Some books read like love letters to New York City: Joseph Mitchell’s Up In The Old Hotel, for example, and Joan Didion’s gut-wrenching essay: “Goodbye To All That.”
Zone One? It’s hate mail for the whole island. There is a lot of gut-wrenching, though.
Meet Mark Spitz – he’s managed to survive after most of the population has been reduced to mindless ‘skels,’ only because he is so exceptionally mediocre. A consistent B student, whether he studied or not. The member of the senior class “Most Likely Not To Be Named The Most Likely Anything.” That mediocrity grants him a longer lease on life than his parents, his girlfriends, than almost anyone he knew before the innard-chomping nightmare the survivors refer to as ‘Last Night.’
It’s a good name. For the survivors sweeping Zone One in southern Manhattan, the evening when the world went mad stays fresh in their minds. How can they escape it? Mark and the two other civilians in Omega Unit spend their days picking off the wasted victims of the disease – walking corpses who still sport haircuts copied from sitcom characters and bear passing resemblances to former gym teachers, girlfriends, relatives.
That’s the problem when the whole world’s gone skel – the victims still have some shadow memory: they frequent the same hang-outs, wear the same clothes, maintain the same piercings and haircuts and facial features (at least until the skin starts rotting away). In an interview with GQ, Whitehead sums it up: “The skels are ghosts, other people haunted by their pasts. I’ve certainly been stuck on certain periods and events in my life, so a skel is a statue dedicated to nostalgia.”
Each monster has its trope. With vampires it’s abusive lust, with werewolves it’s a split personality. Zombies come in mobs, and with mobs there is a mentality. The skels in Zone One invite contemplation, not as sad skin sacks, but as walking memories of the people they were, people who were always part-monster to begin with.
Zone One didn’t have to be a zombie novel, but it’s a handy device to dissect the problems of the populace post-Empire, particularly in a city. As a new recruit to New York, there are certain lines that hit me in the gut. Spitz will pick off zombies and consider their former, waking lives – He wonders when they came to the city, bright-eyed and ambitious, and how they’d been forced to settle in the intervening years, crowding around cocktail bars and laughing too loudly in attempts to capture some Sex and the City fantasy. He thinks about the shut-ins who barricaded themselves against the coming plague, particularly “new recruits” like myself, who were too fresh to the city to develop the kind of support system that could have afforded them a means of escape.
It scares you. Scared me, at least, in a way blood-spurting zombie movies never have.
Formally, it’s excellent. Spitz falls through temporal trap doors constantly in the narrative, moving backwards to memories of ‘Last Night,’ the deaths of his parents, unexpected skel attacks, and then he snaps to at the last moment, when his life depends on it. The language is carefully chosen, and evokes spinal cords, joints and necrosis, even when describing entertainment systems and subways. And there’s humor, too, in the unlikeliest places. When Omega Team spots a few walkers in the distance, they try to tell if they’re human or skel. The deciding factor? They’re wearing ponchos. “Only a human cursed with the burden of free will would wear a poncho.”
Definitely pick up a copy on the 18th. Whether you’re a zombie fan or not, this book has a lot to say.