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Review: Zone One by Colson Whitehead

Zone One describes the area of lower Manhattan running up to Canal Street. Mark Spitz and the other two members of Omega Unit are charged with sweeping through apartment buildings, commercial high-rises, grocery stories and parking lots, picking off 'skels.' The rabid variety has largely been corralled by the remains of the armed forces. Now it's the civilians' turn to shoot the stragglers--a harmless form of skel who will return to a place of meaning in their former life and freeze in a rotting tableau. There are undead copy boys standing at Xerox machines, a costume store employee standing in a bear suit by a helium tank. Once Spitz encounters a straggler standing in an empty field, a grounded kite attached to the string in his hand, as he gazes blankly at the sky.

In an interview with GQ Whitehead explains, "The skels are ghosts, other people haunted by their pasts... A skel is a statue dedicated to nostalgia." And what better vehicle to examine nostalgia than the end of the world? Some characters in Zone One evince real hope for a future, but Mark Spitz is more pragmatic. His thoughts either stay in the present, or meander to the past. The skels around him are testament to the civilization just destroyed--they sport haircuts modeled after sitcom characters, they wander aimlessly in their apartments, all identically furnished from Ikea.

It is as much a novel of the apocalypse as it is a novel of New York. For every blood-splattering kill, Spitz wonders when that skel first came to the city--bright-eyed and ambitious, only to settle for lackluster jobs in the intervening years, crowding around cocktail bars and laughing too loudly in an attempt to capture some Sex and the City fantasy. He visits the subway and remembers the endless flow of silent commuters--bankers sitting beside web designers beside convenience store clerks--and is baffled at how quickly those divisions have fallen away. These temporal trap doors--from the gloomy present to an equally gloomy past--are a constant in Zone One. If they fail to let up on the depressive atmosphere, they at least remind us that the world can pretty dark, even without flesh-hungry monsters on the prowl.

The book is available now for purchase.


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