I wanted to read this book. I tried my very best, but it stymied me no matter how many times I tried to come back to it. I think I know why.
Remember those stupid mash-up books? Android Karenina, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, Shakespeare v Lovecraft? Those books, which you saw in the horror section and never bothered to look at because they looked stupid, even though they’d attracted a lot of attention just because of the idea?
Zone One is a mash-up. It’s not a literary horror novel. A literary horror novel is Blood Meridian, The Last Werewolf, or The Fifth Child (Doris Lessing). A literary horror novel is not a blending of styles because literary anything is not a style, but a quality. Literary just means good writing with good vocabulary.
The people who marketed Zone One tricked readers into thinking this a blending of styles, of genres, but it is really a mash-up: a brutal and turgid amalgam of one type of book with another.
Have you ever wandered a bookstore looking for something to read? You pick up this book, that book, reject a lot of them, and try not to trip over those strange people who seemed to live in the modern big-box bookstore.
Occasionally, you come across this: a thick, dense book with the photo of earnest young man (often sporting boxy glasses and a pony tail) in the back author photo. He’s gone to Harvard and received an MA in Comparative Lit, written for the Village Voice and Mother Jones, and in between those jobs many writers would sell their children to get he’s written a novel. It’s been praised by Updike, Joyce Carol Oates, and you’d better not miss out on his Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius or you’re a godamn ignoramus.
So you buy it. I mean, how can you not? Anyone who’s anyone loved it.
Then you try to read it. Immense run-on paragraphs, shifting perspectives, over-boiled prose, and the words! Strings of huge words that could be replaced by one small word. Tiresome father issues, cardboard female characters, and digressions that run on for pages. Thinking ‘it can’t be just me,’ you end up running to Amazon and google for more reviews. I must be stupid if I hate this book, you think, I’m a dinosaur and this guy is part of the new wave. So you keep on trying to read it, growing over more tired and angry at this autobiographical exercise in youthful logorrhoea. At some point, you stop reading it and put it on your shelf. Strangely enough, no one ever asks you how it was.
Zone One is one of those earnest books from lauded young writers of whom most readers have never heard, and it’s been mixed with zombies. I don’t think Colson Whitehead intentionally set out to write a mash-up, but since he is the poster child for hip and impressive young authors, he wrote one of those mash-ups simply by adding zombies.
Here are a few whoppers:
The youngest one wore its hair in a style popularized by a sitcom that took as its subject three roommates of seemingly immiscible temperaments and their attempts to make their fortune in this contusing city.
Gina was that new species of celebrity emerging from the calamity, elevated by the altered definitions of valor and ingenuity.
One of those seekers powerless before the seduction of the impossible apartment that the gang inexplicably afforded on their shit-job salaries, unable to resist the scalpel-carved and well-abraded faces of the guest stars the characters smooched in one-shot appearances or across multi-episode arcs. Struck dumb by the dazzling stock footage of the city avenues at teeming evening.
There’s lots more where those came from, but you get the drift.
Literary writing should have a lightness to it. It’s not like low-fat food; after all, french chefs have been making fluffy things out of heavy fat for hundreds of years. As dense as the ideas are, the writing should dance on the tongue, not lie on the plate like a bad boiled dumpling. Literary writing shouldn’t be so… consciously written, so desperate to impress. It should look like the author is a genius who can’t help but write with impeccable style and syntax, and above all, a correct understanding of the flavours and limits of words.
Look, here. Here’s a line from Lolita.
I was still walking behind Mrs. Haze though the dining room when, beyond it, there came a sudden burst of greenery,”the piazza,” sang out my leader, and then, without the least warning, a blue sea-wave swelled under my heart and, from a mat in a pool of sun, half-naked, kneeling, turning about on her knees, there was my Riviera love peering at me over dark glasses.
Or Joyce! Check this out. Just a little bit.
In the intense instant of imagination, when the mind, Shelley says, is a fading coal, that which I was is that which I am and that which in possibility I may come to be. So in the future, the sister of the past, I may see myself as I sit here now but by reflection from that which then I shall be.
I’m being cruel in comparing Whitehead to the great writers of the last century, but I feel like I should, if only to show the direction in which he should be pointing. Writing is not about vocabulary, it’s about rhythym, the dance of the words on the page. It’s hard to describe, but so easily missed. That quality is not to be confused with poetry, but the magic is drawn from the same well.
Oh, and the plot. It’s all right, I guess. It follows the life of one Mark Spitz, a soldier in an army charged with clearing downtown Manhattan of the walking dead. Alongside the traditional biting dead are strange creatures who are stuck repetitively performing tasks they did while alive. Nice idea, although it owes a lot to George Romero in Dawn of the Dead, in which zombies endlessly roam a shopping mall.
Glenn Campbell reviewed this book for the New York Times, and he said it got better as it progressed. Maybe he was right, but I was too frustrated to find out.