Colson Whitehead explores the impact on New York City of a mysterious, devastating plague.
Perhaps we're fortunate to live in times when visions of apocalyptic or dystopian futures inspire some of our more talented writers. Colson Whitehead joins that group with an unnerving glimpse of the urban nightmare that follows a devastating plague.
A Long Island native nicknamed Mark Spitz, who "had led a mediocre life exceptional only in the magnitude of its unexceptionality" is a member of Omega Unit, one of a group of civilian "sweepers," assigned to clear the undead from Lower Manhattan after a massive Marine assault has exterminated waves of marauding plague victims. Moving methodically from office building to high-rise apartment to bodega, Spitz and his two companions hunt and dispose of "skels," zombies capable of launching sudden attacks, or "stragglers," frozen in the midst of whatever they were doing when the pandemic took them on what becomes known as the "Last Night."
As Spitz carries out his grim responsibilities over the three days that make up the novel's time frame, America's provisional government, relocated to Buffalo, N.Y., pumps out a steady stream of happy talk about a "reboot" designed to persuade miserable survivors herded into relocation camps with names like "Bubbling Brooks" that the rise of the "American Phoenix" is imminent.
Relying on a style differing markedly from genre fiction that treats similar subjects, Whitehead forgoes lengthy exposition that describes the source of the plague or the reasons for its seemingly instantaneous transmission. Instead, in precise, elegant prose he deliberately layers the ever more disturbing elements of the story, one upon the other, allowing the reader to discover the horror in the same fragmentary manner we imagine frantic survivors might.
Among recent novels in this vein, Whitehead's more resembles Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" than it does the social satire of Gary Shteyngart's "Super Sad True Love Story" or Tom Perrotta's elegiac description of the consequences of a Rapture-like event, "The Leftovers." He's anything but sentimental in his clinical examination of the death-soaked landscape that is plague-ravaged New York City, yet he's able to bring to bear the fondness for the city -- its moods, its light and the swirling rhythms of its street life -- he displayed in his 2003 nonfiction work, "The Colossus of New York."
While there's been much anticipation of this, Colson Whitehead's "zombie novel," "Zone One" is less a spectacular account of a clash between the living and the undead and more an intense meditation on the way we cope with disaster and the stubborn, often inexplicable, persistence of the human will to survive.
Harvey Freedenberg is a book critic in Pennsylvania.