not being clear. I just edited that part of he review to try and make it more clear and even through in some Shakespeare for poops and giggles.


Richard Reviles Censorship Always in All Ways Just like an adult film star while on screen. Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Ha! That's the ticket! The virtue of precision combined with the snarkisfaction of deflating the pretentious prat with a serious literary quote properly deployed. This book: No stars. Your review: Five stars.


Kemper Uh oh. We disagreed about a book. Does this mean we have to duel or something??


Trudi Duel! Duel! Duel! Let's have the first ever GR throw down!


Stephen Kemper wrote: "Uh oh. We disagreed about a book. Does this mean we have to duel or something??"

Definitely...but we will need Dan as a third party judge. Here are my proposed ground rules:

1. A beer and a shot of tequila set in front of each of us (with necessary pretzels, chili fries or other beer duel accoutrement).

2. Each person will have 60 seconds to provide a basis for there love/loathe of the book. At the end of each round, Dan will decide which person was more compelling and/or correct and will proceed to drink the tequila in front of the "winner" of that round. You and I will then toast and drink from our beer.

3. We will repeat this until Dan passes out. The person who causes Dan to drink the most tequila before he slumbers is the winner.

4. The loser has to rifle around in Dan's pockets for the money to settle the bar bill and think of a plausible explanation for what happened to his money.

Now...what say you?


Crowinator There were no characters to care about in this novel.

True! Excellent review. I agree with a lot of your points. There is an extreme emotional detachment to the narrative, a coldness. Lack of heart, I think you said. And it is definitely pretentious at times. I disagree that it's 100% style with no substance, but I can see how others would think so; while I didn't feel deeply reading this book, it made me think, so I got some purpose out of it.


Terence Stephen wrote: "Kemper wrote: "Uh oh. We disagreed about a book. Does this mean we have to duel or something??"

Definitely...but we will need Dan as a third party judge. Here are my proposed ground rules:

..."


I'd pay a dollar to see that!

Stephen, you're in Vegas - Have the odds-makers given the odds for this match up?


Kemper Stephen wrote: "Kemper wrote: "Uh oh. We disagreed about a book. Does this mean we have to duel or something??"

Definitely...but we will need Dan as a third party judge. Here are my proposed ground rules:

..."


Accepted with the provision that we change the food mentioned in Point 1 to tacos.


Stephen Crowinator wrote: "There were no characters to care about in this novel.

True! Excellent review. I agree with a lot of your points. There is an extreme emotional detachment to the narrative, a coldness. Lack of hea..."


I can see your point, Crowinator. For me, what I saw as the pretentiousness of the writing irritated me enough to further remove me from the already detached narrative. I was a goner at that point. If I approach this again in the future (possible as there is some great snap to the prose), I will try work around that.

I'm glad you liked it.


Stephen Kemper wrote: "Accepted with the provision that we change the food mentioned in Point 1 to tacos."

The perfect complement to tequila. I agree. Now if only our judge would consent. I suggest that he be approached either openly on this thread or via a third party (any of our [censored for security] people would be acceptable). I just don't want any "ex parte" communications that could be seen to taint the proceedings.


Richard Reviles Censorship Always in All Ways SCHWENT!!! Free booze over here!! Oh, and Stephen's buying tacos all around!


message 36: by [deleted user] (last edited Dec 28, 2011 10:19AM) (new)

I feel like I need to defend this book a little. I totally get not responding to narrative distance here - it is chilly, and the characters are more collections of reactions, especially Mark Spitz. But I felt the trauma under it, like the way my Grandpa would talk about his experience in WWII. Many of his stories were brutally ironic and digressive, circling around a series of details until they ended in a horror. I felt that in the way Mark talked about the parents, which ends him opening the door to their room. So many stories would start with what he sees there, start with a bang, and then move to a bunch of running around, which is all fine, and I enjoy that too. I liked how the narrative here captured the way people talk about trauma, the anecdote, the silhouette, the autopsy. The chilliness is protective.


Stephen Ceridwen wrote: "I feel like I need to defend this book a little...."

I appreciate that, Ceridwen, and I thought your review was excellent. I normally do not mind narrative distance and think it can actually be a terrific device. For example, Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West was about as detached and icy as I've ever read and that book kicked my ass. In this book, the pretention that I saw and mentioned in my review was a real chunky stumbling block for me. I didn't feel an impassioned author trying to deconstruct life's horrors into something universal or reduce a myriad of casually mentioned painful moments into some specific conclusion. I felt only wordplay and "isn't this clever" phrasing.

Nothing connected with me emotionally, which is something that I really wanted from this book. After reading the above mentioned McCarthy, I was almost catatonic for a few days processing my feelings for it. Here, I finished the book and it was basically gone from my mind other than a few fragments and some great lines. "We never see people other anyway, only the monsters we make of them." That line has stuck with me and I thought it was wonderful. There are a lot of notes like that throughout the book. It just didn't add up to anything meaningful for me.

All that said, I am wide open to the possibility that I just "missed" it. It certainly wouldn't be the first time. I may even revisit it at some point, especially if Kemper wins the tequila/tacos duel.


Kemper Ceridwen wrote: "I feel like I need to defend this book a little. I totally get not responding to narrative distance here - it is chilly, and the characters are more collections of reactions, especially Mark Spitz...."

Yeah, what she said!

Ceridwen, will you be my second at the upcoming duel?


message 39: by Dan (new)

Dan Schwent I don't know if I'm a suitable judge for this. I'm normally a giggly drunk but tequila makes me mean.


Kemper Dan wrote: "I don't know if I'm a suitable judge for this. I'm normally a giggly drunk but tequila makes me mean."

Even better.


Richard Reviles Censorship Always in All Ways Dan wrote: "I don't know if I'm a suitable judge for this. I'm normally a giggly drunk but tequila makes me mean."

What could be more perfect?


message 42: by [deleted user] (new)

McCarthy is an interesting comparison. I'm a little immune to him, and he's often charged with style over substance and literary tricksiness by his detractors. I don't mind his tricksiness, but I still didn't feel much when I read his stuff. Whitehead, though, he really reached in and pushed. I don't know there's anything to miss, but I do think our soft spots as readers are in different places. The more I think about this book, the more I like it. And I think about it a lot.


message 43: by [deleted user] (new)

Oh, cross-post! Yes, I'll be your second.


Stephen Richard wrote: "SCHWENT!!! Free booze over here!! Oh, and Stephen's buying tacos all around!"

You can't judge, Richard as you have already shown your bias against the book. I want you as my second in the duel. You may have as much tequila and tacos as you can consume provided you can still provide valuable counterpoints to Team Kemper.


Stephen Dan wrote: "I don't know if I'm a suitable judge for this. I'm normally a giggly drunk but tequila makes me mean."

Perfect...this is serious business and a judge that might "lose it" at any moment will add just the right vibe.


Kemper Ceridwen wrote: "Oh, cross-post! Yes, I'll be your second."

Thanks! You do realize that this means you'll be obligated to protect me from Dan when he's in the throes of tequila madness, right?


message 47: by Dan (last edited Dec 28, 2011 11:29AM) (new)

Dan Schwent I think the point everyone is forgetting in this debate is that not enough of you have read my 11 award winning books of 2011 bit I wrote earlier when I was allegedly working.

Also, I'll need someone to drive me home afterwords.


message 48: by [deleted user] (new)

Kemper wrote: "Ceridwen wrote: "Oh, cross-post! Yes, I'll be your second."

Thanks! You do realize that this means you'll be obligated to protect me from Dan when he's in the throes of tequila madness, right?"


Eh. Bring it on, Dan.


message 49: by Ian (new) - added it

Ian Paganus Your first paragraph reminds me of head notes in a nice way.

Is there any suggestion that al-Qaeda might be zombies?

You can cut off the head of the snake, but another will grow to replace it?

If they are already dead, what can we do to kill them?

Are they unkillable?


message 50: by [deleted user] (new)

They are killable in the usual manner.


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