Dystopian futures and apocalypse literature aren’t really my thing. I haven’t read The Handmaid’s Tale, The Maze Runner series, or The Fifth Wave. Brave New World left a bitter taste in my mouth. Fahrenheit 451 left me cold. It’s the sense of doom looming behind me for the day after I finish that gives me the squiffies. Presentiment aside, this book is very well done. Whitehead’s writing is on a level with any piece of contemporary literature, with all the connotations the l-word typically implies. He’s written the pithy, man’s-search-for-meaning novel, coated it with a thick layer of meticulous fondant, and then thrown in zombies. That wasn’t the cake I expected. The other thing I wasn’t expecting (caution: may contain spoilers) was Mark Spitz. Mark Spitz is the everyman for the average joe. Super average. You are nearly at the climax of the novel before Whitehead specifies that Spitz is black. I thought that was very well played, because you start out reading a novel that hasn’t talked about race. So when you find out he’s black it forces you to realize you’ve spent the past 200 pages mindlessly picturing Mark Spitz as a white guy. Why wouldn’t he be? It doesn’t specify his race in the blurb, so obviously he’s white. He’s aggressively representative of the typical American, and we all know the typical American is white. It’s always disappointing to find Surprise! Racism! in something you’re reading and realize it’s only there because you brought it in with you. At least if you know where it is you can get rid of it. And realizing Whitehead most likely wrote Zone One that way so the reader would have that epiphany impressed me immensely.
As befits the standard zombie apocalypse offering, there’s a fair bit of gore and violence peppered throughout the book. Rape gets mentioned, but not described or perpetrated within the timeline of the book, which was a pleasant surprise for me. Realistic female characters populate the grim refuges, although Zone One still fails the Bechdel test because no two of them have a conversation. It’s close, once or twice. Almost as good as passing the Bechdel test would have been is realizing that I can’t tell you the bra size of a single woman in the story! That discovery filled me with joy. Those women are just regular characters, killing zombies. I want to mail Whitehead a letter and thank him for leaving that out. For deciding that, of the information he selected to describe his four female characters, breast characteristics didn’t need to be included. It’s refreshing.
Whitehead is a talented author and I wouldn’t turn down a chance to read more of his work. He’s made me want to give the zombie apocalypse another chance.