Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Zone One by Colson Whitehead

So a lot was made about literary novelist Colson Whitehead crossing over to genre writing with this zombie novel, and as a result, I had in mind that he'd crossed over to commercial fiction (plot driven, less attention to language, super easy page turner), but it turns out genre and commercial are not equivalent (which is not to say this novel hasn't sold well, it has). In this case, what people really meant by genre, I guess, was it has zombies in it, which it does. But this is far more like zombie realism (Let's just make a note of that term I've invented; I'll say it again: zombie realism) than it is like a science fiction novel. But there again, I guess I'm equating genre writing with commercial writing rather than acknowledging what genre writing really is... a matter of content, not of style. So by content, yes, this is a futuristic, post-apocalyptic, zombie-shooting science fiction novel. But by style, it's very much a Colson Whitehead novel (bit satiric, very finely detailed, absolutely believable). All of which is to say I liked this novel way more than I thought I would; I really really liked it. Also, from here on out, I'm going to try say commercial fiction when I mean commercial fiction (fiction deliberately made accessible in order to reach more readers) and genre fiction when I mean genre fiction (fiction that takes as its subject certain things--a mystery, another planet, etc).

What I really really liked about this novel was all the ways it was different from McCarthy's The Road, which I liked okay but not with the ecstasy that every other reader seemed to feel. Because what I kept thinking when I read The Road was McCarthy did the easy part--make me sad by putting a child in danger--and not the hard part--fill in all the details. Now I get that this was a deliberate choice and McCarthy is very capable of filling in all the details, but it bugged me that the novel was all dialogue and action and almost no reflection and exposition (again I get it, I just didn't love it). But Zone One is pretty much the inverse of The Road, nearly all details, everything filled in. It is the kind of novel in which you recognize yourself (ah, that is how I would act, think, feel) rather than a novel in which you interject yourself (ah, this situation is terrifying, what would I do in this situation). And the first is my preferred kind. Actually The New Yorker has a great article on this subject this week, on how for certain types of readers, the concept is all they need--they need Middle Earth to exist more than they need Frodo to exist--because they want to write themselves into the story. Anyway, in this zombie novel, the zombies are mostly off-stage and the main character's reflections and memories are centered in the midst of a finely detailed new world. And the new world and the zombies themselves clearly become a commentary on our world and us... like this:

"In the time before the flood, Mark Spitz had a habit of making his girlfriends into things that were less than human. There was always a point, sooner or later, when they crossed a line and became creatures: following a lachrymose display while waiting in line for admission to the avant-garde performance; halfway into a silent rebuke when he underplayed his enthusiasm about attending her friend's wedding. Once it was only a look, a transit of anxiety across her eyes in which he glimpsed some irremediable flaw or future betrayal. And like that, the person he had fallen in love with was gone. They had been replaced by this familiar abomination, this thing that shared the same face, same voice, same familiar mannerisms that had once comforted him. To anyone else, the simulation was perfect."

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