BOOKS

Zone One

Author: Colson Whitehead

Rating: 3.0 / 5.0

It’s now a trope that’s become near-universal as we’ve seen as geek culture move into the mainstream: “zombie stories aren’t about the supernatural; zombie stories are about humanity and how it works (or fails to work) when being confronted by the unbeatable, supernatural, and unstoppable.” I’ve stayed largely away from much of the nű-zombie media e.g. The Walking Dead, but when my friend Mike recommended this book I decided to take it for a spin. Based on the strength of this offering I was further inclined to read Whitehead’s other work, the widely acclaimed “The Underground Railroad.”

In the story, “Mark Spitz” is part of a team of “cleaners.” Amidst a resurgent humanity, cleaners are combing Manhattan block-by-block to make the island safe for the living again. To return it would be a symbol that the living had “made it.” As he walks around, Spitz reflects upon his survival after the Event, his loneliness, and his part in the decimated society that persists. There are scenes of biting undead and their disposal, as the genre demands, but the greatest part of the book is spent in Spitz’s headspace.

Incidentally, it merits mentioning, and the book certainly proceeds very subtly on this point, that our protagonist, Mark Spitz of Long Island, New York, is black. Whatever you think of who will survive an event like this, Whitehead asks you to ask what your relationship to race would be afterward (and why it matters).

Given this plot, Whitehead beautifully crafts a gentle, mournful elegiac tone. He maintains a Ray Bradbury-esque elegiac tone that re-lenses the nű-zombie story that proceeds steadily and deliberately, shuffling along like the undead.

On top of the remarkable tone and consistency, Whitehead shows beautiful craftsmanship with the English language.

Of Manhattan:

Millions of people tended to this magnificent contraption, they lived and sweated and toiled in it, serving the mechanism of metropolis and making it bigger, better, story by glorious story and idea by unlikely idea.

Of “the Event:”

Nature, if you have to call it something. Correcting an imbalance. It kicks us out of our robotic routine, what they called my dad before we pulled the plug: persistent vegetative state. Comeuppance for a flatlined culture.”

While some critics have complained of the pacing or the relative lack of “action” in the book, I found the book to be sad, beautiful, engaging, and fulfilling.

JSON Notes

{
  "title": "Zone One: A Novel",
  "author": "Colson Whitehead",
  "highlightCount": 64,
  "noteCount": 1,
  "annotations": [
    {
      "highlight": "The reunions were terrific and rote, early tutelage in the recursive nature of human experience.",
      "location": 51,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "Millions of people tended to this magnificent contraption, they lived and sweated and toiled in it, serving the mechanism of metropolis and making it bigger, better, story by glorious story and idea by unlikely idea.",
      "location": 53,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "Blinds and curtains were open, half open, shut, voids in a punch card decipherable only by defunct mainframes lodged in the crust of unmarked landfills.",
      "location": 64,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "It was a gorgeous and intricate delusion, Manhattan, and from crooked angles on overcast days you saw it disintegrate,",
      "location": 82,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "adrift on that gentle upper-middle-class current that kept its charges cheerfully bobbing far from the shoals of responsibility.",
      "location": 95,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "Hunt-and-gather rent money, forage ramen.",
      "location": 202,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "Affront was a luxury, like shampoo and affection.",
      "location": 304,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "In Gary’s case, latent talents announced themselves. He prided himself on how effortlessly he had grasped and mastered the new rules, as if he had waited for the introduction of hell his whole life.",
      "location": 367,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "Manhattan was the biggest version of everywhere.",
      "location": 498,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "There had been laws once; to abide by their faint murmuring, despite the interregnum, was to believe in their return. To believe in reconstruction.",
      "location": 565,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "like slaves who didn’t know they’d been emancipated.",
      "location": 568,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "A society manufactures the heroes it requires.",
      "location": 625,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "Chinatown, with its discordant and jostling multitudes. It was the stereotype of fast-talking, fast-walking, eagerly lacerating New York distilled into a potent half mile.",
      "location": 657,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "Before the plague, the sight of someone walking the street in that costume wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow—Manhattan was Manhattan",
      "location": 773,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "Sometimes he had trouble speaking to other people, rummaging for language, and it seemed to him that an invisible layer divided him from the rest of the world, a membrane of emotional surface tension.",
      "location": 787,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "“Survivors are slow or incapable of forming new attachments,” or so the latest diagnoses droned, although a cynic might identify this as a feature of modern life merely intensified or fine-tuned with the introduction of the plague.",
      "location": 788,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "What percentage of the residents’ lips had formed, at one point or another, the syllables of a sweet, awestruck “What a view”? How could it be any less than a hundred percent. It was a banality no one could elude.",
      "location": 846,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "They belonged to a nation enamored of shortcuts and the impulse persisted.",
      "location": 887,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "that tendency of the human mind, in periods of duress, to seek refuge in more peaceful times, such as a childhood experience, as a barricade against horror.",
      "location": 1045,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "Like most lists of people, it was now a roll call of the dead, an inversely colored obituary page.",
      "location": 1049,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "tracers shrieked through the thoroughfares and stray bullets cratered the faces of banks, churches, condos, and franchises, every place of worship a city has to offer.",
      "location": 1119,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "Disposal’s bell jingled in the distance. Mark Spitz listened to it fade. It was the sound of the god of death from one of the forgotten religions, the one that got it right, upstaging the pretenders with their billions of duped faithful. Every god ever manufactured by the light of cave fires to explain the thunder or calling forth the fashionable supplications in far-flung temples was the wrong one. He had come around after all this time, preening as he toured the necropolis, his kingdom risen at last.",
      "location": 1227,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "In his mind, the business of existence was about minimizing consequences.",
      "location": 1265,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "They never came when you were vigilant; they came for you when you had one foot in the past, recollecting a dead notion of safety.",
      "location": 1282,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "In reconstruction, you knew where you stood.",
      "location": 1323,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "There was a limit to the depredations, and that meant a limit to the devastation.",
      "location": 1595,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "It was the smallest portion, he learned, that was acceptable to strangers to allow them to fall asleep without thinking he’d bludgeon them in their sleeping bags.",
      "location": 1628,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "This might be the final human being they’d see before they died. Both speaker and listener, sharer and receiver, wanted to be remembered.",
      "location": 1635,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "Parenthood made grown-ups unpredictable.",
      "location": 1644,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "They wore ponchos, and what else but a being cursed with the burden of free will would wear a poncho.",
      "location": 1659,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "reminisce about their time together in a bandit crew, ripping off weaker survivors for aspirin and thermal underwear and who knows what other bad acts. He effortlessly pictured their carefree promotion up the American Phoenix to stations of venal authority.",
      "location": 1676,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "he couldn’t think of it, what else would have made him comfortable walking down the New York streets in that hectic boil. He had been scared of the city. He knew how to dog-paddle and that was it.",
      "location": 1910,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "Emptiness was an index. It recorded the incomprehensible chronicle of the metropolis, the demographic realities, how money worked,",
      "location": 1918,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "The rich fled during the convulsions of the great evacuation, dragging their distilled possessions in wheeled luggage of European manufacture, leaving their thousand-dollar floor lamps to attract dust to their silver surfaces and recount luxury to later visitors, bowing like weeping willows over imported pile rugs.",
      "location": 1923,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "the poor tended to stay, shoving layaway bureaus and media consoles up against the doors.",
      "location": 1925,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "There were those who decided to stay, willfully uncomprehending or stupid or incapacitated by the scope of the disaster,",
      "location": 1926,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "the elderly who thought themselves long past being surprised by the invidious schemes of the world,",
      "location": 1939,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "He’d never met anyone in the camps or the great out there who had made it out of the city after the first couple of days. They left the doors unlocked.",
      "location": 1946,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "By his sights, the real movie started after the first one ended, in the impossible return to things before.",
      "location": 1963,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "A disemboweled city, spilling its entrails, will tend to the disorderly side.",
      "location": 1987,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "“No, you’re right. Mustn’t humanize them. The whole thing breaks down unless you are fundamentally sure that they are not you.",
      "location": 2310,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "The future required many things, but it had not occurred to Mark Spitz that it needed interior decorating.",
      "location": 2454,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "In every raindrop on his skin and the pavement, sullying every edifice and muting the blue sky: the dust of the dead. It was in his lungs, becoming assimilated into his body, and he despised it.",
      "location": 2768,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "Sorry about your man.”",
      "location": 2860,
      "annotation": "What?"
    },
    {
      "highlight": "the New York City underground, the steps leading to a subway platform offered refuge from the madness of the streets above, sparing him the skyscrapers’ indictment of his shabby suburban self and the constant jostling of strangers, who cut him off, scowled at his tentative steps, tried to puncture his eyeballs with their umbrella spokes and render him defenseless so they could devour him.",
      "location": 3057,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "He hadn’t geared up in months, “But it’s like riding a bike. A hell-bike, made out of hell.”",
      "location": 3103,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "The subway will be reduced in the next world, stripped of its powers like some punished god. Forced to recapitulate childhood stages, when it extended through the savage city neighborhood by neighborhood, line by line.",
      "location": 3112,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "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.",
      "location": 3180,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "Mark Spitz, the dead were his neighbors, the people he saw every day, as he might on a subway car, the fantastic metropolitan array. The subway was the great leveler—underground, the Wall Street titans stood in the shuddering car and clutched the same poles as the junior IT guys to create a totem of fists,",
      "location": 3183,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "In the subway, down in the dark, no citizen was more significant or more decrepit than another.",
      "location": 3189,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "They were all him. Middling talents who got by, barnacles on humanity’s hull, survivors who had not yet been extinguished. Perhaps it was only a matter of time.",
      "location": 3190,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "Nature, if you have to call it something. Correcting an imbalance. It kicks us out of our robotic routine, what they called my dad before we pulled the plug: persistent vegetative state. Comeuppance for a flatlined culture.”",
      "location": 3225,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "When the wall fell, it fell quickly, as if it had been waiting for this moment, as if it had been created for the very instant of its failure. Barricades collapsed with haste once exposed for the riddled and rotten things they had always been. Beneath that façade of stability they were as ethereal as the society that created them. All the feverish subroutines of his survival programs booted up, for the first time in so long, and he located the flaw the instant before it expressed itself: there.",
      "location": 3243,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "The city protected them, Mark Spitz thought. The typewriter-repair shop, the shoe-repair joint with its antiquated neon calligraphy and palpable incompetence that warned away the curious, the family deli with its germ-herding griddle: They stuck to the block with their faded signage and ninety-nine-year leases, murmuring among themselves in a dying vernacular of nostalgia. Businesses north and south, to either side of them, sold the new things, the chromium gizmos that people needed, while the city blocks nursed these old places, held them close like secrets or tumors.",
      "location": 3277,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "Later Mark Spitz untangled the string of inevitabilities. It looked like a choker of dead black flies.",
      "location": 3287,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "The medals awarded this Mark Spitz were stamped from discarded slag. Mark Spitz explained the reference of his sobriquet to Gary, adding, “Plus the black-people-can’t-swim thing.”",
      "location": 3392,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "There was a single Us now, reviling a single Them. Would the old bigotries be reborn as well, when they cleared out this Zone, and the next, and so on, and they were packed together again, tight and suffocating on top of each other? Or was that particular bramble of animosities, fears, and envies impossible to recreate? If they could bring back paperwork, Mark Spitz thought, they could certainly reanimate prejudice, parking tickets, and reruns.",
      "location": 3398,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "There were plenty of things in the world that deserved to stay dead, yet they walked.",
      "location": 3401,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "Listening to the gunfire from uptown, he knew what was happening. The barrier was about to fail. It was falling down, as it always did.",
      "location": 3515,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "The damned bubbled and frothed on the most famous street in the world,",
      "location": 3578,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "All the misery of the world channeled through this concrete canyon, the lament into which the human race was being transformed person by person. Every race, color, and creed was represented in this congregation that funneled down the avenue. As it had been before, per the myth of this melting-pot city. The city did not care for your story, the particular narrative of your reinvention; it took them all in, every immigrant in their strivings, regardless of bloodline, the identity of their homeland, the number of coins in their pocket. Nor did this plague discriminate; your blood fell instantly or your blood held out longer, but your blood always failed in the end.",
      "location": 3581,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "The barrier was a dam now, suppressing the roiling torrent of the wasteland. It would not hold.",
      "location": 3599,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "the brackets were as flimsy as plywood boards nailed into a window frame, in that elemental image of the barricade. That’s where every fortification splintered: where the nail pierced the wood, the rivet penetrated the concrete. The prayer met the truth. There is always a place for the dead to find purchase.",
      "location": 3602,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "These were the angry dead, the ruthless chaos of existence made flesh. These were the ones who would resettle the broken city. No one else.",
      "location": 3798,
      "annotation": ""
    }
  ]
}