Colson Whitehead’s new novel Zone One is one of those books that only matter to First World readers. It is a well written book (if you like overly wrought descriptions of the way the world was…good and bad) that follows a zombie novel formula. Formula: Something happens that cause the undead to eat the living; some people survive; and survivors band together and attempt to end the zombie apocalypse. This formula (in the context of Zone One), however, only matters if you have been to New York, or at least seen enough Seinfeld episodes to be aware of the labyrinth that is NYC. Zone One is a thinking man’s zombie novel, a Western Civilization thinking man’s novel. Somali refugees don’t give a shit about zombies.
If you were a Somali refugee and constantly moving through the scrub to avoid death, would you know if the world ended? Not talking Ben Affleck-big-ass-astroid world ending catastrophe (because then the complete world would literally end), but thinking about First World implosion. Would it matter that cell phones stopped working, internet porn couldn’t be accessed, and soccer practice was canceled because all the little suburban tots are munching on each other? Millions of Americans dying due to them being the menu’s main course doesn’t really register to Third World readers (…wonder how many Third World readers there are?). *Note: is it more PC to say “underdeveloped” or “Third” world?
The question really lies in how you define “world.” The First World historians/writers/film makers/commentators get to determine and record what is worthy of being saved for posterity. Those with the guns and money decide what words mean, and who/what is valued. If you were a Somali refugee, the fate of the First World wouldn’t rate on your give-a-shit meter…unless of course you were one of the fortunate refugees that gets their daily nutritional intake from UN charity.
Hunger is a monster. Hutus were monsters to Tutsis. Real life zombies that used machetes and cans of gasoline to gnaw the life out of the Tutsis is a great definition of what “monster” means. (If you have no idea what Hutu and Tutsi mean, go here.) Blood thirsty and shambling hordes don’t have to be undead…plus living, breathing monsters are far more scary. This is probably why we like to imagine fanciful creatures instead of facing the evil that walks among us. This evil is better ignored; let’s just pretend that we need a zombie survival guide instead of mathematical chart confirming the randomness of bloody car crashes that are the result of self-absorbed drunk drivers. Real shit is always scarier, and real shit is always more funny than fiction. This is also why true crime books sell better than horror novels.
Literature, good literature should be able to transcend time and place. It should be able to take common human experiences and thoughts and relate to a reader regardless of their situation, geographical location, or place within the time path of human existence (face it, getting eaten is not a timeless common human experience). David Copperfield is good literature that supplies a bonding to those who can, at a minimum, empathize with shitty sweat shop laboring. Everybody, regardless of their time in history or location, knows what a shitty asshole bosses can be.
Zone One is just a novel that spends the prerequisite time on revealing the background (people get a “plague” and start eating the living), the middle story (people survive by outrunning the undead), the present story (bands of survivors start dealing with the undead). The real story of this book is how memories of places, events, history, and living is described. Zone One is not a zombie book, it is a book about loss. The loss of what was before and how the protagonist deals with the loss. The protagonist is actually a representation of all the world that made it through the original undead onslaught and how the world attempts to getting back to “normal.” Again, one has to ask what is “normal.” Normal for me is not normal for a Somali refugee. My normal is an unbelievable heaven to a starving Horn of Africa resident.
World War Z (fictional oral history of the zombie apocalypse) and Robopocalypse (robots replace zombies) are good books. Zone One is a good book. But they are all fluff. I usually mock deep thinkers who try to argue that zombies are actually manifestations of all the other fears that inhabit our world and minds…but there is some truth to this. However, even with their fear manifestations, these books are nothing more than good reads. They entertain by playing on deeply seated fears and thoughts…but they are not good literature.
In the end, it isn’t the story that matters but how the story is revealed. Zone One is revealed in an interesting manner. Memories and thoughts of the time before the all-you-can-eat horde arrived is described in almost poetic streams of consciousness. The first 5 pages of the book is one of the best descriptions of not only of how NYC looks, but how it feels. At times, I kept wondering where I had read this story, or at least this type of prose. Finally it dawned on me. Colson Whitehead is obviously a Cormac McCarthy fan and reader. Like McCarthy, Colson Whitehead delivers a story that is a pleasure to read but leaves you wondering, after a few paragraphs, “what the fuck is this book about?” But like McCarthy, you enjoy the reading…the actual exercise of moving your eyes and digesting the words…so much that it could actually be about building a microwave.
Like World War Z and Robopocalypse, at the end of Zone One I asked myself “who really gives a fuck if the world actually ended?” My world, my time and place, my miniscule moment in the time stream of humanity is nothing more than mine. My life and death isn’t important. My place in the collective memory of my world isn’t important. The end of my world means nothing. Novels about the end of the world as I know it are nothing more than a good read.
The real deep shit is questioning what responsibility does art and literature have in reflecting on life. Life takes many forms and represents many things. I like a good zombie book, I love things that make me ponder life. Zone One is a good book but I keep wondering if I really give a shit about America after it has had one of its butt cheeks bitten off. Maybe if the hungry Somalis were willing to eat obese Americans…