Sunday, 22 May 2016

Book Review - 'Zone One', by Colson Whitehead

Mark Spitz is, by his own admission, nothing special.

He isn't a hero, or a soldier. He isn't even a particularly competent survivor. He's average - and, he always has been. He would be the first to admit that he owes his continued survival, in the face of a zombie outbreak, as much to luck as any other factor. However he managed it, though, the fact of the matter is that Mark Spitz actually has managed to survive the worst of the outbreak - and, now, he has joined up with other survivors, in an effort to reclaim territory, and rebuild.

His current role is as a member of one of a number of civilian 'sweeper teams', based in a reclaimed section of land referred to as Zone One. Working with his team, his job is a fairly straight-forward one - to head out into unsettled areas in order to locate any lone zombies that the armed forces might have missed.

Like with just about everything else in his life, Mark Spitz finds that his performance as a civilian 'sweeper' is average, at best - and, the he is often required to depend on the support of his team-mates. As he works with his team to reclaim sections of Manhattan, though, mark Spitz finds himself looking back over his life - recalling his life before the catastrophe, and the sequence of events that brought him to this point.

Call it personal bias, if you like, but there has always been something a bit strange, to me, about the idea of writers of a more literary style of fiction turning their attention toward science-fiction and fantasy. Whether fair, or not, the idea always brings to mind the sort of author who might dip into these genres while, at the same time, remaining curiously reluctant to admit to the sort of book that they have just written (see The Road, by Cormac McCarthy, for example). At the same time, too, there's also the question of the book's quality as a work of science-fiction or fantasy - since, lacking any real familiarity with either genre, their efforts might ultimately end up seeming like a pale imitations of stories that have already been told (again, see The Road, by Cormac McCarthy).

This is exactly the sort of odd grey area that Zone One, by Colson Whitehead, seems to find itself in. It is a work of literary fiction, first and foremost - one, as fits with the literary style of writing, is very concerned with the clever use of language. But, it is also a novel which just so happens to drift into an area typically associated with science-fiction and fantasy. Even beyond that, though, there is also the fact that the subject matter Colson Whitehead chose to tackle, with his literary endeavours, was zombies.

I could very well be wrong, of course, but that would make Zone One the first literary zombie story ever written - and, upon learning of its existence, the very idea filled me with an odd mix curiosity and amusement. At its worst, after all, literary fiction provides a very clear example of style over substance - with the focus on creative use of language occasionally seeming to come at the expense of plot, or character development, or anything else that might actually make a story worth reading.

Zone One is, unfortunately, a novel that is not entirely free from that. It is a novel which features some long, and particularly self-indulgent, sections that seem to drag on much longer than they really need to. An early sequence, for example, features the central protagonist, Mark Sptiz, being caught by surprise by a group of zombies - but, rather than aiming for tension, the scene is broken up by a somewhat long-winded account of the various people from his part that each of the attacking creatures reminds him of. It's a sequence that is intended to create the sense of his life flashing before his eyes, perhaps, or to convey a sense of world-weariness even in the face of danger as his mind wanders - but, either way, it effectively destroys any sense of genuine tension that the scene may have held.

Basically, the novel managed to do the one thing I did not think was actually possible - it turned a surprise attack from a group of ravenous zombies into something that was actually a bit dull. Even more frustrating, though, is the clear possibility that this was done entirely intentionally.

Clearly, then, Zone One just isn't the book to read if you're looking for excitement and tension. That may just be a single example, taken from early in the novel, but things play out in much the same way, throughout. More than anything, what Zone One actually is is a character study of Mark Spitz, himself - and, in that regard, it least, it is, quite often, actually genuinely interesting.

Content to reveal the details of its protagonist's life in a largely non-linear fashion, Zone One will still explore this largely average man's life in very intimate detail. Throughout the novel, the reader will be given a very clear impression of who this man is, and of how his experiences have shaped him. Since it is clear, from that start, that action is not going to be the focus of the story, here, this focus on character is ultimately the novel's greatest strength.

Literary fiction is still something of an acquired taste, though. Any reader more accustomed to a more general sort of fiction, where the story is what matters and the words are just a tool, may find themselves put off by the way a literary author will seem to revel in complex wordplay. At its worst, you could end up with something that feels dense and overwrought.

To be fair, though, Zone One never quite reaches that point - but, I do still have to wonder at the wisdom of writing a work of literary fiction about zombies.

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