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By Colson Whitehead
Doubleday / Random House
As regular readers know, there's a special quirk to CCLaP's 10-point rating system that maybe a lot of other places don't have; that no matter how good a genre book like science-fiction or crime thriller actually is, in terms of sheer quality, it's not allowed to score in the 9s or above unless it somehow transcends its genre and becomes of interest to a general audience, a rule which I believe makes CCLaP's ratings far more accurate when it comes to any particular random person trying to decide whether or not to pick up any particular random title. So for a genre novel to score a perfect 10 here, as has happened only two or three times in the five years and 700-odd reviews that have been published at CCLaP, means something special indeed -- that it's not only exquisitely done, not only one of the best books ever published in that genre, but is a title that should literally be forced on people who normally hate that genre, the proverbial "one [fill in the blank] book you should read if you only read one [fill in the blank] book a year." And ladies and gentlemen, I have found that next rare genre book to score a perfect 10, ironically by complete accident on the "New Releases" shelf at my neighborhood library; it's called Zone One by Colson Whitehead, and could very well be the very best post-apocalyptic novel since Cormac McCarthy's The Road six years ago.
And indeed, like McCarthy, Whitehead is not a genre veteran but actually an academically celebrated mainstream author, a MacArthur "genius grant" recipient whose most famous novel Sag Harbor (an autobiographical coming-of-age tale about wealthy blacks in 1980s Long Island) is talked about online by its fans in the hushed, revered tones of the religiously faithful. And like McCarthy, this first foray into genre actioners by Whitehead is actually a highly metaphorical tale as well; for by setting it a full ten years after the outbreak of a plague that turned 99 percent of the population into flesh-eating zombies, and by concentrating the story on the efforts to reclaim lower Manhattan as a source of national pride to a deeply shaken population, Whitehead is clearly echoing the real events of 9/11 and the dark chaos of the resulting Bush Era, not from the perspective of those actual years like so much "Bushist" literature in the early 2000s did, but rather from our current Obamian recovery times, a period here in the 2010s when it seems that we are perpetually on the cusp of America devolving into permanent ruin, offset by glimmers of hope and a can-do attitude but by no means with any guarantee yet that we won't be sliding straight into the abyss around every next corner.
And in fact, this is the main issue that makes Whitehead's book so brilliant in the first place, and so profoundly more original and inventive than almost any other zombie story that's ever been written; because by setting the story in a time and place where the majority of the most dangerous "skels" have now all been killed, the novel instead explores the complex ways that the survivors have learned how to cope and even think of the events that transpired a decade previous, and of all the complicated factors that would actually go into rebuilding the country back into a state of normalcy, the novel's first page being where most zombie stories usually end. It's here where Whitehead really shines, offering up literally dozens of little tidbits that will make you think as you're reading, "Oh, that's a smart touch; oh, and that's a smart touch too" -- just for one great example, how the recovery process (being directed from the new national capital in Buffalo, New York) is mostly being funded by corporate interests, with various surviving vice presidents and CEOs giving formal permission as a PR stunt for the growing civilian/military population in the semi-safe "Zone One" of lower Manhattan to "officially loot" this or that specific brand or product from the hundreds of abandoned stores around them, and with a thinly-veiled Disney being the official supplier of the new zombie-proof armor of this post-disaster world, all the helmets now emblazoned with a gun-toting, cigar-chomping Mickey Mouse on the side.
And why does this growing population in Zone One bother following these kinds of regulations over what can and cannot be "officially" looted in the first place? Well, because following rules is one more detail that makes things feel like they're finally getting back to normal -- hell, just the fact that there actually are rules again in the first place -- which is yet another brilliant thing that Whitehead has done here, is pay mere lip service to the usual fantastical Mad-Max scenarios that most other post-apocalyptic novels offer up. For example, through extensive flashbacks that pepper this entire manuscript, Whitehead makes it clear that literally thousands of little fiefdoms, communes, warrior tribes, militia compounds and slave plantations actually did arise in the aftermath of his apocalyptic event; but he also makes it clear that nearly all of them collapsed of their own volition mere months later, and that the vast majority of the population quickly reverted back to normalcy and decency because that's what most human beings are, normal and decent -- that this is how we get even the definitions of terms like these, because most humans are simply hardwired in their DNA to act in a normal and decent way, and that the minority who aren't pretty much all died at each other's hands not even a year after this state of anarchy was established in the first place. And just to make it clear, there's literally a dozen more pages of these kinds of insights I could point out in this review but won't, concerning everything from race and class to why most of us both love and despise effective marketing, just an incredibly intelligent story but one that absolutely does not skip on the usual firefights, rotting flesh, and heart-pounding excitement you expect from genre actioners.
But even with all this, what truly makes Zone One an instant classic is its unforgettable ending, the details of which I won't spoil but let's just say now stands as one of the most emotionally moving catastrof-cks in the entire short history of 21st-century literature. And again, Whitehead uses this not just to offer a thrilling, fanboy-satisfying conclusion but to make a metaphorical statement about our own times, a pretty devastating one at that -- that as bad as 9/11 and the resulting Bush years were, they're a mere drop in the bucket to the looming disasters still to come in this country, as it becomes more and more undeniable that the United States as a hegemony has finally and fully reached its "Fall of the Roman Empire" moment in the larger picture of world history, and that all the "Yes We Can" posters, "Detroit Pride" commercials and Starbucks "Let's Create Jobs" bracelets in the world won't amount to a damn bit of difference when all is said and done. And that's because like every hegemony in history, from the Romans thousands of years ago to the British Empire right before us, America has grown insolvably lazy, stupid and corrupt because of its role as undisputed and unstoppable global champions; and that just like the pagan barbarians that eventually overran the Roman Empire no matter how much money or how many soldiers they threw at the problem, the only destiny possible for a "F-CK YEAH U-S-A!" is a bitter, violent and humiliating total collapse on the world stage, a series of disasters just around the corner that will make 9/11 look like a freaking tea party.
That's a hell of a statement for Whitehead to symbolically make, but may turn out to be the most prophetic one you'll hear all year; and by making such a pronouncement not in the middle of the Bush years when things seemed at their worst, but at an Obamian point of optimism about the future, Whitehead differentiates himself for the better from The Road and all the other dour Bushist novels that came out last decade, daring to look unblinkingly into the gaping maw of Downfall right at a time when it is politically incorrect (at least among academic liberals of color) to do so. It's for all these reasons combined -- the keen insights, the powerful metaphors, the simultaneous embrace of potboiler genre conventions, the poetic style, the unexpected conclusions -- that Zone One today becomes the first book of 2012 to receive a perfect score at CCLaP; it's an unforgettable novel, destined to become a landmark of our well-meaning but deeply flawed Obamian Age, and it comes strongly recommended even if you normally despise zombie stories.
Out of 10: 10