Review: Zone One, Colson Whitehead

There are certain writers in New York who seem to be everywhere but with whose work I am unfamiliar. On the weekend of Halloween, I decided to start making inroads. I am leery of Nicole Krantz, and I am actively unfond of JFranz so decided to go with Colson Whitehead, as I know nothing to his discredit and think he has cool hair. It was Halloween weekend, the weather was going to be a bit slushy (I innocently thought), and altogether it seemed like the perfect weekend for staying in and reading Colson Whitehead’s new zombie book, Zone One. But then, instead of being mildly slushy, the weather on that Saturday decided to be a Winter Wonderland(tm). Winter Wonderland weather is not zombie weather.

(Lest I be misunderstood, I was not happy about the Winter Wonderland. I was not ready for Winter Wonderland. It was at that time still two months until Christmas, and if I start feeling Winter Wonderlandy in late October, the many weeks until Christmas (I LOVE CHRISTMAS) would seem insanely long. Miniature Roommate and I were deeply unhappy with the Winter Wonderland. We spent most of the day inside, drinking hot chocolate, watching The Count of Monte Cristo, and periodically leaping up, glowering at the window, and having the following dialogue in shrieks:

Jenny: This is bullshit!
Miniature Roommate: It’s OCTOBER.
J: BULLSHIT.
MR: Why can’t it wait? Why is it doing this to us?
J: ABSOLUTE TOTAL BULLSHIT.
MR: Why does the weather want me to start working on my Seasonal Affective Disorder already?
J: Poor us!
MR: Poor us!

Miniature Roommate and I both like to whine, which is one of the reasons we get along so well.)

Point is, the reading of Zone One had to be postponed until the fall had returned. Cannot be reading Halloweeny books when the skyyyyyyyyyy is a ha-zy shade of winter! So I waited until the week started, and by then it was too late to curl up with a book on the couch and read it cover to cover, and I think in the end that was probably a good thing. Because here’s a passage from Zone One:

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.

In my opinion, this is an excellent passage. I think Whitehead should have ditched “forgotten”, and the clause that begins with “calling forth” is grammatically awkward, but overall, a good passage. It has good images and it evokes the postapocalyptic mindset and landscape. It feels crafted, but not overly; it’s got enough precision of imagery to be clear, but not so much that it’s not evocative; altogether, it works really well as a section ender.

But then the next section immediately begins with this:

His unit has slept the last four nights in a former textile warehouse that had been converted into spectacular lofts, alcoves of glamour notched into the cliff face of the city. The apartment they chose belonged to the drummer of a minor rock outfit whose one big charter was a muscular anthem that tried to identify, verse by verse, the meaning of stamina. It was a stadium staple, a real rouser, the royalties evidently providing ample down-payment money. In the blown-up magazine covers on the walls, the owner was perpetually on the verge of being elbowed from the frame by the rest of the band, who were of a more rarified attractiveness. Such was the drummer’s lot.

And other parts have stuff like this:

The two rigs were the size of shipping containers, perched on trailers that had dragged them through tthe Zone after they had been deposited by aerial crane. Who knew which military installation’s thighs they had slithered from, what manner of other deviced gestated in the neighboring R&D lab. [and on and on and on into infinity]

The problem is not that I hate metaphors and descriptions, but I don’t like metaphors that don’t do anything. “Alcoves of glamour notched into the cliff face of the city” sounds good, but it isn’t a precise description and doesn’t create an image in my mind of what the lofts looked like. I think surprising metaphors should be scrutinized closely and applied judiciously. The passage about the god of death is worth being lavish over, because it’s the end of a section and it’s talking about something important to the setting. It’s exhausting and frustrating to read a book where the author is lavish with the metaphors in every single passage. The writerliness made it hard for my reading to flow smoothly along. It was like Marisha Pessl multiplied by twenty and minus the engaging plotline. I felt the way Samuel Johnson felt about the metaphysical poets.

The other reason it’s frustrating is that Zone One subscribes to the school of dystopian fiction where the author doesn’t want to seem too eager to explain everything right away — which is fine, I’m fine with that, exposition can be really awkward; but if that’s what you’re going to do, you have to be able to create a sense of place pretty vividly. The preponderance of writerly metaphors obscured my vision of what the city was like in this post-zombie world; and what kept happening is that I wasn’t sure if some of the descriptions were supposed to be literal or metaphorical. I wasn’t immediately sure how far into the future the story was supposed to be set, and it took me ages to get a sense of place. A clear, straightforward description of the loft apartment — or any of the dozens of places in New York that they go — would have gone a long way toward helping me get my bearings. I wanted to shriek SAY NORMAL WORDS at Colson Whitehead. I love metaphors but I also love nice clear writing. (N.B. Colson Whitehead has heard this criticism before and does not appreciate it.)

I feel like when a paragraph makes me want to scream “WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS TO ME?”, some part of the writer/reader mechanism has gone wrong. The book has some terrific little set pieces, especially towards the end, but the writing was driving me crazy, and the plot didn’t move fast enough to please me. And that is why I didn’t enjoy Zone One as much as I wanted to, though more than I probably would have if I’d sat down and read all those exhausting relentless metaphors in one sitting, rather than over several days on several days’ subway rides. Also I don’t like zombies. They are all mute and lurchy. If I’m going to read about supernatural critters, I’d like them to be loquacious.

I am not giving up on Colson Whitehead though! I’m going to read Sag Harbor, and I have high hopes of liking it better. I want to like one of these ubiquitous New York writers! I’m pretty sure JFranz has irritated me too much in the past for it to ever be him. I hated the one book I read by Paul Auster, ditto Siri Hustvedt. And Jonathan Safran Foer is not a different person in my mind from JFranz or Jonathan Lethem. Soooo….

This evening I am off away home for the glorious Thanksgiving season, during which I shall eat masses of food, have my hair cut by someone I trust, play with my puppy, drive about with Daddy, take walks with Mumsy, watch football with Captain Hammer, and go dress-shopping then get tired of dress-shopping and go home and watch twenty consecutive episodes of The Vampire Diaries with Social Sister. Taken altogether it will pretty much be the pinnacle of human happiness, especially if we win the Arkansas game. I will be away from the blogs most of next week, so if you read anything awesome, please come tell me, or email me, or whatever. I am definitely in the market for something awesome to read.

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40 thoughts on “Review: Zone One, Colson Whitehead

  1. Ok, first of all, you write the best book commentary I have ever seen. Secondly, these passages were cool, but they frustrated the hell out of me! Just what is he trying to describe? it’s there, but it’s not there, you know what I mean? I would have lost patience with this book very early on. It’s not enough to be clever. You need to say something as well! I can totally see why you were so frustrated with this one. If you want a zombie book that seems to defy the lurchiness and silence, I would recommend Warm Bodies. It was delightfully cerebral, and the descriptions actually meant something! And I am sorry about the snow! Great review as usual, my friend!

  2. I recently read Zone One (haven’t posted review yet) and here’s the thing: I don’t think you will be happier with Sag Harbor. lots of pretty words and passages, but not much happening. At least in Zone One we get some ookey scenes to contemplate, including the one where he outdoes Freud with the before and after parent thing. But at the end of the hell of the 3 days of the book’s “action” [sic], I didn’t feel like anything much had *happened* beyond depressing me immensely. And I agree with you about the ridiculous secret-keeping – like his nickname and other matters. Overall, I thought bleak, bleak, bleak, but with some pretty prose.

    • Yeah, but surely in Sag Harbor I won’t go into it expecting things to happen. Right? I’ll just expect a bildungsroman sort of book, and then I won’t be as cross when plot isn’t front and center. Right? She said hopefully?

  3. lurchy and mute, yep. That’s why I don’t like most zombie novels, too. Generation Dead by Daniel Waters is the one exception I can think of–his zombies get increasingly loquacious. I do love to see the world “necropolis” in any book, though.

  4. Ugh, I hate the early winter too, and I also want to read Sag Harbor. I’ll be on the lookout for those non-descriptive descriptions, when I do.

    Haha, I’ve been actively avoiding JFranz as well, and still don’t know the difference between J Foer and J Lethem.

    You and I have lots in common.

  5. I say this while hiding behind a big book — I like early winter. πŸ™‚ I think I’m the only one. I’m ok with that.

    The whole description/lack thereof problem will probably keep me away but this sounds like something my sister would love. Plus, she just loves mute and lurchy zombies to no end. I have no idea why.

    Happy Thanksgiving!

    • Do you live somewhere very wintery? I don’t mind winter, I just want it to come in the appropriate time. I don’t like it when the weather bucks expectations. I need it to behave.

  6. Ha, I thought of Marisha Pessl the minute you started your quotes! (Except, I unequivocally love Pessl’s metaphor making. I know she can get precious, but I don’t even care. Plus, lovely plot she had there.) I am putting this in my NTBREIDE (Not To Be Read Even In Dire Emergencies) pile. So thank you for that.

  7. So what I’m hearing is the cool hair isn’t enough to carry the book? Bummer. ‘Cause he does have most spectacular hair.

    I’ve never read any of his books, either, but I do have Sag Harbor on the shelf.

  8. I’ve just skimmed this because I want to read this one and this is definitely the kind of story that I want to read without knowing too much about it! I heard the author at an author’s festival last month — which I attended specifically because I’d never read any of the three writer’s works — and he was absolutely hilarious. So I’m saying there’s more than just the cool hair…

    • Oh, yeah, there’s more than cool hair. He has some gorgeous passages. He just isn’t a great plotter, or if he is he was concealing it from me when writing Zone One. And I love awesome plots. I love it more than I love awesome writing.

    • No, no, don’t pass! Or at least don’t decide to pass yet. When I have read Sag Harbor I will be able to provide a more nuanced verdict on Colson Whitehead.

  9. ‘We each come to literature in our own way. For some, the gift is bestowed by a helpful governess who guides our fingers over the letters in a primer. For others, a private tutor first enlightens us to the majesty of the written word.’ Bwahahhahahaha – I’m sorry, but really how many people come to literature these ways?

  10. Thought #1: Hmm, I think this is the sort of writing that alienates me. I, too, like metaphors just fine, but I like clarity more. I hate having to decode a book as I read. THE LAST WEREWOLF and I parted ways for just that reason. Too much to decode.

    Thought #2: I found that Harper’s article reasonably clear, but the pretention got to me. Sometimes pretention negates clarity, so far as I’m concerned. (Just sometimes. Sometimes I have tons of fun with it.) Helpful governess my arse. Perhaps it’s a spoof?

    Thought #3: your Thanksgiving holiday sounds made of win. I’m jealous. Thanksgiving holidays are never quite so wondrous ’round these parts. Sometimes we have a turkey. That’s about as exciting as it gets.

    Thought #4: I looked up Colson Whitehead’s hair. I agree, it’s quite marvelous.

    • Answer #1: I love clarity way more than metaphors. A few unclear metaphors are fine but lots of unclear metaphors make me stabby.

      Answer #2: It’s a spoof of the kind of clear writing the reviewer wanted Colson Whitehead to have, but it’s not clear to me what parts are spoof and not. The governess part HAS to be a joke.

      Answer #3: It was made of ALL WIN ALL THE TIME. I went to a football game and it was so amazing even though afterwards my throat felt like I had a ping-pong ball of pain sitting in it. That was my own fault for screaming so much. Also, I ate all the foods.

      Answer #4: RIGHT? RIGHT?

  11. You really describe the dystopian setting-explanation and ineffectual metaphor problem well. I laughed at “SAY NORMAL WORDS.”

    Too many lavish metaphors is like fudge with too many walnuts.

    (Actually, that metaphor doesn’t apply to me, because I like my fudge with no walnuts at all, but I do like a proper distribution of metaphors. )

    • I like my fudge with no walnuts at all too. I would say cookies with too many chocolate chips, but I feel like that’s not as good a description. Something with too many somethings, though, for sure. A food. I get where you’re going with that.

  12. I think Zone One is a book I’m just going to pass up on. I tried reading Sag Harbor earlier this year but gave up. 😦 My reading is so lackluster that I can’t recommend anything right now. I hope you had a fantasticThanksgiving!

  13. Pingback: Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens | A Good Stopping Point

  14. Such an entertaining review! JLethem and JFranzen I can’t tell apart, but occasionally I can manage to remember that Jonathan Safran-Foer is the one who wrote the vegetarianism book (I am vegetarian, so this gets him points in my book) and also I liked his short story “A Primer for the Punctuation of Heart Disease” in the New Yorker (and I hardly ever like short stories in the New Yorker unless they are by Sherman Alexie).

  15. SPOILER ALERT : DONT READ IF YOU HAVE NOT FINISHED THE BOOK.

    As I read the book, I thought the story suggested that Mark Spitz was bitten by a skel or straggler. Am I correct?

    • Ye-es? I can’t remember! I remember it ended very grimly, so if he hadn’t already been bitten, I think it was certainly implied that he was going to be.

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