Zone One: Colson Whitehead's Modern Day Classic

Zone One: Colson Whitehead's Modern Day Classic

Beautiful prose, complex narrative, and zombies.

Colson Whitehead (who has expressed disdain that his celebrity look-alike appears to be "that creepy teacher" from season 1 of The Killing) is the author of 6 major novels, including the critically acclaimed "The Underground Railroad."

He writes as a literary author, or as Glen Duncan, author of the New York Times's article " A Plague of Urban Undead in Lower Manhattan," someone who, "writes with the intent of using more complex forms of language to express difficult ideas and who expects the reader to take time to follow the complexities incorporated in the author's work."

That's what makes "Zone One" so interesting. Clearly a piece with all the trademarks of a sci-fi, the novel has a persistent complexity that is often lacking in genre fiction. Combing genre and literary fiction isn't something commonly seen in the literature scene, and Duncan describes Whitehead's genre-bending as "an intellectual dating a porn star," while also asking the question, "what's in it for the porn-star?" Or, more plainly, why would a literary author write in genre fiction? Toying with the idea of chalking it up to increasing the size of Whitehead's readership, writer Glen Duncan states that "[Whitehead] is always going to have more to [plot] than the dictates of genre allow… we get, in short, an attempt to take the psychology of the premise seriously, to see if it makes a relevant shape."

"Zone One" takes place over three days, though Whitehead takes his readers through a story that spans far past that brief plotline. The novel focuses on Mark Spitz, a sweeper (a part of the new citizen military) tasked with exterminating leftover zombies (termed "skels") from Manhattan.

Spitz is a strict adherent to mediocrity, prone to introversion and flashbacks even in the most intense situations. Existential, poignant, and often tragically longing reflections on society, on the self, and circumstance pervade the novel from beginning to end. As Charlie Anders writes, "'Zone One' shows how life after the zombie apocalypse turns everybody into a kind of zombie." In a Kafkaesque manner, Whitehead manages to establish the hum-drum within a post-apocalyptic world. Survivors are prohibited from looting goods from companies who have not "sponsored" the revitalization effort. While Spitz acknowledges some surely have caches of hoarded loot tucked away within the sweep zones, the climate of the novel conveys a tangible feeling of the burden of bureaucracy, of rules preventing the uninhibited human nature present even within a society with a government that is barely operational.

In one particularly clever analogy, audiences can't help but see the similarities between "stragglers" and survivors. Stragglers are skels that the survivors have established to pose no risk to humans. Instead of attacking humans, they simply stand frozen in place. Spitz reflects on the meaning of these places to the stragglers. Was this someplace important to them, or just perhaps a random spot they managed to find before the virus burned through their nervous systems?

Stragglers come to represent the dangers of "clinging to the past." In fact, the past is brought up again and again. Time to loses meaning as flashbacks blend fluidly into developing situations, leading the audience to experience a sort of second-hand trauma induced Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder (PASD) present within all survivors.

Personally, "Zone One" took me on a not-so-lucid journey through the life of someone managing to eke out a living in a world filled with hostile empty faces, individuals hollowed out by the stress of living, and harrowed, lifeless husks anchored to an arbitrary point in the past, waiting for this life to pass. Whitehead creates an environment where time is not so much linear, but instead acts as a dimension through which the protagonist escorts us as he would a visitor around a house. He gives an incoherent tour, with the smallest details spawning entire pages of digression. Yet this digression seemed particularly relevant; it was the story. Whitehead creates a palpable distance between Spitz and the audience, and transforms this distance to reflect an individual's distance to society, posing the question, "within a societal context, of what importance is the story of the individual?" The horrific and, as always, beautifully written, conclusion to the novel (no spoilers) suggests, quite flatly, that it might not.

"Zone One" was a brilliant, dizzying, and thoroughly devastating novel that poses existential questions not found within the world of genre fiction. The blending of literary and genre work done by Whitehead has been very successful and has resulted in one of my favorite reads.

Cover Image Credit: Morgadu

Popular Right Now

To the guy that shot my brother...


To the guy that shot my brother,

On January 9, 2019 my families entire life changed with one phone call. The phone call that my little brother had been shot in the face, no other details. We didn't need any other details. The woman on the phone who called us in full panic told us where he was so we went, as soon as possible. I don't think it helped that not even 10 min prior I talked to Zach on the phone.. kind of irritated with him, and the ONE TIME I didn't say 'I love you' as we hung up. Could've been the last time we ever spoke.. I remember pulling up to the hospital thinking 'this can't be real' 'it's not our Zach' 'this is just a dream Sarah, WAKE UP' I'd close my eyes really tight just to open them, I was still in the hospital emergency parking lot. I could still hear the ambulance sirens coming. It was all real.

The day our life's changed was definitely a test of faith. A test of how strong we were, as a family. I sat in that waiting room ready to see the damage that has been done to my sweet baby brother. Because at that point we had no idea how lucky he got. That glimpse of seeing Zach will haunt me forever. How helpless I felt in that exact moment frequently wakes me up from these horrific dreams I've been having ever since that day. That is a moment burned into my me and families brain forever.

You always hear about these things in the movies or on the news, a house being shot up, someone shooting another innocent person, not to care if they died on your watch. But we found ourselves on the news.. We have been confined to the hospital since that day. Running on barely any sleep, taking shifts of sleep so we don't make ourselves sick taking care of Zach. Watching him suffer. Undergoing surgeries, to repair the damage you did.

Before I proceed let me tell you a little something about the man you shot.

Zachary Keith Wright. A blonde hair blue eyed boy. Who could potentially be the most annoying human on the planet (possibly coming from his sister). A man who loves his God first, loves his family second. Perfect by no means, but almost perfect to me. A 19 year old who was to graduate high school this month. After graduation he was prepping to leave for Marine boot camp in the summer.. being in the military has been Zach's dream since he could talk. Literally. Running around, playing war with underwear on our heads, and finger guns. Some would say we looked like natural born assassins.. growing up he has been a country boy. Let me tell ya country to the core. He loves this country like he loves his family. He believes in helping people, taking charge in what's right, and never leaving a brother behind. He's lived by that his whole life. Until now....

The day you shot him. The day not only did you change my brothers life, you changed his families life too. The day you almost ripped my brother out of this world... for what? A misunderstanding? Because you've let something take ahold of your life that you can't let go you're willing to kill someone innocent over? Luckily for him, his guardian angels were protecting him in your time of cowardice. There were 3 times that day he should've died, the time you shot him, the time you tried to shoot him again as he stared you directly in the face, (even tho he couldn't talk I know you could read his eyes, and he still intimidated you. That's why you tried to pull the trigger again) and the time he was running out of the house. But he lived. A man who was shot in the face, didn't lay there helpless, didn't scream in agony. That MAN walked to the neighbors to get help. Why? Because he's a MAN, and because he's on this earth for a reason.

It's gonna sound a little strange not only to you, but the audience who is reading this. I must say thank you. Even in this situation, this was the best outcome we could get. He gets to live. He will make a full recovery. He will graduate. And he will go off into the Marines. You united my family together. Closer than ever. Thank you. You tested our faith and brought us closer to our God. Thank you. Because of your moment of weakness, you showed us what prayer could do. Heal anything. Thank you. This was a bump in the road, and a helluva way to kick off our year of 2019. But here we are.. all laying in the hospital. I'm looking around as mom is sleeping in her recliner chair exhasted but still here, Zach his awake playing his xbox all hooked up to machines, fighting to heal and get better. And of course I'm writing this letter to you.

See you in trial,

From the girl whose brother you shot.

'Fight the good fight' - 1 Tim 6:12 🤟🏼💙

Related Content

Connect with a generation
of new voices.

We are students, thinkers, influencers, and communities sharing our ideas with the world. Join our platform to create and discover content that actually matters to you.

Learn more Start Creating

5 Ways You Can Stop Producing so Much Trash

We produce a lot more trash than you think, until you start paying attention to your actions.


One of my major goals this year is to do more to save the planet as well as animals. I have already been vegetarian for three years. and I'm plan to stay vegetarian, but I want to have a more plant based diet. As well, I want to start reducing the amount of trash I produce. Not only because I realize just how drastically our trash is affecting wildlife, but also because I think having to take out your trash twice a week is way too much trash!

1. Bring recyclables to a recycling center or reuse them around the home!


This is something I want to start doing! I always get take out food and throw away the containers, when I could be using those containers to carry my lunch everyday! Also, I want to start collecting my plastic water bottles and taking them to the recycling center on campus instead of just throwing them away

2. Invest in a reuseable water bottle


This would actually fix my water bottle problem. I need to invest in a nice, reuseable water bottle that I can refill, rather than throwing away 3-4 water bottles a day. Amazon has a lot of varieties of these bottles ranging from inexpensive to expensive, cool designs, and even one that holds snacks.

3. Reuseable Straws


This is a great addition to your new reuseable water bottle! Like trash, you don't realize how much you use (and throw away) straw, until you actually start to keep count. I thought i didn't use straws at all because I never bought them in my life, but then you go out to eat (straw), you go to Starbucks (straw). Having a glass straw is actually really useful to reduce your trash, in cases when you wish you had a straw but don't, and sanitary purposes. Those straw sitting out at Starbucks, are they really that clean?

4. Donate old/unwanted clothes


This is something I already do. I go through my drawers and closet once a year, and just put all the clothes I haven't worn all year, or just don't want into a garbage bag. I'm usually able to fill at least one (gallon) garbage bag with clothes to take to Goodwill!

5. Use actual plates instead of paper plates


This is another huge mistake of mine! I hate doing dishes, so I try to buy paper plates to make less dishes, but in the end I'm producing more and more trash! I'm convinced the reason I have to take out my trash so often is because I eat so much! It's time to be a big girl now and start washing my dishes...or start using my dish washer

Related Content

Facebook Comments