Zone One, the fifth novel from Colson Whitehead (The Intuitionist, John Henry Days, Sag Harbor) takes place after the apocalypse, but its plot is formed from puzzle, not pursuit. Even with bloodthirsty zombies lurking around every corner, Whitehead’s chosen mouthpiece for plague-ridden America dwells on the crushing inevitability of his situation. He’s a morose guard of the new world order.
With the initial zombie infestation, an event known as “Last Night,” having subsided, the northeastern U.S. has brought survivors into refugee camps, encouraging them to help rebuilding efforts under the banner of the “American Phoenix”; nevertheless, suicides are rampant, and 75 percent of Americans suffer from Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder. Zone One’s narrator, nicknamed “Mark Spitz,” is one of them; once a marketing cog and law-school applicant, he ran for his life after seeing his parents infected, and wound up hiding out in toy stores and in trees before being assigned to “sweeper” duty in New York City. Lower Manhattan, known as Zone One, is the first section of New York to be prepared for eventual resettlement, and Mark and his team are tasked with killing and bagging any remaining zombies, or “skels,” still lurking in the high-rises, along with the nonviolent zombies known as “stragglers,” who are doomed to repeat an action from life over and over again.
In spite of the persistent threats of ambushes and bites, Mark (whose real name is never revealed) and his team proceed through New York’s hollowed-out blocks in a steady, suspense-free rhythm, allowing themselves intervals of property damage and petty thievery (both banned by the new centralized government in Buffalo) to liven their toil. Withheld from his fellow sweepers, though, is Mark’s conviction that he’s better off in the futureless America, having outlasted the A students of his former existence, and as ready to abandon his new post at a whiff of danger as when he was on the run. Over the weekend in which Zone One takes place, he wrestles not with how to keep his humanity, but how to jettison it, musing over how to more fully seal himself off from that old life.
Mark claims irony didn’t survive Last Night, but still acknowledges the fulfillment of his childhood dream of living in New York City, now realized within a nightmare of body bags and food rations. Whitehead fills out his world with the mocking jokes of society’s reassembly in the new age and the terrifying tableaux of real-life disasters—the intermittent showers of ash over the sweepers, for instance, directly invoking ground-level views of 9/11—then washes it with a dreamy patina of philosophical quandary. Mark is so committed to his own survival and the new image of himself he’s built that he only raises such questions in his own head. But lacking the potential of the future, he has all the time in the world to ponder them, if the PASD doesn’t get him. The picture that compels him is so utterly bleak, he wishes only to be stranded in the grimy, grinding present.