Will Byrnes's Reviews > Zone One

Zone One by Colson Whitehead
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bookshelves: horror, fiction

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, 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 that 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. 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 new 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
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Reading Progress

October 29, 2011 – Shelved
August 28, 2013 – Started Reading
August 28, 2013 – Finished Reading
September 5, 2013 – Shelved as: horror
June 9, 2018 – Shelved as: fiction

Comments Showing 1-23 of 23 (23 new)

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message 1: by Dolors (new)

Dolors Impossible not to feel the allure of NYC and its pulsating history through your excellent choice of Colson Whitehead's quotations and your own relationship with the capital of the world.
Also loved the quotation where mass of undefined people streaming down the streets could seem zombie material, I even found the image poetic.
Special review, Will. Lovely to read this morning.

message 2: by Caroline (new)

Caroline It sounds an epic in all sorts of ways. I too am charmed by your getting under the skin of New York, which you always do so very well, and reviewing the book from there.

message 3: by Michael (new)

Michael Fabulous review. You make me shudder and make me laugh at the same time. The best humor cuts close to the bone. PASD could almost be in the DSM. Your own experience with the blood trail says a lot. Got me good with your If a few characters become fodder for roving people-eaters, like so many large hot dogs on the hoof, then so be it. The images that stick more powerfully than a realistic account. Wondering if the twisted vision made you laugh or instead just led you there as refuge.

message 4: by [deleted user] (new)

I loved this book. I feel like I need to read it again.

message 5: by Deborah (new)

Deborah Ideiosepius Good review; I am sold.

Brian FanTAStic review. Thanks for the links to the interviews.

message 7: by Ted (new)

Ted Great review Will, the way you link the book into NYC and your own experiences therein is fascinating.

I must admit however that I'm totally lost about the appeal of Zombie stuff nowadays. Must be an age thing.

I understand that if one wants to view "zombies" as a metaphor for the meaningless, dead "lives" that so many might be leading nowadays, some literary excuse can be mounted for the genre. But I don't feel you can go too far with that. Is it just the escapist lit de jour?

Searching for illumination.

Will Byrnes As Whitehead notes, in one of the quotes I cited, " it's not just about zombies—it's about people, it's about culture" - It really is about New York and his observations about many elements of the city. I share your disinclination towards the Z-genre, (with exceptions for anything starring Simon Pegg) but was drawn to this book because of having read some of the author's previous work and having been very impressed. I expect that among the Z-material shambling about these days there are more like this, which use zombies as a Maguffin rather than as a true core, than we might suspect.

message 9: by Gary (new) - added it

Gary  the Bookworm I haven't read The Colossus of New York but the futuristic elements in this reminded me of The Intuitionist. I also devoured Sag Harbor. Whitehead keeps getting better.

message 10: by Miriam (new)

Miriam I notice you're reading a lot about NY recently. Have you read The Haunted Bookshop? It's set in the Brooklyn of just post-WWI.

message 11: by Will (new) - rated it 4 stars

Will Byrnes No I haven't. I arrived in Brooklyn slightly later. But it sounds like fun.

message 12: by Miriam (new)

Miriam Heheh, I figured you had! It was the time my grandfather grew up, although Brooklyn sounds a bit safer than the Bronx.

message 13: by Will (new) - rated it 4 stars

Will Byrnes I grew up in the Bronx. Not so bad early on in my existence, but towards the back end of my time there, rather unpleasant. Too bad really. It has wonderful topography, some outstanding deco housing stock, and THE BRONX ZOO!!!

message 14: by Steve (new)

Steve You New Yorkers do your apocalypses so well! Your review really brings it home, Will. Great job, my friend!

message 15: by Will (new) - rated it 4 stars

Will Byrnes Thanks, Steve. Even stole Godzilla from our Eastern friends.

message 16: by Steve (new)

Steve And of course King Kong is iconic. Did he once do battle with Rodan in NYC, or am I confusing that with some other terror?

message 17: by Will (new) - rated it 4 stars

Will Byrnes I do not recall that particular rubber-suit battle, but I have enjoyed quite a few of the j-monster films. NYC is excellent fodder for big-critter frolics because there are so many recognizable structures that can be laid waste. Empire State Building, Chrysler Building, Brooklyn Bridge, George Washington Bridge, WTC, old and new. Godzilla even did a number on Madison Square Garden. Then there's Times Square, Washington Square Arch, Central Park, and on and on. Brooklyn will really have arrived when the Barclay Center and/or the main public library at Grand Army Plaza is crushed to bits by an oversized lizard or space creature. And there is a lovely arch there that is yearning to be ground to dust by, maybe by a Mechagodzilla wearing a tiny hat and an ironic T-shirt. In fact, let the word go forth from this time and place. Hollywood, bubelah, you know who you are. Brooklyn really needs to have its ass kicked by a large mobile beastie, on the big screen. We will deal with it, of course, by serving up large portions of interesting food, playing really cool music and having, maybe, Kong read to it from the work of some of our many authors, until it chills.

message 18: by Steve (new)

Steve Will, you are so right about all of this! You've worked your influence here in the past; we can only hope that the Hollywood pooh bahs are listening to your latest idea.

message 19: by Will (new) - rated it 4 stars

Will Byrnes I know there is a director who made a monster movie once about an aqueous threat in the Long Island town of Amity. Yo, SAS, maybe a bigger beast this time. Just think how much fun it would be to take down the WonderWheel, the Parachute Jump and the Cyclone, then take time out for some Nathan's hot dogs while Russian mafia unload automatic fire on its green ass, and our extremist community pools its resources and puts all that C4 to better use. All right Spielie I know you did that alien movie a few years back. How about Spike. Mah man. Do the right thing. Destroy your borough. We cool with immigrants, but there has got to be a limit. I see a frame looking up at the height bar for the Cyclone with a somewhat taller patron in the back. Turturro would have to be in it. Buscemi, Patrick Stewart, Saarsgard, Maggie Gyllenhall, Paul Giamatti, Michelle Williams, Esai Morales, Harold Perrineau, Gil Gottfried as Brooklyn Borough President, Marisa Tomei, and the day is saved by the greatest Brooklynite of all time, Bugs Bunny.

message 20: by Steve (new)

Steve How can they pass this up after you've delivered the plot outline and full cast on a silver platter?!

message 21: by Will (new) - rated it 4 stars

Will Byrnes I'll be waiting by the phone

message 22: by Suzanne (new)

Suzanne Hey, Will, how about a kickstarter campaign to get this thing financed? I've got $38.50 I'm not using for anything else.

message 23: by Will (new) - rated it 4 stars

Will Byrnes How about Kings Landing for a title?

I've got a few coffee cans filled with change. I'm right there with ya.

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