Colson Whitehead sets his zombie novel “Zone One” in a near-future Manhattan where military crews are busily sweeping the island’s real estate free of the undead.
But while the action involves the rending and rotting of human flesh, the sentences are for savoring. I doubt that anyone has brought a technique this gorgeous to horror since Stanley Kubrick filmed “The Shining.”
Because Whitehead’s prose is witty, plangent and complex all at once, his meanings tend to hover for a minute before they sink in -- a potentially deadly lag in an action genre. In fact, it took me a while to adjust to the book’s rhythms.
Early on, for example, the hero, “Mark Spitz” (the moniker isn’t explained until halfway through), is set on by four erstwhile members of a human-resources department in an office high-rise. The decaying women are described in lurid detail, down to a hairstyle that recalls an actress in an old sitcom that also gets described.
Whitehead digresses to imagine how they might have been infected; returns briefly to the attack at hand; then wanders off to Mark Spitz’s memories of human resources at an office where he once worked.
Next the hero remembers the first time he saw a man pinned by zombies. (“They began to eat him, and his screaming brought more of them teetering down the street.”) At last his adrenaline kicks in and his shouts bring aid: eight pages in all.
Such an indirect method isn’t designed to make the reader sweat with suspense. Whitehead is going for a deeper dread. Brick by brick he builds his ashen world of blank-eyed cannibals infected by a nameless plague, a landscape familiar from horror movies and TV shows but with a richness and a sadness beyond anything George Romero ever aspired to.
Here’s Mark Spitz reflecting on his life of flight:
“Once again in a stranger’s house, the next residence in the endless neighborhood that snared him his first night on the run. Their different layouts and constructions did not fool him; chimney or no chimney, English basement or cinder-block sump-pumped storeroom, he moved through a single infernal subdivision without outlet, serried cul-de-sacs and dead-ends overlooking broken land.”
The comic specificity of mundane detail (“sump-pumped”) inflected with blue notes of longing and regret is right out of Thomas Pynchon (and I assume the name “Zone One” is, at least in part, a nod to the long section of “Gravity’s Rainbow” titled “In the Zone”).
But Whitehead, more than 30 years younger, has set a later generation of pop culture to his own off-kilter harmonies. At the same time, he considers it almost a matter of honor to stick to the hardboiled contours of the zombie genre:
“This is what he had learned: If you weren’t concentrating on how to survive the next five minutes, you wouldn’t survive them.”
“He told himself: Hope is a gateway drug, don’t do it.”
“He had a knack for apocalypse.”
This is the familiar voice of the American loner, generator of a thousand pulp novels stretching back to Hammett and Chandler. For all the beauty of its prose, “Zone One” never rises far above these scuzzy origins. Which is probably for the best.
Whitehead’s goal is to envision what it would be like to lose your friends, your loved ones -- everything -- and keep on fighting, to stay fully alive in the middle of rampant death. I tried to think of a real-world equivalent, and the closest I could come was the Holocaust.
But any Holocaust novel that dressed itself up in the exquisite melancholy of “Zone One” would be indecent, because there’s nothing exquisite about real horror. I’m not complaining. Real horror would sour the romantic agony that kept me reading “Zone One” late into the night, even as I knew I was being snowed.
“Zone One” is published by Doubleday (259 pages, $25.95). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Craig Seligman is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)