by Jeremy Griffin
Zone One by Colson Whitehead
I’m not exactly sure when it was that zombies became such a fashionable literary trope. One could argue as far back as Romero, though I suspect the legitimization of the undead as a subject of popular fiction has a lot to do with Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend and Max Brooks’ World War Z. Since then, hordes of writers have thrown in their two cents to the zombie literary genre, some with a great deal of success, some without.
Of course, to be fair, there’s only so much you can do with a zombie story; there’s a pretty strict formula to follow, and only the most skilled writers are ever able to pull off something new in terms of narrative while adhering to it. Coleson Whitehead seems to be one of these skilled few. In Zone One, the award-winning author of Sag Harbor makes a clumsy but ultimately enjoyable foray into the zombie genre.
The story, which takes place over the span of three days, concerns a man who goes by the name of Mark Spitz (the reasons for him having adopted this moniker are made clear in the book). Spitz is part of a three-man team of “sweepers” through a section of Manhattan following a zombie apocalypse; their mission is to seek out any stragglers, that is, men and women who’ve been infected with the zombie virus but for some reason never transformed into the gruesome flesh-hungry creatures; rather, their brains more or less shut down, locking their bodies into place indefinitely, a kind of exacerbated shock syndrome. Spitz’s team is one of many sent in to help renovate NYC for habitation once more, a massive task overseen by the mysterious head office in Buffalo which, with a comical degree of corporate sponsorship and naivete, is trying desperately to reclaim the U.S.
Of course, surprise surprise, things begin to go horribly wrong, and soon enough the team realizes that the zombie threat is far from gone.
But that’s actually sort of beside the point in Zone One. Whitehead seems aware of the limitations of his subject matter; even with all the gore and violence, the focus in this book is character–not only that of Mark Spitz and his team members, but also of New York City itself, the memory of its grandeur and the promise of its rebirth. This is, in a lot of ways, Whitehead’s love song to the Big Apple, which wouldn’t be so bad were it not for the book’s overinflated prose style. Perhaps in an attempt to compensate for the hokiness of the genre, Whitehead writes with wordy passion, employing an annoying degree of poeticism that in certain places really just makes it hard to understand what the hell he’s trying to say. He’s also quite fond of the word “interregnum,” which I guess makes sense in the context of the story, but still: you can’t use that word even once without seeming the least bit showy.
Ironically, one word that never once appears is “zombie.” Again, this is Whitehead acknowledging the history and inherent drawbacks of the genre in crafting legit character-driven fiction, and then finding ways around them. He doesn’t want this to read as a Dawn of the Dead-type horror tale but rather a brutally plausible story about America’s obsession with calamity. The human drive to persevere is rendered frighteningly realistic here; this is the only piece of zombie fiction I’ve ever read that addresses the large-scale psychological impact of such an event: the Buffalo office distributes intricate leaflets on PASD, or Post Apocalyptic Stress Disorder. To be sure, the gore here is second to the deep philosophical panic of extinction; Whitehead is writing about our fixation with post-9/11 catastrophe, and while the journey through Zone One can be bumpy, the destination is very much worth it.
The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
I turned 30 not too long ago, and since then I’ve become disturbingly obsessed with aging. Or so says my girlfriend. Call it a midlife crisis, but at certain milestones in our lives we can’t help but reflect, with a certain level of regret, on what we’ve accomplished so far, the people we’ve become. Not necessarily out of any overt sense of self-hatred or failure (although this is sometimes the case), but mostly because we’re in a position to do so, and because we want to believe that we’re learning from our mistakes, even though there is pretty solid evidence that this doesn’t happen. And nobody seems to understand this better than Julian Barnes.
Our narrator in The Sense of an Ending is Tony Webster, now a middle-aged divorced father. Webster begins by laying out for us the story of his friend Adrian, whom he met while in middle school. Adrian was everything that Tony and the rest of the group was not: sophisticated, intelligent, seemingly too advanced for the world. So it’s almost no surprise when Tony discovers decades later that Adrian has committed suicide. What does surprise him is the package he receives in the mail shortly thereafter and his subsequent discoveries about Adrian and their group of friends.
It’s hardly any wonder why The Sense of an Ending, which doesn’t even run 200 pages, won the Man Booker prize: the prose is immaculate, gorgeous, the story fleshed out with grace and the kind of understanding that can only come from a life lived. Plot aside, Barnes’ primary concern here is Tony’s aging, his clumsy attempts to reconcile elements in his past that even the reader knows cannot be reconciled. Tony is, for all intents and purposes, a prick, although he doesn’t know this, not in the way that the reader can see, no, he believes himself to be a swell guy, an honest fellow attempting to figure out what it was that happened between Adrian and a certain ex-girlfriend. His thoughtlessness is both hilarious and a little sad, the result of which is a fantastic story rendered in exquisite prose.