Jump to ratings and reviews
Rate this book

Zone One

Rate this book
Goodreads Choice Award
Nominee for Best Horror (2011)
A pandemic has devastated the planet, sorting humanity into two types: the uninfected and the infected, the living and the living dead. After the worst of the plague is over, armed forces stationed in Chinatown’s Fort Wonton have successfully reclaimed the island south of Canal Street—aka Zone One. Mark Spitz is a member of one of the three-person civilian sweeper units tasked with clearing lower Manhattan of the remaining feral zombies. Zone One unfolds over three surreal days in which Spitz is occupied with the mundane mission of straggler removal, the rigors of Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder (PASD), and the impossible task of coming to terms with a fallen world. And then things start to go terribly wrong…

At once a chilling horror story and a literary novel by a contemporary master, Zone One is a dazzling portrait of modern civilization in all its wretched, shambling glory.

322 pages, Paperback

First published October 6, 2011

Loading interface...
Loading interface...

About the author

Colson Whitehead

36 books14.9k followers

COLSON WHITEHEAD is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of eleven works of fiction and nonfiction, and is a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, for The Nickel Boys and The Underground Railroad, which also won the National Book Award. A recipient of MacArthur and Guggenheim fellowships, he lives in New York City.

Harlem Shuffle is the first book in The Harlem Trilogy. The second, Crook Manifesto, will be published in 2023.

Ratings & Reviews

What do you think?
Rate this book

Friends & Following

Create a free account to discover what your friends think of this book!

Community Reviews

5 stars
2,931 (12%)
4 stars
6,960 (30%)
3 stars
7,684 (33%)
2 stars
3,808 (16%)
1 star
1,518 (6%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 3,849 reviews
Profile Image for Stephen.
1,517 reviews10.8k followers
December 28, 2011
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.
Profile Image for karen.
3,976 reviews170k followers
February 28, 2021
looking for great books to read during black history month...and the other eleven months? i'm going to float some of my favorites throughout the month, and i hope they will find new readers!


jesus christ, but colson whitehead can write. i read the intuitionist way back when everyone was praising it to the moon as the masterpiece of the next great american writer, but that book didn't really do a lot for me, while this one keel-hauled me.

it was strolling along at a solid four stars until the ending, which just reached in-between my ribs with insistent fingers and squeezed and squeezed and squeezed. the last 100 pages or so just blew me away. and it's not even a long book, 259 pages, but it took me three days to read; partly circumstantial, partly because unpacking his sentences takes a really long time. this man is the master of the dense sentence. and also at creating these descriptive arabesques of imaginative digression: speculations about characters that do not exist in the novel as such, but are representative of a type of person who might still be existing in this post-infestation world and what that type of person might be doing, thinking, even though they are only a subjunctive character in a three-sentence authorial daydream. who bothers to do that? it is madness! but a madness that stands out as a truly original technique of an incredible writer.

this is both not at all a zombie book and the purest zombie book i have ever read. it is so hard to describe it. i am going to have to read it again, because circumstances muddied up the first half of the book for me a little. part of that is that i really feel this book should be read with as few breaks in the reading as possible. there are so many details, many of whose significance do not become apparent until much later - it is best to read with full attention, in as straight a sitting as you can manage.

ceridwen's review is probably the best review i have ever read. not just for this book, but ever. i would love to review her review, but i don't think i am even savvy enough to articulate how perfect that review is, never mind trying to discuss this book. i love this part best: Then there is the New Yorkiness of this book, a resident recounting his mixed irritation and affection for the cityest of American cities, carefully prodding nostalgia that at any moment might stir and bite. And when it does, put it down with a bullet. that is a perfect encapsulation of this book. whitehead takes the danny hoch stance of "gee, new york (brooklyn, for hoch) is really changing" and ramps it up with fury. and yet - it is new york, and always will be, no matter how many trust fund babies move in, no matter how many buildings have their outsides gentrified or mirrored, no matter how many zombies cross over into it from new jersey. whitehead's final panning shot of the zombies is a masterful and familiar descriptive passage, despite being utterly horrifying. this is new york, warts and all.

it's a very emotional book, despite a main character who is more a bundle of instinctual calculations than emotions. even before the events, he is someone who carefully gauges what he can get away with, what he can do to pass through life with the least resistance, rather than someone who is experiencing life as a series of emotional occurrences. a coaster. so, in many ways, the perfect observer, the perfect survivor. and yet - the surroundings are definitely meant to inspire an emotional response, even to non new-yorkers. new york is a microcosm to the world, after all, the corroded melting pot. and this situation, eyeballed by this character - the extraordinary translated by the mediocre - is made all the more haunting for it.

now i understand the whitehead hype.

aside: i was actually in tribeca on tuesday, where the action of this novel takes place, and i could not help superimposing the narrative upon the scenery - the nearness to halloween didn't hurt matters. but yeah, a terrible part of town to try to withstand a zombie apocalypse. and, to ceridwen, i understand your bristling at the midwest barb - there was a little one for queens, too. why i oughtta!

come to my blog!
Profile Image for carol..
1,515 reviews7,710 followers
July 23, 2016
Oh dear. Is it possible to make flesh-hungering zombies seem dull?

While I never thought so, AMC and Whitehead have both been giving it their all by enveloping them in navel-gazing Philosophy 101 monologues and odd series of pastoral flashbacks in the midst of life-or-death situations. Whitehead, at least, delivers his philosophy with amazing prose, while the writers at The Walking Dead (season two) rely on repetition of words like 'humanity' more times than Hobbes could shake a stick at. We get it: apocalypse stories are essentially about hope; how we create meaning in survival and and how we cope with a massive breakdown in society. While I'm optimistic for The Walking Dead, I'll take a pass on Whitehead's version of humanity--this is the Kafka version, where people are roaches--or mannequins--before transforming into zombies. Nihilism at it's most uninspiring.

As I began Zone One, I started falling in love with the language, the clear and exacting prose Whitehead uses to describe everything from technology to buildings. As I read on, it became apparent that while Whitehead can turn an apt phrase, he has no love or passion for his story; this is a chronicle of decay, both before and after the plague apocalypse.

There is little in Zone One for the fans of action and plotting, and only the barest of character development. Instead, we are given ink sketches in broad frames, all the better to hang the dirty laundry of Whitehead's social commentary. The setting is conventional plague apocalypse; 'something' starts transforming people, it spreads before awareness of infection, and society melts like a wet tissue, except for small encampments of people. The plot centers on teams sent out to cleanse New York City of the remaining dead once the Marines have swept through. The narrator is an Everyman, nameless until christened by his teammates, who relives his memories as he scours the city for zombies.

Darkness begins on the very first page when we read: "the camera was so backward that every lurching specimen his father enlisted from the passersby was able to operate it sans hassle, no matter the depth of cow-eyed vacancy in their tourist faces or local wretchedness inverting their spines." Descriptions of people before the plague strangely resemble those of people after, and it's not because of compassion for the zombies. Right there, I knew the level of disdain for the father, the mediocre, the simple, even for humanity.

Every word is selected with care, conveying decay and blight. Photos are "culled" for an album. The buildings of pre-plague New York aggressively "collided, they humiliated runts through verticality and ambition, sulked in one another's shadows." When they are redeveloped, "their insides were butchered, reconfigured, rewired according to the next era's new theories of utility... sweatshop killing floor into cordoned cubicle mill." The disdain carries over into people, especially lawyers. "If you'd asked him about his plans... the answer would have come easily: lawyering. He was berefit of attractive propositions, constitutionally unaccustomed for enthusiasm, and generally malleable... Hence, law." Likewise, design firms, receptionists, number-crunching bureaucrats, fast-food friers, soldiers--none are spared from the scathing voyeuristic lens.

Living characters are suspiciously similar to zombies. Gary, on Mark's team has "fingernails which were seemingly constructed of grime as if he had clawed out of a coffin," and Kaitlyn, the leader, is a clear "grade grubber before the disaster... maintain(ing) a grade-grubbing continuum." Even people at the camps. "Everyone he saw walked around with a psychological limp... the all-over crumpling, as if the soul were imploding or the mind sucking the extremities into itself."

This is one of those books that destroys Goodreads rating system. Technically brilliant, structurally competent and ultimately both cynically distancing and ironic, it lacks the heart and characters that truly engage me on a deeper level. Two stars for personal enjoyment, problems with world building (which, in fairness, I believe weren't meant to be resolved as it is meant more as a metaphorical tale), four stars for deft use of language and general conception, and one star for it's dim view of human nature.

Cross posted at http://clsiewert.wordpress.com/2012/1...
Profile Image for Will Byrnes.
1,290 reviews120k followers
September 23, 2021
Start spreading the news. I’m leaving today
There is a lot to sink your teeth into in the latest book from MacArthur Genius grantee Colson Whitehead. The nation has pretty much collapsed, with the implication that things are no better elsewhere in the world. But there is still some hope. A provisional government has been set up in Buffalo, and some organization is returning. The government wants to clear Manhattan of undesirables, (real estate developers?) in order to repopulate, in order to show that there is a future, that there is hope.

Mark Spitz, a nom de guerre, is a sweeper. There are zombies and mindless survivors still hanging out and Omega Unit is charged with clearing out a specific geographic area inside Zone One, the real estate below Manhattan’s Canal Street, where a wall has been built to keep out the deadbeats. I suppose one might call the area R/EbeCa. Manderley had nothing on this place.

Over three days we get Spitz’s story and those of some others as well. Do you remember where you were on 9/11? Do you recall what was happening when shots were fired that took out JFK, RFK, MLK? Maybe you have been around long enough to remember a day which will live in infamy? For the characters in Colson Whitehead’s latest novel, Zone One, the event is called “Last Night.” It was the moment it became clear that a zombie apocalypse plague had run amok. (1/6?) Fight or flight. Time to wonder if your loved ones had succumbed and decision time re whether you would risk your life to try saving or finding them. One of the major elements in this book is the characters’ recollections of that fateful night.

From Colsonwhitehead.com

The largest element is the city itself, well, Manhattan, and even more focused, Manhattan below Canal Street. Whitehead loves New York. He is the author of The Colossus of New York, a love song to the city, and one of my all time favorite books.
I grew up in New York in the '70s and so I took films like The Warriors and Escape from New York as documentaries. Other kids did sports; I liked to hang around watching The Twilight Zone and various movies about the end of the world, whether it was Planet of the Apes, or Damnation Alley. And so that's part of the city I carry with me from my childhood. ... In doing this book, I was trying to pay homage to certain cinematic depictions of a ruined New York.
(From NPR interview)
CW did not have a lot of trouble imagining NYC as a wasteland, noting that in the wee hours parts of the city that never sleeps are remarkably unoccupied, desolate. ”Wall Street is completely empty. All the buildings are closed and no one's on the street. It's as empty as it's described in the book.” He also remembers growing up in the 1970s, a pretty tough time for the city, with the boom in drug use, the loss of revenue as a result of white flight, and the federal government telling us to go to hell. That’s a pretty good start for building an apocalyptic landscape. He sees the accretion of the modern atop the old, the replacement of the current with the new, then the replacement of the new with the newer.
"I'm walking around with my idea of what New York was 30 years ago, 20 years ago. So is everybody else. And we superimpose that ruined city over what's here now. So it's cleaned up, but we're still seeing that old shoe store, dry cleaners, that old apartment where we used to live. So, any street you walk down in New York is a heap of rubble because that's sort of how we see it if we've been here a while."
I can relate. I moved from the Bronx to Manhattan in 1972, shared an apartment on the Upper West Side before it became an unaffordable yuppie apocalypse zone. I was on 81st Street between Columbus and Amsterdam. On one end of the block was a notorious SRO, and the other featured Davey’s Tavern, notable for the lineup of pimp-mobiles up the street. One night some pals and I decided to follow a trail of blood that led from Davey’s a few blocks east into Central Park, before re-attaching our brains and desisting. It was widely assumed that landlords were having their properties torched to evict the current residents and get insurance money with which to re-build, renovate and return to business with rentals several multiples of what they had been. So it is quite understandable how one could take the reality of that era and build on it to flesh out a flesh-eating landscape.

Whitehead is also well aware of the city’s life sucking potential.
Was this skel a native New Yorker, or had it been lured here by the high jinks of [a TV personality] and her colorful roommates. One of those seekers powerless before the seduction of the impossible apartment that the gang inexplicably afforded on their shit-job salaries, unable to resist the scalpel-carved and well-abraded faces of the guest stars the characters smooched in one-shot appearances or across multi-episode arcs. Struck dumb by the dazzling stock footage of the city avenues at teeming evening. Did it work, the hairdo, the bleached teeth, the calculated injections, did it transform the country rube into the cosmopolitan? Mold their faces to the prevailing grimace?
There are plenty of folks who might pass for undead in the city, even now:
the city had long carried its own plague. Its infection had converted this creature into a member of its bygone loser cadre, into another one of the broke and the deluded, the mis-fitting, the inveterate unlucky. They tottered out of single-room-occupancies or peeled themselves off the depleted relative’s pullout couch and stumbled into the sunlight for miserable adventures. He had seen them slowly make their way up the sidewalks in their woe, nurse an over-creamed cup of coffee at the corner greasy spoon in between health department crackdowns. This creature before them was the man on the bus no one sat next to, the haggard mystic screeching verdicts on the crowded subway car, the thing the new arrivals swore they’d never become but of course some of them did. It was a matter of percentages.
It cannot be a coincidence that in CW’s future Manhattan the powerless are being driven out of prime real estate by force, so the lucky can take their places. It’s called gentrification, and has been going on, under that name anyway, since the 70s. There are plenty of landlords who would like nothing more than to have armed groups evict anyone not paying market rates, so they could bring in new prey to gouge. No zombie apocalypse needed for that. It is extant reality here.

CW does not expect that, whatever disaster may arrive, those at the extremes of the human bell curve will be the likely remnants:
In the apocalypse, I think those average, mediocre folks are the ones who are going to live," he says. "I think the A-pluses will probably snuff themselves. The C-minus personalities will probably be killed off very quickly. But it's the mediocre folks that will become the heroes. ... Anyone who survives will be a hero."
From an NPR interview
Thus Mark Spitz is, by design, the ultimate average guy.

There is particular poignance for this native in scenes of a zombie crematorium creating mass quantities of gray ash that fall like snow on the city. I know CW’s city very well. I worked and have played in the area called Zone One for many years. To see it brought to life in these pages is a remarkable experience for me. As if someone had written a biography of your child and got all the facts and feel right, even about the aspects you do not admire. Whitehead has a remarkable gift, his writing rich with insight and observational acuity.

We have seen our share of death in New York, physical and spiritual, from the horror of 9/11 to the siren call of the city, tuned to the young and hopeful, luring so many onto the rocks of not good-looking/talented/smart/connected/special-enough, to the middle-aged newly unemployed dazedly going through the motions, even after there is no destination for the trains and their feet to take them to. The magic of power, lights, glitter and energy has its dark side, when the lights go out, the sparkle fades and security is no longer up to the task of keeping that which menaces at bay.

This is not a story where this happens and then that happens. It offers a novel format as a structure within which Whitehead can relate what he has seen and felt about his beloved city. (And to seriously bitch about Connecticut. Dude, did Connecticut shoot your dog?) If a few characters become fodder for roving people-eaters, like so many large hot dogs on the hoof, then so be it. If you can’t make it there, well, buh-bye.

There are elements of Zone One that reminded me of Gary Shteyngart, (and Max Headroom) a twenty-minutes-into-the-future feel to his social satire. Survivors of Last Night are often afflicted with PASD, or Post Apocalyptic Stress Disorder, pronounced “PAST.” So folks suffering with PASD are said to have a problem with their past, snicker, snicker. A remnant coven of lawyers who are looking for actual pounds of flesh. Corporate sponsorship is alive and well in the world of the zombie apocalypse with wonderfully cute corporate armadillo logos finding their ways onto a wide range of official items. The new national Anthem is "Stop! Can You Hear the Eagle Roar? (Theme From Reconstruction)." Trebly delicious for the Ashcroft ref, the intentional malaprop and the parenthetical ref to far too many contemporary songs

The creature feature is a means to an end for Whitehead. “I've had the same publisher for six books, and they know it's not just about elevator inspectors, it's not just about zombies—it's about people, it's about culture.” Yeah, it is. And as a portrait of New York, it is dead on.

==============================EXTRA MEAT

A wonderful interview with the author in The Atlantic, Colson Whitehead on Zombies, 'Zone One,' and His Love of the VCR by Joe Fassler

Terry Gross’s interview with the author on Fresh Air, A 'Zone' Full Of Zombies In Lower Manhattan, the transcript

The audio can be heard here

Whitehead's magnum opus (well, so far) - The Underground Railroad
Profile Image for Trudi.
615 reviews1,405 followers
November 22, 2011
Damn, this book is cold. Like, really, really, C-O-L-D. The language is magnificent; there is no doubt Whitehead can write, but he writes with no heat. His writing here is like a perfect, shiny new Cadillac (but with no engine). Without the engine, what’s the point? You can sit and look pretty all the live long day, but you’re not gonna get anywhere worth talking about (or remembering).

Whitehead’s problem here seems to be that he gets so caught up in delivering the goods on literary stylistics and gymnastics that the story (what little there is) limps anemically along side by side with underdeveloped, emotionless characters. While there may indeed be a method to his madness, I’m not biting, because for me story trumps EVERYTHING. If you ain’t got a story to tell, what the hell are you doing writing a novel?

Not once did Zone One grab me by the throat and make me sit up and pay attention. I felt like a detached spectator, ambivalent, witnessing unfolding events in a clinical matter like the scientist who examines a bug under the microscope.

Whitehead gets too cerebral -- mining his material for metaphor and symbols, layering his post-apocalyptic landscapes with foreshadowing and poetic images. Beautiful yes, but nevertheless soulless and unsatisfying. Which brings me back to my original point -- cold.

And here I will quote from my review of They Shoot Horses, Don't They?. It applies here just as well as it did there:
I hate “big” ideas (insert jazz hands here) that don’t come wrapped in a gripping story that’s going to smack me in the face. Story. Comes. First. Always. You may be brilliant and have awesome insights into the human condition, but unless you can weave a tale that’s going to put me on my ass I don’t want to hear about it. And I’m not helping you along by faking it When Harry Met Sally style pretending you wrote a great novel because I’m keen to wax poetic on how the world is shit and then we die.
But that's just me.

If you want a literary zombie novel that will put you on your ass, read The Reapers Are the Angels. That book is everything this book is not.
"Let the cracks between things widen until they are no longer cracks but the new places for things. That was where they were now. The world wasn't ending: it had ended and now they were in the new place. They could not recognize it because they had never seen it before."
Profile Image for mark monday.
1,632 reviews4,997 followers
August 4, 2016

mark monday got up at his usual hour, in his usual bed, and after leisurely winding his way through his various morning routines, made his way to work, to perform his usual functions. it was a friday, a day where most of his colleagues found reasons to be elsewhere - appointments and such - and so this was mark's favorite work day to be in the office. the lack of potential irritation meant more work could be accomplished. on some level, he realized that this was perhaps a rather uncharitable perspective, and so he actively tried to create positive, supportive relationships with his colleagues to balance out these misanthropic tendencies. mark accomplished his various pre-set work goals to varying degrees of satisfaction. when faced with an annoying email or an unpleasant task, he would sometimes pause to remind himself that he "liked" his job, it was surely an important one, one that could be seen to help many needy people, one that was mandated by the government, one that afforded him a certain level of both personal self-esteem and public influence. it was an administrative position.

after work, mark went with his boss to a community forum at city hall on federal health care reform (scheduled, unpleasantly enough, on a friday evening). he used this forum as a reason to avoid attendance at both a going-away party for a co-worker (he was never too partial to that colleague's whininess) and a night out of dinner & drinks with a former best friend from san diego (too many buried resentments that could now, happily, go unearthed). the individuals on the forum's panel said their various rote statements and everyone performed their necessary functions in their role that evening. afterwards, mark monday went home and started reading Zone One by Colson Whitehead.

the novel takes place after a zombie apocalypse, as the world attempts to rebuild itself. the protagonist, Mark Spitz, is a member of Omega Unit, which is one of many civilian units charged with the clean-up of nyc, moving street by street and building by building to find and dispose of any remaining stragglers not wiped out by prior military incursions. zombies come in two forms: 99% are "skels", your basic ravening zombie, hungry for flesh; 1% are "stragglers", a revenant that is usually harmless, found hovering aimlessly in places that once held meaning for them. their office; their usual restaurant; the elevator where they spontaneously proposed marriage; the field where they flew their first kite. stragglers cling to their old lives, their old roles, they remain somehow connected to what once personally defined them. Mark Spitz finds this haunting of old places to be both sad and predictable. he muses constantly on the roles that people give themselves, the way that they define themselves, the places they give value and the meaning of that value. mark monday found these ruminations to be interesting but rather missed the excitement of an old fashioned tale of zombies running amuck. he wasn't sure that this was the book that he wanted to read at 1:30 in the morning on a friday night. still, he stuck with it. as Mark Spitz pondered the meaning behind humanity's self-built mouse mazes and humankind's need to adopt roles that give them purpose, mark monday idly reflected on the rather ineffable sadness of those roles - as if they could somehow give a person genuinely deep satisfaction, as if mankind wasn't actually composed of players in a play that has been long written, as if that play won't simply be played again and again, with different players, an updated script.

at the end of the novel's first part (entitled "Friday"), Mark Spitz bunks down with his Omega Unit partners, broods on his empty and mediocre pre-zombie apocalypse existence, and goes to sleep. mark monday finished the chapter, desultorily jacked off to a fantasy template, and went to sleep.


mark slept in, per usual on a Saturday, had his usual food and put on his usual attire, and went to the park. it was a reasonably nice day for san francisco and the park was full of people doing their usual thing. enjoying the weather, talking, laughing, reading, sleeping, working on their laptops and talking on their cell phones. mark did the same. he made a few phone calls and so enacted his various roles as son, brother, friend, former lover, and/or support system. he read Zone One from time to time, where Mark walked down his memory's corridors: an unfulfilling life of mediocrity, his parents already turned zombie pre-zombie apocalypse, then running from the onslaught of the undead, surviving, finding other survivors and yet never connecting with them, always erecting barriers to hide himself, never feeling, rarely loving, a life on the run much like his former life standing in place, in safety. mark found himself growing bored and then frustrated with Mark's navel-gazing. it was perhaps the wrong book to bring to the park, too mordant, too contemplative, too jaded about the guises that humans adopt to comfort themselves, to make themselves feel whole. mark started feeling contempt towards Mark. he began to grow bored with his company. he began to wonder why literary author Colson Whitehead would bother writing a genre novel if all he was going to do was put his various tedious digressions to page, if he wasn't going to bother with an exciting narrative, if all he thought about humanity could be summarized in two words: eternal emptiness. such a person could be convicted on pretentiousness alone, thought mark. it is as if he is holding himself hostage to his own inner void.

back at home, mark monday contemplated what he would do for the evening. there was a dinner party that his old high school friends were having, but the idea of yet again being the life of the party, the person who made salty comments and saucy innuendos, their funny strange idiosyncratic friend... well, the idea of that role fatigued him. he could call up his "real friends" (that was the role in which he had cast them), try to do something fun he supposed, some drinking, some talking about the various challenges of being a teacher/ lawyer/ carpenter/ social worker/ mother/ father/ husband/ wife, some gossip about who said what to whom and why... but in the end, that felt rather like work. there was also a benefit that a sister agency was having, it would be good to be seen there, to hobnob amongst his peers, to blather some bullshit with politicians and stakeholders, to talk about his job and the importance of this or that piece of legislation... but he quickly rejected that off-hand: he'd play that role on monday, this was his weekend. so instead he chose to do what he often preferred to do in general these days: he stayed at home and read, free of troublesome engagement, free of the need to perform certain functions in the usual way, with the usual people.

in Zone One, Mark Spitz and his colleagues holed up in various locations and discussed their different paths in life, how those paths led them to where they were now. Mark contemplated the connection he had to his unit and the inevitability of that connection coming to a close. he did not feel sadness. he did not feel happiness. he did not feel anger. he did not feel regret. was he some form of "straggler"? mark monday felt a flash of sympathy, empathy even, at the idea of Mark Spitz's feelings of hollowness, his self-designation as a person of mediocrity. Mark was a kind of zombie himself, mark supposed. perhaps everyone was a kind of zombie. perhaps lack of affect, constant anomie, a relentless repetition of meaningless form and ritual were hallmarks of all kinds of humanity, both living and undead. mark wondered, is that a deep thought? deep thoughts annoyed him, and he quickly dismissed it. Colson Whitehead was proving to be a somewhat aggravating author and mark dismissed him as well. just a few more pages and then to bed, i'll finish this crap tomorrow, thought mark.

in the last few pages of the second part of the novel (entitled "Saturday"), Mark Spitz drinks both in the present time and in flashback, as he enjoys some R&R and contemplates his now-dead former supervisor. what role did that lieutenant fill in his own life; what lack of satisfaction drove him to his final actions? Mark shed no tears. mark had a whiskey ('Here's To You, Mark!'), shed no tears, went to bed, and remembered none of his dreams.


mark woke up unusually early and read the final part of Zone One (entitled "Sunday"). destruction, death, and dangerous disarray riddled the final pages, and yet it was not a travelogue of horror but rather a guide to the hazards of connection and the importance of exit plans that can extract a person from unhealthy human and inhuman attachments. Mark Spitz realizes that as a mediocre person, he is ideally suited to surviving the zombie apocalypse. he 'does his best' for his colleagues, but there is little to do. he reflects on the transitory nature of all relationships as he thinks of the people in his life who have disappeared, of a makeshift family in which he was briefly a part, before it was torn asunder. he remembers that last person he loved, now gone from him forever, and was that really even love? Mark then runs.

mark closed the book and thought about how he would write that book's review. then he dressed in his usual clothes, went for his usual walk, stopped at his usual bookstore, and shopped at his usual grocery store. he went home and made some phone calls, enacting his usual roles, this time as friend to one and son to another. he answered a text message notifying him of an acquaintance's accident with the rotely sympathetic language of a typical 'sensitive human male'. he watched an episode of Breaking Bad, and wondered at how Mr. White got himself into such a situation, contemplated the chain of events that had led the character to his new role in life. he watched the premiere of Dexter, gained some pleasure at watching Dex enact his role as bloody avenger, and grew annoyed at the character's insistence that he was a person without affect. oh please, mark thought, that's bullshit. i have as much affect as Dexter, and i'm no serial killer. mark reviewed his work calendar in advance of tomorrow's work role and wrote a navel-gazing review, per usual. mark brushed his teeth and then went to sleep.
Profile Image for Jeffrey Keeten.
Author 2 books247k followers
March 21, 2020
”He hooked up with strangers for a while, exchanged a grimy jar of cranberry sauce or a juice box per the new greeting ritual, and swapped information on the big matters of the day, like dead concentrations, and small things like the state of the world. A few months into the collapse, only the fools asked about the government, the army, the designated rescue stations, all the unattainable islands, and the fools were dwindling every day. He hung with them until they decided on divergent destinations, got into an argument over skel behavior theories or how to spot lurking botulism in a dented can. People were invested in the oddest things these days. He hung with them until they were attacked and they died and he didn’t. Sometimes he ditched them because they talked too fucking much.

He stopped hooking up with other people once he realized the first thing he did was calculate whether or not he could outrun them.”

Mark Spitz keeps living.

The end of the world has come and gone and somehow he has survived. The zombie apocalypse (Those of you who don’t read zombie books don’t quit reading yet.) has pared the world down to the core, to the ones that instinctively have found ways to survive.

There has never been anything special about Spitz...until now.

”He was a mediocre man. He had led a mediocre life exceptional only in the magnitude of its unexceptionality. Now the world was mediocre, rendering him perfect. He asked himself: How can I die? I was always like this. Now I am more me. He had the ammo. He took them all down.”

Names are unimportant now. No one calls themselves by their given name. Their full names have disappeared replaced by nicknames or names evoking a nostalgic bit of pop culture. When Mark and a couple of his friends are trapped on a bridge by a herd of Skel (aggressive zombies) his compadres jump in the river to escape. He stands and keeps shooting. When they ask him later why he didn’t jump he said he couldn’t swim, but in reality it is because he truly believes he can’t die. His name was conceived in that moment. If you don’t remember Mark Spitz here is a link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mark_Spitz.

Spitz meets a girl named Mim, and even though he knows better he falls in love with her. They hole up in a toy store which certainly added a bit of that lost world magic to their burgeoning romance.

Skull faces had replaced human faces in his mind’s population, tight over the bone, staring without mercy, incisors out front. The stubborn ordinariness of her soft eyes and round, vigorous features were a souvenir. The yellow bandanna tight around her scalp tokened weekend chores, plucking acorns and twigs from the sputtering gutter, scraping last summer’s black residue from the grill. The ancient rites. She was like him, one of the unlikely ones, pushing through, normal.”

She goes out to get pepper and he never sees her again.

[after surviving the bus explosion]
Annie: You're not going to get mushy on me, are you?
Jack: Maybe. I might.
Annie: I hope not, 'cause you know, relationships that start under intense circumstances, they never last.
Jack: Oh yeah?
Annie: Yeah, I've done extensive study on this.

From the 1994 movie Speed.

Everyone has lost so much that with each new loss it becomes harder to tabulate the true cost anymore. Scars can be picked at, but it is difficult to make them bleed anymore. Some reviewers have noted that the prose comes across as flat. I agree. I think that is exactly what Colson Whitehead intended. This is a survivor’s journal. I have talked to people who have experienced long term trauma, in a war, with drugs, with disease etc and one thing that usually happens is their eyes harden and their voices flatten out. They are achieving distance. I’ve also talked to people who tell those stories with animation, with the rat tat tat of the machine gun and the Hollywood explosions. I wonder if that isn’t another way of achieving distance.

”Judge not the dysfunctions of others, lest ye be judged.”

”Two of them got the old man down and then all of them were on him like ants who received a chemical telegram about a lollipop on the sidewalk. There was no way the old man could get up. It was quick. They each grabbed a limb or convenient point of purchase while he screamed. They began to eat him, and his screaming brought more of them teetering down the street. All over the world this was happening: a group of them hears food at the same time and they twist their bodies in unison, that dumb choreography. A cord of blood zipped up out of their huddle, hangin--
that’s how he always recalled it….”

The skels are dangerous, but so are people. Messianic people are maybe the most dangerous of all. Spitz has finally found a community where it feels like civilization is returning.

”Their idyll was terminated by one of the number. Abel, who had developed some theories about the plague and its agenda. He was one of those apocalypse-as-moral-hygiene people, with a college-sophomore socialist slant. The dead came to scrub the Earth of capitalism and the vast bourgeois superstructure, with its doilies, helicopter parenting, and streaming video, return us to nature and wholesome communal living. No one paid much attention.”

Until he opened the gates, in an act of further purging the earth. It might have been more apt if he had taken the name Cain.

Buffalo has emerged as the new capital and after sending the Marines through Manhattan killing skels and wanderers (zombies that return to their work or home and stay), they have decided to turn over the rest of the cleanup to contract civilians. Spitz volunteers, not because he believes in the job, but because he remembers his uncle’s beautiful apartment and wants to see it one more time. I’ll paraphrase Spitz from the first quote above. “People are invested in the oddest things.” As they move through the corridors of Wall Street he starts to ennoble the process.

”He was performing an act of mercy. These things might have been people he knew, not -quites and almost-could-be’s, they were somebody’s family and they deserved release from their blood sentence. He was an angel of death ushering these things on their stalled journey from this sphere. Not a mere exterminator eliminating pests.”

Just as they start to believe they have control of the city.

”Looking down at them through the twisted ash, Mark Spitz shuddered. The dead streamed past the building like characters on an electronic ticker in Times Square…. Close to the ground, almost at their level, he read their human scroll as an argument: I was here, I am here now, I have existed, I exist still. This is our town.”

 photo ColsonWhitehead_zps1a63ad9d.jpg
Colson Whitehead chowing down while he can. You can’t see it, but there is a backpack on the seat beside him with all the essentials...just in case.

I’ve been pondering why I like to read post-apocalyptic books. It can be zombies or a threat to our food supply ( No Blade of Grass) or pandemic flu. If it is well written I’m game to read it. I’ve been reading this book called Red Mars which didn’t really take off for me until the expedition actually lands on Mars and they start building a community. They are fighting an internal battle between various factions with different visions for the direction of the colony. They are contending with a harsh, unforgiving climate. Every day they fall into their bunks absolutely exhausted, but contented with the knowledge that they did something; they built something. I had an epiphany.

There must be a yearning in me for the opportunity to do what my ancestors did. I have a strange need to carve out a place for myself in the wilderness, or out of chaos. I want to pit myself against the elements and figure out a way to survive. Luckily I don’t need civilization to fall for me to have that experience. I can read books like this one, and think about what I would do; what would be important to me; could I become who I needed to become? So we can scoff at the idea of a zombie apocalypse, but really it is just a vehicle for a fine writer like Colson Whitehead to do some intelligent speculating. I can place yourself in these worlds. For a few hours I can heed the call, try to beat the odds, be relevant, and earn a place among a new set of pioneers who are rebuilding the world in our image...without the clutter.
Profile Image for Kemper.
1,390 reviews6,742 followers
August 26, 2016
When the zombie apocalypse comes there’ll be a lot of inconveniences. The breakdown of society, lack of electrical power, no hot showers and undead cannibals trying to eat your brains will definitely suck, but I always figured that the trade-off was that at least there’d be no more paying bills, standing in line at the DMV or having to tolerate corporate buzz words and slogans.

But in Zone One not only are there plenty of zombies, there’s still silly bureaucratic rules and paperwork as well as a government more concerned with public perception than in actually accomplishing anything. It’s like the worst of everything.

Mark Spitz (a nickname explained late in the book) was completely average and his only real talent seemed to be a knack for coasting through life with a minimum of fuss. Once the zombie apocalypse comes, Mark Spitz’s ability to get by served him well and allowed him to escape the initial zombie outbreak and survive in the aftermath.

Now Mark Spitz is one of the sweepers assigned to clean-up Manhattan. The surviving government in Buffalo sent the Marines through to kill the most vicious zombies, but there’s a remaining element of ‘stragglers’, about 1% of the undead who just return to old homes or jobs and seem vapor locked there as they mindlessly watch blank tv screens or punch buttons on dead copy machines.

Buffalo has rebranded the refugee camps of survivors with names like Happy Acres and has a plan to clear and repopulate New York. As Mark Spitz spends his days popping and dropping stragglers, he reflects on his aimless days before the zombie outbreak on Last Night and his time as a wandering refugee before he was found by Buffalo’s army.

This is the first book I’m aware of that tries to do the zombie genre as Very Serious Literature. (No, Pride & Prejudice & Zombies doesn’t count.) Overall, it succeeds remarkably well. Mark Spitz’s reflections on pre and post zombie life are intriguing and his melancholy drifting through his days cleaning out Manhattan have the feel of a guy eulogizing an entire world. My only complaint is that the memories and current events sometimes get so tangled that it made it a tad confusing at times to figure out where we were in the story of Mark Spitz.

On the zombie front, Whitehead delivers some tense and horrific action in the encounters with the undead. (In fact, Whitehead delivered more zombie fightin’ action and detailed descriptions of the walking dead in 240 pages than Mira Grant has in her two 500+ page horror genre novels. Read this and take notes, Mira.)

I especially liked the idea that the government in Buffalo has started doing asinine things like issuing orders against the sweepers doing more property damage than necessary while clearing buildings and prohibiting looting while also issuing pamphlets about the dangers of zombie post-traumatic stress disorder. It seems kind of insane at first but after thinking about it a while, I came to the conclusion that it was highly likely that the political image consultants and corporate marketing whizzes would probably, like cockroaches, be the ones to survive a zombie apocalypse and promptly start trying to rebuild the world the only way they know how, conning people into doing shit even if it flies in the face of common sense.

Great book that elevates the entire horror genre. It doesn’t take the #1 spot from my favorite zombie novel, World War Z but I think it’s got a lock on the #2 spot for now.
Profile Image for Blaine.
728 reviews579 followers
March 30, 2022
He was a mediocre man. He had led a mediocre life exceptional only in the magnitude of its unexceptionality. Now the world was mediocre, rendering him perfect.
Reading other reviews for Zone One, it seems that the union is pretty small in the Venn diagram of “people who like zombie stories” and “people who like literary fiction.” But this novel worked for me. I had no issue with the story’s structure: a three-day stretch in which a team of sweepers works to continue clearing zombie “stragglers” out of one section of Lower Manhattan (the title’s “Zone One”). Layered within that story is a series of non-linear flashbacks that slowly tell the tale of the main character, Mark Spitz. We learn about his past, what happened to him on the “Last Night”—the night society tipped over from our present into the zombie apocalypse—and how he made his way in the new world and into his present role trying to bring our idea of civilization back. I enjoyed the story and, even if the majority of the book is viewed as a slow burn, the last forty pages are explosive.

The writing, meanwhile, is uniformly excellent. I mean, the world knows by now that Mr. Whitehead is one of our greatest living writers. There are quotable observations seemingly on every page, and the imagery is consistently vivid. As but one example, here’s the description of Mark’s trip to Atlantic City just before Last Night:
On barstools they ogled the bachelorettes in the club and discussed their chances, recalling near-conquests from previous visits. In the buffet lines they foraged from the heat lamps and steam trays, and impaled and then swirled wasabi around tiny ceramic saucers, tinting soy sauce.
You can feel the sadness, the judgment, just from that handful of lines. And the story in Zone One turns that critical eye on numerous aspects of American life, especially a certain type of can-do, false bravado American optimism, even after the end of the world. Recommended.
Profile Image for Kelly (and the Book Boar).
2,414 reviews7,411 followers
March 17, 2017
Find all of my reviews at: http://52bookminimum.blogspot.com/

After having my morbidly obese patootey pretty much blown away by The Underground Railroad, I knew Colson Whitehead was an author I wanted to read more of. When attempting (unsuccessfully, natch) to get a library copy of Isaac Marion’s latest, this one popped up on the “sorry we didn’t have the fluffy zombie romance you were hoping for, maybe you would like to read a super smart zombie book instead?????” window.

Zone One is a story many of you have read before. Something happened that caused an event now known only as “Last Night” which created a new population of humans . . . .

“All over the world this was happening: a group of them hears food at the same time and they twist their bodies in unison, that dumb choreography.”

Image and video hosting by TinyPic

In turn another new population was created – those known as “sweepers.” This is the story of a sweeper known to his comrades as “Mark Spitz.” Sidenote: Although it took about 14 years, the nickname Mark Spitz eventually was explained. I was highly disappointed when I found out it wasn’t due to him having an awesome pornstache . . . .

Image and video hosting by TinyPic

However, to Whitehead’s credit, the actual reason was pretty amusing, despite the reaction it would probably garner from some readers . . . .

Mark Spitz and his fellow sweepers have been assigned the task of clearing (or sweeping, duh) Manhattan block by block in order to prepare it for re-habitation by the “pheenies” (what survivors of Last Night are now known as – being that they rose from the ashes like a Phoenix and all that jazz). While not battling “skels” (or their more disturbing counterparts, the “stragglers”), the pheenies battle through their PASD (Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder). Zone One tells the story of three monumental days, as well as flashbacks of how it all went when “Last Night slammed down.”

I truly feel terrible giving this 1 Star because Whitehead most definitely proves that . . .

Image and video hosting by TinyPic

Need an example? Here ya go . . . .

“A beat-up telephone trailed its umbilicus, caught mid-crawl from the premises. The copy machine dominated the back room, buttons grubbed by fingerprints, paper tray sticking out like a fat green tongue.”

That being said, I have never NOT finished a book before, but good godamighty did I want to throw in the towel here. If you think it’s probably because I’m stupid, you’re partially right. There were many a time where I thought to myself . . .

Image and video hosting by TinyPic

But the main reaction I had while slogging through Zone One??????

Image and video hosting by TinyPic

It’s a G.D. zombie book. Being boring is 100% unacceptable.
Profile Image for donna backshall.
625 reviews173 followers
June 15, 2019
Unbearable. That's all I can say. I bailed about one-quarter of the way in. I am so done, I don't want to bother reviewing, but I need to dig my head out of the word salad that was this book and warn fellow readers.

Are there commandments for novel writing? If there are, I want to submit these for consideration:

- Lists do not constitute atmosphere.

- Noting a man's actions does not constitute character development.

- Words need to have purpose, not just look fancy on paper.

We all have access to a dictionary and a thesaurus. The trademark of a talented fiction writer is the ability to use the right words at the right time, and to relate a story tightly, concisely, and clearly so it is compelling, immersive and informative.

I saw no evidence of anything like this in Zone One. It was such a mess of lists upon lists of things past, and inventories of symptoms present, while we enter a post-apocalyptic zombie-infested Manhattan through the experiences of a guy named Mark Spitz. (Yes, I'm serious)

It was, in a word, dreadful.

As well, in the Overdrive audio version, the narrator read like he was breathless, eager and upbeat, made to sit on the edge of his seat in anticipation of the rom-com fun just waiting to hit him. But this attitude was entirely inappropriate for the morose military operations as they unfolded. The smiling Chandler Bing tone of his narration made the beleaguered story even more unapproachable.
Profile Image for Francine.
126 reviews102 followers
October 23, 2011
There is a reason I hate stream-of-consciousness novels. I can't follow it. I like my novels to travel down a path - it may veer off every now and then, and that's okay because those little detours may prove to be wonderful, terrifying, heart-stopping, mysterious or whatnot, but they are almost always revelatory. Sometimes immediately, sometimes long after the fact that you need to really remember and say "Oh yeah, I remember when that happened! Huh! That's what that meant." Either way, it doesn't matter. Because the detours had meaning, they had purpose, and you can trust that a good (read: conscientious) writer will have a reason for taking you down that path. And in the end, it will be okay. You've traveled from Point A to Point B and took a dozen turns here and there, but you got there, and there was a point to it all. And in the journey, you were entertained, bewildered, thrilled, sickened, fell in love, hated someone passionately. In other words, you were cajoled out of the quotidian confines of your life temporarily, living vicariously through some fictional character's (mis)adventures.

My problem with stream-of-consciousness works comes down to this: I get lost way too easily if I can't see how anything is connected, and when I start getting lost, I get distracted and don't care to pay attention anymore, and the work just becomes tedious because all I can think of is "Where is this going? What just happened? Crud, I have to get the clothes out of the dryer. Wait, don't I have to go to the grocery store? Phooey, I'm out of kale. Is that the phone? I need to send that bill out. Oh, sigh, the dog needs to go out again. For a walk. In the rain. And she wants to roll around in the mud. After all the worms have come out. Great!"

And before you know it, 40 pages have gone by (and yet you have the distinct feeling that nothing has happened, but the character's thought processes have brought me from Point A to Point M to Eastern Jabib and the next thing I know, I'm in the slums of Qatar and I still have no idea what's happening because of all the navel gazing going on). The worst part is, not only do I not know what happened in the last 40 pages, but I don't care. And that bothers me, because when I read, I I want to care.

And while I stick to it and hope that at some point, it will all come together and make some sense (I am not that deluded to think it will all make sense), and there will be some big reveal that will tie everything together, there is a sinking feeling within me knowing that I am too far gone and the last two days have been a loss, and I get caught up thinking of what I will say in my review.

That was how I felt reading Zone One. Exposition galore. Ruminations about everyone and everything, past and present, tediousness and ennui all rolled into one. In the middle of a zombie attack, I want to feel that my hero is in peril (and by extension, that I myself am in mortal danger). I want to know how the next few minutes will play out...within the next few minutes. I do not want to be in the middle of a zombie attack with four very hungry zombies who want to eat me, and think about how people are holed up in Chinese restaurants where no one is allowed to have fun anymore, what my high school GPA was and how average I was back then, questioning the purpose of insurance forms years ago when people weren't zombies yet, what the crazy old coot from my old neighborhood was doing, running down an empty street, talking into a headset when all communications were down. Nope. I want to know if a zombie will pierce through my armor and will get to my wonderful meaty and bloody skin and whether the zombie will get a chance to eat me and turn me into one of them.

But no, I need to slog through pages upon pages of meandering, aimless, spaghetti exposition (beautifully written spaghetti exposition...I'll give Colson Whitehead that much, albeit begrudgingly). And for what? For what? Another 20 pages of blathering on and on about things that are totally unrelated to the attack that was supposed to last five minutes. It was the longest five minutes of my life. More like two hours.


For a great review of this book, see Mark Monday's review on goodreads. It was fantastic! I wish I'd read his review before I bought the book, but I didn't. Oh well. Weekend gone. Much like our intrepid zombie hunter.
Profile Image for Rick Riordan.
Author 318 books399k followers
November 8, 2013
I've got to respect a Harvard-educated literary novelist who decides to defy expectations and write a zombie novel. I think that takes a lot of guts (bad pun, sorry) as well as brains (okay, I'll stop now.)
Colson Whitehead's Zone One follows the exploits of a protagonist known only by his nickname, Mark Spitz. To explain why he's called that would be to spoil some of the fun. In the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse, the human survivors are attempting to reclaim the island of Manhattan. Marines have cleared most of the undead from the borough and set up walls around the first target grid, Zone One, but Mark Spitz and his fellow sweepers are charged with destroying the stragglers to make the island safe for resettlement.

We follow Spitz over the course of one weekend, with frequent flashbacks into his past -- from Last Night, the beginning of the zombie plague, through his days surviving in the wilderness, and finally to his connection with other survivors, who are slowing being herded into guarded camps with names like Happy Acres. A new American bureaucracy has arisen in Albany and has taken no time at all to implement ridiculous rules: No more raiding for supplies, unless the supplies are endorsed by one of the government's official sponsors. No breaking windows or damaging property while fighting off zombies, as those buildings will need to be reoccupied. The government's propaganda machine is in full swing, provided peppy songs for the rebirth of the American Phoenix, a constant stream of good news about a set of newborn triplets and an Italian model/zombie fighter, and even government-sponsored notepads from a company that makes children's merchandise about a cartoon armadillo and his cute friends, perfect for taking notes on how many zombies you kill each day!
The more time we spend with Spitz, the more we feel his discomfort at the way society is reforming. We begin to suspect that things are not as rosy as the folks in Albany have reported. We begin to ask: Which would we prefer: a return to 'civilization' with corporate sponsors and theme songs, or life in the zombie-infested wasteland?

The novel is not a straight-forward, plot-driven narrative. You should not expect 28 Days Later or The Walking Dead. The story is told over three days, but is mostly achronological, skipping back and forth from past to present, lingering over the stories of different characters and revealing Mark Spitz's life in a series of vignettes. It reads like a cross between Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut, both writers who would've appreciated the dark humor and poignant absurdities which infuse Zone One.
It's not an easy beach read by any means, but it's well worth your time. I found myself thinking about this book for weeks after I read it, wondering about Mark Spitz and what I would've done in his place.
Profile Image for Felice Laverne.
Author 1 book3,198 followers
May 18, 2017
“The dead had paid their mortgages on time…graduated with admirable GPAs, configured monthly contributions to worthy causes, judiciously apportioned their 401(k)s…and superimposed the borders of the good school districts on mental maps of their neighborhood, which were often included on the long list when magazines ranked cities with the Best Quality of Life. In short, they had been honed and trained so thoroughly by that extinguished world that they were doomed in this new one.”

Zone One is full of colorful melancholy descriptions, of varying levels of cerebral-ness, of an ashen, grey Manhattan post-plague apocalypse. Imagine a world where post “apocalypse-as-moral-hygiene,” as one character put it. A world where, “the dead came to scrub the Earth of capitalism and the vast bourgeois superstructure, with its doilies, helicopter parenting, and streaming video, return us to nature and wholesome communal living.”

I’d be remiss—not to mention completely misleading you—if I didn’t note that Zone One is not an action novel by any means. (Really, any reader of Colson Whitehead would probably figure this before even picking this one up from the shelf, so this is really a note for those as yet unfamiliar with his writing style. 😊) This isn’t necessarily a bad thing—depending on the reader—because it allows for the Sci-Fi-like descriptions of an otherworldly scenario that oft-times need to be drawn out in such a fashion. However, I yearned for some action after a while—some way to ignite the gloom of ash and barrenness described.

Mark Spitz, the main character and the only one to be constantly referred to by his whole name, spends his days as one of the sweepers for Zone One, killing “skels” with a bullet to the head and collecting the info on their IDs, when he can, so that information of plague victims can be turned into the higher ups and turned into spreadsheets of data. Can this data help them to get a larger view of what happened—how the plague spread so quickly, how it can be prevented in the future? That’s the hope and the new purpose of Mark Spritz’s days. Of course, his cynical humor, narration (which seemed to drone on at times with a cadence of monotony) and outlook on life help to pass the days as well.

The majority of the novel passes via cerebral recollections from Mark Spitz conveyed to the reader in all manner of both wryness and dryness—pulling a “skel” who looks like his old elementary school teacher into a body bag elicits pages of narration on what it was like for him as a young student. Shooting a gorilla-costume clad “skel” in the head elicits imaginings of what their life must’ve been like before the plague, why they were even in such an outfit, etc. The at times mundane musings of one of the last people on earth. Really, I suppose the mundane nature makes the novel all the more real. Wouldn’t our thoughts turn to the ordinary, the routine, the yesterdays and yesteryears, when all that stretches before you is a life more quiet and routine than the one you experienced in the loud, capitalistic, busy world that’s now fallen?

Of course, there's always that bit of action in the end to get you through. Apocalypse junkies: never fear; there will be blood, gore, gunshots in the night...

Though relatively short, Colson Whitehead’s Zone One was not necessarily a quick read, because of the density of its language and the vaguely cerebral, and at times seemingly intellectual ramblings. In reading this novel, you’re likely to get carried away in this deluge of narration. Wry narration laced with appealing satire here and there, shrouded in the grey gloom of overcast skies and a metropolis covered in soot and ash. Like this one as they fight their way through "skels":

"She aimed at the rabble who nibbled at the edge of her dream: the weak-willed smokers, deadbeat dads and welfare cheats, single moms incessantly breeding, the flouters of speed laws, and those who only had themselves to blame for their ridiculous credit-card debt. These empty-headed fiends between Chambers and Park Place did not vote or attend parent-teacher conferences, they ate fast food more than twice a weeks and required special plus-size stores for clothing to hide their hideous bodies from the healthy. Her assembled underclass who simultaneously undermined and justified her lifestyle choices. They needed to be terminated, and they tumbled into the dirty water beside Gary's dead without differentiation."

How's that for a healthy injection of social commentary?

They say, “The third time’s the charm,” but with the conclusion of Zone One, after The Intuitionist and The Underground Railroad, I think it’s safe to say I have immense respect for the obvious skill and intellect of Colson Whitehead, but his writing, overall, simply does not move me, yet the ending did save this one. 3.5 stars ***

*To see more reviews, go to The Navi Review at www.thenavireview.com and follow the blog on Twitter @thenavireview.
Profile Image for Patrick Brown.
141 reviews2,454 followers
October 24, 2011
Does it ever seem to you like everything sucks? Not just your own life -- with its minor setbacks and Pyrrhic victories -- but the entire existence of mankind. You know, all of humanity? I think that sometimes. When I'm filling up my car with gas, for instance, and I see a guy wearing scarves as shoes. And then later that day, the person in front of me orders a coffee drink with more than two modifiers (half-caff and no foam and part-skim). Or whenever I accidentally listen to sports talk radio for more than ten minutes. I'll sit there in my car, listening to that ad for Dockers and think, "When all of this is over, when the world comes apart and we're back in the streets chucking rocks, I'll throw a freakin' party."

But there are also moments -- tiny triumphs or glimpses of beauty -- that make me think I'll really miss this life when I'm grilling a squirrel in the bombed-out husk of an Albertson's. I'll miss my family, of course, if they don't make it through The Troubles, that should go without saying. But I'll also long for Google Maps and continuously-hopped IPAs and raw denim jeans and all the other accoutrements of modern American life.

Which brings me to Zone One. Zone One is a novel about zombie-like creatures called 'Skels,' a plague of which has destroyed human civilization at some point in the near future. As the plague goes into remission, the survivors begin putting the pieces back together, starting with lower Manhattan, where the military has walled off a segment of the island. Sweeper teams -- civilians with assault rifles -- comb through the city killing any remaining skels and stragglers (half-skel creatures that lurk about the world in a frozen state of unconsciousness). Our hero, Marc Spitz, works with one such sweeper team, and it's through his eyes that we learn about the end of the world and its potential rebirth.

But Zone One is really an elegy for the modern world. Marc Spitz and his comrades reminisce frequently about the good old days, the days before "Last Night," the night when all hell broke loose, literally. Marc Spitz says he misses all the same things that everyone missed -- "the free wifi" and whatnot -- and there's the sense that this is what he misses, the conveniences of life. But its in the moments when he makes a fleeting connection with another person that the book really delivers. In a world where 95% of the people are dead (or worse), finding another person you can love is a rare and precious moment. Of course, the same is true in a world without zombies. And that's sort of the point of Zone One.

Zone One is both achingly, heartbreakingly sad, but also laugh out loud funny (LOL, as they used to say, before the fall). Its sentences will carry you along more than its story, and you can't miss the subtle longing that seeps through every page. It seems to be saying "This place we're living now? This life? It could be so much worse." This is the rare novel that simultaneously critiques the world as we know it today and reaffirms its existence. That it does so while inhabiting the body of a zombie novel is, I think, just another of its many miracles.
Profile Image for Melki.
5,669 reviews2,324 followers
February 15, 2019
A powerful, thought provoking oddball of a book. How to even categorize it?

I suppose it is a thinking man's zombie novel, though it is lacking in the required skin-ripping, intestine-chomping, walking dead action that would hold most zombie aficionados' interest. The living ARE hunted by the dead, but Whitehead does not linger on the messy details.

A team arrives in New York City to clear out areas for possible reclaimation when the crisis has ended. The city looms large in this book, pulsating in both its emptiness and later with invading throngs of the dead.

The main character, Mark Spitz - not the heavily-medaled swimmer - spends much of the book lost in memory and ruminating on the lives of the dead. All of this introspection tends to make the whole experience more real and personal. Characters disappear without a trace, leaving survivors who will always wonder.

Ultimately, one of the saddest books I have ever read.
Profile Image for Brett Talley.
Author 20 books337 followers
May 8, 2012
In an addendum to my original review, I initially gave this book three stars. Then I watched the mid-season finale of The Walking Dead, and it struck me that if a television show can display complex human emotion and interaction while simultaneously incorporating what is expected of the genre, this book should have been able to do the same thing. If you think that is ridiculous, so be it.

In the interest of full disclosure, Zone One is one of the books that beat out my novel, That Which Should Not Be, for the finals of the Goodreads Choice Award. I can assure you, that did not affect my opinion at all.

It’s hard to write good genre fiction, and it’s hard to write good literary fiction. But it’s really hard to write good literary genre fiction. That is the challenge Colson Whitehead faces in his novel Zone One. Whether you are capable of enjoying Zone One depends almost entirely on how you view it. If you are looking for a zombie novel, Zone One is probably not for you. If you want literary fiction with a more interesting plot than your typical lit fic novel while maintaining the same “benality of modern society” omphaloskepsis we’ve come to expect, then maybe you will like this book.

Zone One is a story of the end of the world, told through the eyes of the anachronistically named Mark Spitz. (It’s a nickname, the origin of which we don’t find out until the novel is almost finished. When we do, you’ll find yourself asking why they didn’t call him Michael Phelps. I challenge you to find people under thirty who know who Mark Spitz is other than in relation to Michael Phelps. But I digress.) The action takes place over the course of a single day or so, although the time-line of that day is impossible to piece together given the never-ending flashbacks and temporal gymnastics. The zombie apocalypse has decimated society, but reconstruction is underway, led by the new government in Buffalo. Spitz is a part of a sweeper team, clearing out the remaining zombies—called skels because zombie is so passé—from an area of New York City called Zone One. But Spitz suspects that things are not as secure as the government wants them to believe.

The main problem with Zone One is that, although at times it is well-written, it is neither a good zombie novel nor good literary fiction. And that’s a real shame. There is a good book here. In fact, if this was Colson Whitehead’s first novel, I think it would have ended up being fantastic. But it’s not Colson Whitehead’s first novel, and I have a feeling that his editors didn’t exercise their scalpels as liberally as they should have.

Zone One fails as a zombie novel because Whitehead doesn’t know when to stop with the literary fiction pontification and cut to the action. I get it; Whitehead is trying to make a point. And while that is all well and good, if you are making a point in a zombie novel, then you have to respect your readers. When the zombies show up, the action should start.

The best example of this deficiency has been well documented in the myriad angry reviews by zombie aficionados that have sprung up across the web. Early in the novel, Spitz is ambushed by a group of zombies. Whitehead spends ten pages describing this encounter, but not because he dedicates himself to documenting the terrifying struggle against scratching, diseased claws and snapping jaws. No, Whitehead sees the zombie attack as an opportunity to explore the emptiness of middle class life. As if anyone, pinned to the ground with a member of the undead on top of them, would wax poetic about Marge, lead character in the most popular show before the Fall, and how “the legions of young ladies who fled their stunted towns and municipalities to reinvent themselves in the Big City recognized something in her flailings . . . . They had been reeled in by the old lie of making a name for oneself in the city; now they had to figure out how to survive. Hunt-and-gather rent money, forage ramen. In this week’s written-up clubs and small-plate eateries, loose flocks of Marges were invariably underfoot, sipping cinnamon-rimmed novelty cocktails and laughing too eagerly.” (In case you missed the point, the great revelation of the book is that the poor befuddled members of the middle class are the real zombie hordes. Sorry to ruin it for you.)

Now, I don’t care if Whitehead wants to make this point. Maybe it’s a point that we, the walking dead of modern society, need to hear. But Whitehead’s timing is atrocious. He could have done this in the aftermath, with Spitz staring down at the dead skels, thinking about who they were before the virus took them. We could have had the best of both worlds—the action packed zombie attack and an important insight into the human condition. But that’s not what we get. This happens repeatedly throughout the novel. Every zombie assault is a time for meditation, every pair of plague bearing jaws an opportunity to reflect on the mediocrity of middle class life.

Unfortunately, Zone One doesn’t really work as as a literary endeavor either. Too much of Zone One is open to the criticism that it is merely the perfected cynicism of literary fiction, as pretentious as it is cliché. Everyone’s a stereotype of the group they represent—the perky middle class cheerleader, the lower class ruffian who sees the faces of the rich in every zombie he puts down, the intemperate upper class politician from Buffalo who is more concerned with appearances than people. Everyone more focused on securing the best apartments in the new society than putting down the roving bands of undead.

It doesn’t help that we have seen this all before. George Romero invented the modern zombie largely as a metaphor for mass consumerism. We get it; the shambling hordes are like the denizens of strip malls or partakers of chain American food restaurants, and the long winded discourses on the sad commercialism of the middle class grow tiresome because of it.

The strange thing about Zone One is that once I accepted its shortcomings and took it for what it was, I sorta liked it. Whitehead does a pretty good job of describing what life would be like after the rising, both in the wilderness and in the isolated human settlements that remain. That success only made the book that much more frustrating. I simply don’t know to what group of readers I would recommend this book. It’s a muddle, and like the protagonist of the story, Zone One is middling at best.

I would stop here, but I feel as though the New York Times review of Zone One, which spawned a minor controversy known as “zombie gate,” should be addressed. Never before has a positive review been so unfair to the author it praises. Glen Duncan—who refers to what Whitehead is doing as “genre slumming”—begins his review by saying, “A literary novelist writing a genre novel is like an intellectual dating a porn star. It invites forgivable prurience: What is that relationship like? Granted the intellectual’s hit hanky-panky pay dirt, but what’s in it for the porn star? Conversation? Ideas? Deconstruction?” The review continues as a screed against zombie aficionados and genre fans in general, implying that we are all degenerate fools. Duncan apparently suffered a failure with his single foray into the horror genre and is now intent on taking his frustrations out on Zone One‘s readers. I can’t say what Mr. Whitehead believes, but there is nothing in Zone One that indicates he would support Duncan’s prejudices, and I hope that those who would consider reading Zone One pay Duncan no mind.

2 Stars
Profile Image for Gerhard.
1,036 reviews510 followers
March 3, 2012
Don't believe the nags who say Whitehead over-writes or that Zone One is plotless: this is a rip-roaring, blood-curdling horror novel that will make you ache with laughter the one second and your toes curl the next.

Besides, one of the greatest features of the Kindle is the built-in dictionary, which means you don't you have to leave Post-it reminders all over pages to check out word meanings.

Zone One is also written in crystalline, incantatory prose so beautiful you will find yourself reading chunks of it aloud, just to taste the words. Even the gory bits. Of which there are many.

It also manages to do something new with the concept of the undead, which is hard to believe when it seems The Walking Dead has cornered the market on apocalyptic angst. Plus that ending -- so, so dark, and yet so sublime.
Profile Image for Brian.
Author 1 book968 followers
February 13, 2021
Second Reading: June 30 - July 4, 2013

We are studied in the old ways, and acolytes of what's to come.

I was a young teen when I first watched Romero's classic Night of the Living Dead. Watching with my two friends, we vocalized our response to the undead onslaught: advice on which windows needed better fortification, admonitions on how to deal best with the character that's losing his/her shit, and the most expedient way of dispatching a ghoul - all of the responses in no way unique to a typical human's reflection on a genre that has become shop-worn. It wasn't until much later in life - after countless viewings of dozens of zombie movies, reading loads of zed-lit and dinner party "what if" discussions - that it finally clicked why this genre's appeal doesn't abate: what we call human civilization is a soap bubble fragile construct. It only takes a little scratch to bring it all down. Zombies simply represent an acceleration of that process and then holds up a giant mirror to whatever is left. Want to see what you are made of, humanity? This is what you are. You are animals.

We never see other people anyway, only the monsters we make of them.

From the time of my zombie illumination, Zone One is the novel I hoped would one day be written. Whitehead took that internal journey to ask the questions about what makes our flatlined culture keep ticking and what happens to us when it all comes crumbling down. The internal monologue of the protagonist Mark Spitz is a relatable one. The reader gives a nod of the head, an occasional grunt of understanding. This is Whitehead's genius: he created his narrator to be us. We are the ones that will live through this. I can survive this tragedy, this horror. I can survive the undead. I can survive other survivors.

There was no other reality apart from this: move on to the next human settlement, until you find the final one, and that's where you die.

If not zombies, what then? Sectarian strife, civil war, coup du jour, Hurricane Katrina? If you are like me and you are fortunate enough to have never had to experience those horrors, reading a book like Zone One will remind you just how lucky you are. And perhaps make us think about those humans right now that are praying that the last shreds of civility don't decay on this day and force them to fight for their lives.


First Reading: November 15 - 19, 2011

Colson Whitehead is the Nabakov of zombie lit. But to say "Zone One" is a zombie book is like saying "The Diary of Anne Frank" is a book about a girl living in an attic.

If you're looking for a heart-pounding, edge of your seat gore fest, there are other pulp send-ups in the zombie genre to satiate that appetite. If you want to read a book so extremely well written and insightful on what a post-apocalyptic, zombie-infested world would "feel" like 12-13 years after Patient Zero, "Zone-One" is the choice to make.
397 reviews20 followers
September 1, 2022
This is a great apocoliptic novel based in New York. I have never read anything like it before now. The author is very descriptive and the plot is quickly realised. I enjoyed it very much. I highly recommend it to all.
Profile Image for David Brooke.
62 reviews1 follower
January 18, 2012
Below is the review, but I've also made it fight with another book at this site: http://www.adventuresinpoortaste.com/...

A pretty terrible experience. No, not a zombie outbreak, this book.

There are flashes of interesting in this book, but overall you just want to skip ahead. The book utilizes stream of consciousness to express the protagonist’s detachment from reality, which is interesting and a probable way of someone in a zombie apocalypse coping, but it's a horrible way to tell a story. Told in first person, the protagonist may start to give some much needed back story, but his story will wander and eventually the protagonist will actually lose track of the point of his story, and ask his buddies “hey why was I talking?” Great question for the lead character to be asking when the reader doesn’t know why they’re even reading it themselves. This one takes an instant blow to the chin for being extremely frustrating and annoying.

Taking place in Manhattan in the not to distant future, Whitehead does take the time to discusses zombie behavior, which follows in George Romero’s steps in using zombies as social commentary. In Zone One zombies linger in their cubicles waiting for the copier to make the print outs that will never come, stand in iParty starring at guerrilla costumes wishing they could afford what they are wearing, or laze in recline-able chairs endlessly pressing the power button on the remote control. It’s social commentary at it’s finest, but really could be reduced to short story.

A big twist at the end deals with the protagonist's race, and I found this twist utterly pointless. I suppose the author is trying to say, “when all humans are at odds with an enemy that is not human, they forget about race and racism disappears,” but this point isn't very clear.

And that’s ultimately the problem. The entire book isn't very clear. It reads like the ruminations of an old woman trying to figure out what it all means: God, meaning, was that crab cake I ate in 76’ bad? The reader can't get a bead on why we should care about anyone or why we should care about any of it. For a book trying to do something different with zombies and move away from violence and action it doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be.

The book feels like it never got beyond the short story phase, but to get it on the rack the author stuffed it with 120 pages of filler. A frustrating experience.
Profile Image for Maciek.
558 reviews3,272 followers
February 26, 2012
The problem of this book is that it doesn't really know what it wants to be. Is it genre fiction? Literature? Social commentary? Speculative fiction?

It tries to be a bit of everything, but doesn't really succeed. What really brings it down is absolutely glacial pace, and almost complete lack of plot. Even the action scenes are narrated in a way reminding one's grandfather sitting in his old chair and lazily reminiscing about his war experiences and going on all these tangents in a way which only retired people can do. An action scence of attack of the undead which should be breathless and page turning drags on and on and on, like its own ghosts, or a zombie (this is a pun). To put it simply, the book is not very compelling. Its mundanity might be intentional, but even well written mundanity is still mundanity, and despite its lenght Zone One might prove hard to finish for some readers.

It reminded me of another speculative novel which I also thought didn't quite work out, Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood. Atwood writes like an angel and her prose style is almost palpably delicious, thought it was hard to me to muster the will to finish that particular efforts of hers. I share the same sentiment with Zone One - good writing doesn't make up for disjointed and confusing narrative, lack of plot and lethargic pacing. I would even go as far to say that Zone One is a case of a talented writer tackling an ambitious subject, but having little, if anything, to say. This work is not as groundbreaking or memorable as Richard Matheson's classic I am Legend, and chances are high that throughout the years it will sink into obscurity, and won't be remembered as the author's finest effort.

Why three stars, then? The author obviously knows and feels strongly about the city of New York. Being born and living there. he can offer what can be named an intimate insight into the metropolis and the community which inhabits it. The concluding passages pick up; the imagery and pacing become stronger, faster, and even the ending of the book is not a real surprise, it's satisfying, though not exactly original. While I didn't found the whole of the book memorable, it's not exactly paperback trash, too; obviously too much effort went into writing and polishing it, but the exact point of it is never made clear, and we're left wondering if the time spent reading about these characters wandering around Manhattan couldn't be spent better.
Profile Image for Nicky.
4,138 reviews1,007 followers
September 18, 2012
After reading this article in the New York Times, I had to try reading this. I mean, I love genre fiction and I have a degree in English Literature, so you'd better hope I've got the intellectual side down since that's about all my degree seems to be good for demonstrating... Surely I'd get the best of both worlds out of this.

And, you know, apparently that degree doesn't say a damn thing, because I just found Zone One boring. I read the first twenty-five pages rather hopefully; something about the prose style did sweep me up and keep me turning pages. But as I got further into the book and nothing happened, and nothing happened, and nothing happened, I began to lose my patience. Literary fiction is great, even when it spools out slowly -- Kazuo Ishiguro's work is slow and good, in that way -- but this just bored me. I felt nothing about the words on the page but apathy. The back promises a 'punchy cocktail of horror, comedy and social critique', but I didn't really find anything but the latter, and I'd heard all that before...

This bit from the article sums it up all too well:

A plot summary is impossible: there isn’t a plot. To make matters worse, the protagonist is a laconic introvert of self-avowed mediocrity. The only ostensibly interesting things about him are his nickname, Mark Spitz (the explanation for which is withheld so long that the payoff stakes rise perilously high), his tendency to hallucinate falling ash and his ominous flirtation with the mysterious “forbidden thought.” Spitz is a sweeper and, for the novel’s three-day, flashback-filled present, our guide to the new (and hence the old) reality.

And then the bits of the article about the supposed pay-off never -- for me, anyway -- materialised.
Profile Image for Jason Pettus.
Author 12 books1,269 followers
April 16, 2012
(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com]. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted illegally.)

As regular readers know, there's a special quirk to CCLaP's 10-point rating system that maybe a lot of other places don't have; that no matter how good a genre book like science-fiction or crime thriller actually is, in terms of sheer quality, it's not allowed to score in the 9s or above unless it somehow transcends its genre and becomes of interest to a general audience, a rule which I believe makes CCLaP's ratings far more accurate when it comes to any particular random person trying to decide whether or not to pick up any particular random title. So for a genre novel to score a perfect 10 here, as has happened only two or three times in the five years and 700-odd reviews that have been published at CCLaP, means something special indeed -- that it's not only exquisitely done, not only one of the best books ever published in that genre, but is a title that should literally be forced on people who normally hate that genre, the proverbial "one [fill in the blank] book you should read if you only read one [fill in the blank] book a year." And ladies and gentlemen, I have found that next rare genre book to score a perfect 10, ironically by complete accident on the "New Releases" shelf at my neighborhood library; it's called Zone One by Colson Whitehead, and could very well be the very best post-apocalyptic novel since Cormac McCarthy's The Road six years ago.

And indeed, like McCarthy, Whitehead is not a genre veteran but actually an academically celebrated mainstream author, a MacArthur "genius grant" recipient whose most famous novel Sag Harbor (an autobiographical coming-of-age tale about wealthy blacks in 1980s Long Island) is talked about online by its fans in the hushed, revered tones of the religiously faithful. And like McCarthy, this first foray into genre actioners by Whitehead is actually a highly metaphorical tale as well; for by setting it a full ten years after the outbreak of a plague that turned 99 percent of the population into flesh-eating zombies, and by concentrating the story on the efforts to reclaim lower Manhattan as a source of national pride to a deeply shaken population, Whitehead is clearly echoing the real events of 9/11 and the dark chaos of the resulting Bush Era, not from the perspective of those actual years like so much "Bushist" literature in the early 2000s did, but rather from our current Obamian recovery times, a period here in the 2010s when it seems that we are perpetually on the cusp of America devolving into permanent ruin, offset by glimmers of hope and a can-do attitude but by no means with any guarantee yet that we won't be sliding straight into the abyss around every next corner.

And in fact, this is the main issue that makes Whitehead's book so brilliant in the first place, and so profoundly more original and inventive than almost any other zombie story that's ever been written; because by setting the story in a time and place where the majority of the most dangerous "skels" have now all been killed, the novel instead explores the complex ways that the survivors have learned how to cope and even think of the events that transpired a decade previous, and of all the complicated factors that would actually go into rebuilding the country back into a state of normalcy, the novel's first page being where most zombie stories usually end. It's here where Whitehead really shines, offering up literally dozens of little tidbits that will make you think as you're reading, "Oh, that's a smart touch; oh, and that's a smart touch too" -- just for one great example, how the recovery process (being directed from the new national capital in Buffalo, New York) is mostly being funded by corporate interests, with various surviving vice presidents and CEOs giving formal permission as a PR stunt for the growing civilian/military population in the semi-safe "Zone One" of lower Manhattan to "officially loot" this or that specific brand or product from the hundreds of abandoned stores around them, and with a thinly-veiled Disney being the official supplier of the new zombie-proof armor of this post-disaster world, all the helmets now emblazoned with a gun-toting, cigar-chomping Mickey Mouse on the side.

And why does this growing population in Zone One bother following these kinds of regulations over what can and cannot be "officially" looted in the first place? Well, because following rules is one more detail that makes things feel like they're finally getting back to normal -- hell, just the fact that there actually are rules again in the first place -- which is yet another brilliant thing that Whitehead has done here, is pay mere lip service to the usual fantastical Mad-Max scenarios that most other post-apocalyptic novels offer up. For example, through extensive flashbacks that pepper this entire manuscript, Whitehead makes it clear that literally thousands of little fiefdoms, communes, warrior tribes, militia compounds and slave plantations actually did arise in the aftermath of his apocalyptic event; but he also makes it clear that nearly all of them collapsed of their own volition mere months later, and that the vast majority of the population quickly reverted back to normalcy and decency because that's what most human beings are, normal and decent -- that this is how we get even the definitions of terms like these, because most humans are simply hardwired in their DNA to act in a normal and decent way, and that the minority who aren't pretty much all died at each other's hands not even a year after this state of anarchy was established in the first place. And just to make it clear, there's literally a dozen more pages of these kinds of insights I could point out in this review but won't, concerning everything from race and class to why most of us both love and despise effective marketing, just an incredibly intelligent story but one that absolutely does not skip on the usual firefights, rotting flesh, and heart-pounding excitement you expect from genre actioners.

But even with all this, what truly makes Zone One an instant classic is its unforgettable ending, the details of which I won't spoil but let's just say now stands as one of the most emotionally moving catastrof-cks in the entire short history of 21st-century literature. And again, Whitehead uses this not just to offer a thrilling, fanboy-satisfying conclusion but to make a metaphorical statement about our own times, a pretty devastating one at that -- that as bad as 9/11 and the resulting Bush years were, they're a mere drop in the bucket to the looming disasters still to come in this country, as it becomes more and more undeniable that the United States as a hegemony has finally and fully reached its "Fall of the Roman Empire" moment in the larger picture of world history, and that all the "Yes We Can" posters, "Detroit Pride" commercials and Starbucks "Let's Create Jobs" bracelets in the world won't amount to a damn bit of difference when all is said and done. And that's because like every hegemony in history, from the Romans thousands of years ago to the British Empire right before us, America has grown insolvably lazy, stupid and corrupt because of its role as undisputed and unstoppable global champions; and that just like the pagan barbarians that eventually overran the Roman Empire no matter how much money or how many soldiers they threw at the problem, the only destiny possible for a "F-CK YEAH U-S-A!" is a bitter, violent and humiliating total collapse on the world stage, a series of disasters just around the corner that will make 9/11 look like a freaking tea party.

That's a hell of a statement for Whitehead to symbolically make, but may turn out to be the most prophetic one you'll hear all year; and by making such a pronouncement not in the middle of the Bush years when things seemed at their worst, but at an Obamian point of optimism about the future, Whitehead differentiates himself for the better from The Road and all the other dour Bushist novels that came out last decade, daring to look unblinkingly into the gaping maw of Downfall right at a time when it is politically incorrect (at least among academic liberals of color) to do so. It's for all these reasons combined -- the keen insights, the powerful metaphors, the simultaneous embrace of potboiler genre conventions, the poetic style, the unexpected conclusions -- that Zone One today becomes the first book of 2012 to receive a perfect score at CCLaP; it's an unforgettable novel, destined to become a landmark of our well-meaning but deeply flawed Obamian Age, and it comes strongly recommended even if you normally despise zombie stories.

Out of 10: 10
Profile Image for Olethros.
2,610 reviews419 followers
June 22, 2020
-Acercamiento posmodernista al ser humano actual mediante un posapocalipsis zombi.-
Género. Novela (con una premisa fantástica de partida).

Lo que nos cuenta. El libro Zona Uno (publicación original: Zone One, 2011) nos presenta a uno de los miembros de la Unidad Omega, al que sus compañeros conocen como Mark Spitz, encargados de limpiar edificios de Manhattan de los zombis que los pueblan tras la infección que terminó con la sociedad. Mientras lleva a cabo su peligrosa tarea, Mark Spitz recuerda su pasado, reflexiona sobre sí mismo y trata de acostumbrarse a cómo son las cosas ahora.

¿Quiere saber más de este libro, sin spoilers? Visite:

Profile Image for Kate.
1,216 reviews2,211 followers
April 24, 2021
I would usually never write a review for something I only read 25 pages of which is why I'm not rating this but I just had to say

I have a literal masters degree in literature and never in my life have I read something this pretentious I THOUGHT THIS WAS A ZOMBIE BOOK TF ??
Profile Image for Ron Charles.
1,024 reviews48.3k followers
November 15, 2013
Word that Colson Whitehead was working on a zombie story spread through literary circles faster than a flesh-eating super virus. It sounded like another gift from the gods of Halloween, right up there with Justin Cronin’s decision to stop writing lovely, unread novels and give us a bang-up vampire saga .

Of course, we should have known that Whitehead, the 41-year-old MacArthur Foundation “genius,” wouldn’t do the zombie walk in lock step with George Romero, but what’s most surprising about “Zone One” is how subtly he reanimates those old body parts for a post-9/11 world. Although the ambling, rotting hordes are still here, this is a night of the living dead lit by melancholy and nostalgia rather than violence and terror. Horror fans hungry for new thrills may find too little meat on these bones — stick with AMC’s “The Walking Dead” for that — but now that zombies have infected everyone from Jane Austen to the above-average folks at Lake Wobegon, perhaps quieter reflection is in order. (Even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has posted helpful advice for fighting zombie infection.) Readers who wouldn’t ordinarily creep into a novel festooned with putrid flesh might be lured by this certifiably hip writer who can spin gore into macabre poetry.

The story takes place over a weekend in Manhattan; indeed, “Zone One,” a dark paean to the Big Apple, is an undead version of Whitehead’s elegant essay collection, “The Colossus of New York.” It starts, appropriately, with a young man’s fond memory of going into the city with his family to visit an uncle who had all the hottest tech and all the hottest girls. Staring out a high-rise window, the boy used to watch churning buildings rise and collide, wave upon wave: “In every neighborhood the imperfect in their fashion awaited the wrecking ball and their bones were melted down to help their replacements surpass them, steel into steel.”

But now that vibrant commercial world is a ghost of itself, the future looks like a bloodstain and “hope is a gateway drug.” About a year before the novel opens, a plague ravaged the planet, turning almost everyone into inexorable, flesh-starved monsters whom Whitehead describes evocatively as “the angry dead, the ruthless chaos of existence made flesh.” Our hero is a survivor nicknamed Mark Spitz, who works on a cleanup crew in a portion of the city — Zone One — recently pacified and sealed off by the Marines. As part of the reconstruction initiative, Mark and his buddies — “completely inured to the agenda of catastrophe” — are assigned to move through New York office buildings shooting the heads off “stragglers.” These are nonviolent zombies, more poignant than scary, caught in some pathetic loop of their former lives: waiting for the phone to ring, restocking a shelf, lifting and closing the hood of a photocopier. In rare moments of grandiosity, Mark thinks of himself as “an angel of death ushering these things on their stalled journey from this sphere.” Other times, as when he shoots a “brain-wiped wretch standing at the fry station of a big hamburger chain,” he’s disgusted that anyone, “out of the abundance of a life, would choose fry duty.”

That grim humor slithers through most of this novel, along with touches of Whitehead’s topical satire: Even when their lips are eaten off, New Yorkers are still cursing the traffic. As the “necrotic multitudes” descend on one doomed office, a disciplined administrator looks around his desk for the proper form to record a casualty. The remnants of a national government holed up in Buffalo work on “rebranding survival” along the lines of President George W. Bush’s “go shopping” response to Sept. 11. And the whole industry of corporate-sponsored optimism — profiteering even in the final moments of life on Earth — gets flayed in these wry pages.

The climate of sorrow makes some of this a fairly mirthless parody. After Gary Shteyngart’s exuberant satire of consumer culture in the dystopian future of “Super Sad True Love Story,” Whitehead’s riffs on the superficiality of social media or the ubiquity of Starbucks seem tired. Mark’s soul-weariness infects the tone and pace of the novel, too, which offers more eulogy than suspense. Whitehead borrows bloody chunks from Romero’s gore fest, but he’s stingy with the thrills. There are only a couple of good zombie battle scenes to get the heart pumping. The spine-tingling progression we expect is repeatedly interrupted by the narrator’s aimless chronology and memories of Mark’s previous life. Some of these flashbacks are particularly effective, such as the night Mark walked into his parents’ bedroom. (Hint: Freud’s primal scene is transformed into a zombie primal scream.) But other sections of the novel seem aimless. Whitehead’s previous book, the autobiographical “Sag Harbor,” didn’t have much momentum either, but it sparked with linguistic energy and its chapters worked charmingly as short stories. The pieces of “Zone One,” alas, are not so animated. There are — forgive me — too many dead spots.

A more serious problem may be the blandness of our anti-Olympian hero, Mark, “a mediocre man, [who] led a mediocre life exceptional only in the magnitude of its unexceptionality.” Given that the novel is overrun by zombies, who are necessarily personality-impaired, it’d be nice to have a hero who wasn’t quite so blank and colorless. That’s an especially odd portrayal given that, in 1968, Romero boldly cast Duane Jones, an African American, in the center of a white mob out to devour him, and many scenes in “Night of the Living Dead” visually emphasized the racial dimension of his ordeal. Mark is also a young black man, but strangely that element of his identity is bleached away in this novel, as though colorblindness and zombie-ism came to America at the same moment.

But my reluctant disappointments were burned away by the last section, “Sunday.” Everything comes to life in this perfectly paced, horrific, 40-page finale shot through with grim comedy and desolate wisdom about the modern age in all its poisonous, contaminating rage. It’s a remarkable episode, drenched in the matinee carnage of classic horror but elevated by the power of Whitehead’s prose to the level of those other ash-covered nightmares imagined by T.S. Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Cormac McCarthy. Here the all-consuming maw of the city reaches its apotheosis, luring and destroying. In this great melting pot, flesh is actually melting, but still they come, by the thousands, moaning what this island has told every hopeful visitor since the Dutch arrived 400 years ago: “I am going to eat you up.”

Profile Image for Jenny (Reading Envy).
3,876 reviews3,038 followers
Shelved as 'did-not-finish'
January 3, 2017
I thought, okay, people keep saying this is a zombie book for people who don't like zombie books. I don't like zombie books. I got to the point where he is describing the zombies in the office building in detail based on how much dried blood and guts was on their bodies and where, and decided I don't even like zombie books that are for people who don't like zombie books.
Profile Image for 11811 (Eleven).
662 reviews136 followers
February 13, 2012
This audiobook book experience was like firing up crushed Ambien in a crack pipe. Highly recommended to anyone who has trouble falling asleep.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 3,849 reviews

Can't find what you're looking for?

Get help and learn more about the design.