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.
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.