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Another fine mess

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Zone One: A Novel - Colson Whitehead Whitehead has a new novel. . . and it's about zombies? Holy CROD!

Note to Whitehead fans: a great series of articles by CW on his entry into the World Series of Poker is up at Grantland.

Okay! this is for some pals -- less a full review than a(n unsatisfying) articulation of why this was my least favorite of Whitehead's novels. Mind you, "least favorite of Whitehead's novels" is like "least effective milkshake" or "weakest Elvis Costello album"--even at the bottom of the rankings you get a tasty fat-addled sludge or "God's Comic". . . .

now I'm dead, now I'm dead, now I'm dead, now I'm dead, now I'm dead. . . .

And Zone offers many (trademark) Whitehead pleasures: a sideways melancholic/acidic assessment of the culture it portrays (and the culture that culture obliquely echoes); sentences like great pop singles, that you want to keep re-hearing, 'cause who cares about the album?; an emotional resonance that surprises given the potential detachment of his ironic recreations of familiar tropes (here zombies, previously noir, and '70s middle-class life, and mass-media America, and...)

It's a good, and never less than delightful, novel. It may be a fantastic Whitehead gateway drug. (You like the shakes at McDonald's? well then you gotta try....).

I got hung up on how familiar some aspects were. Partly the genre reboot: where The Intuitionist deployed the tics and tactics of hardboiled noir, it was a dizzy deconstruction, too--not some bullshit transcending but the fan's loving re-imagination. (In that novel, elevator inspectors instead of detectives--and that's just the first of its remixed rhythms.). Zone, however, is a more straightforward cover: maybe it's me, but even if a little more structurally ambitious and a lot more tonally subtle, this novel never steps out from under the big shadow cast by Romero. Even the very evocative melancholy of this novel seems indebted to George's zombieverse. (And this novel probably suffered in comparison to Daryl Gregory's recent Raising Stony Mayhall, which seemed to reinvent the mythology, regenerated genre tropes.)

But the familiarity that nagged the most at me was peculiar to CW's stuff. The protagonist is somewhat detached from life, a sharp observer and under-(or just un-)achiever, a guy buffeted about by the novel's context, less a plot-mover than a sort-of passive Avatar of Mass-cultural (Black, Upper-Middle-Class) Man. After his first novel's more knotty central agent (the inimitable Lila Mae), every Whitehead antihero seems cut from the exact same cloth. I kept feeling like a Whitehead character had wandered into the zombie apocalypse--but had wandered through it, unchanged. (Nor was the view of that landscape altered--we almost could have stayed in Sag Harbor.).

This critique is probably peculiar to the long-time fan:I know, and adore, this writer so very much (and am probably equally tough about the tropes of horror, of which long-time-fan, as well) . . . I probably wished that I'd been pushed harder, given new tools to see what I love about him and about horror.

But, still: a tasty milkshake.