by Colson Whitehead
For the past year or so, I’ve been reading and reviewing all of these zombie novels with the caveat that “I’m not a zombie fan.” While it’s true that I’ve never seen any of the classic films, I think it’s time to admit that I AM a zombie fan. (But please don’t chip away at my vampire denial.) I’ve read take after take on the end of the world, and each one is compelling in its own way. There’s something elemental in the horror of an end by zombies. Do I believe this could ever happen? Absolutely not. But in the hands of a talented writer, anything is believable. All is believable. Perhaps I am too willing with my suspension of disbelief, but this is the stuff of nightmares.
Much has been made of this “literary” foray into the horror genre. In addition to being a zombie fan, I am also a fan of literary fiction, and I love that serious writers are now being allowed to practice their craft on a broader range of genres and are exploring plot-driven stories in addition to character-driven fiction. This is a win/win trend for both readers and writers. Ironically, reading this beautifully-written exploration of the apocalypse made me reflect less on how good it was, but more on how good a lot of the zombie novels I’ve been reading have been. (Sophie Littlefield’s Aftertime Trilogy in particular comes to mind.) There’s just something deeply touching in these fights for survival, and I think a lot of apocalyptic writers are really plugging into something powerful and profound.
Certainly I count Colson Whitehead among their number. Whitehead’s tale centers on a character identified only by his nickname, Mark Spitz. Want to know why he’s called that? Read the book. As the novel opens, the worst has passed. The zombie plague has come, many have died, and society is taking its first baby steps towards rebuilding. Mark Spitz’s tale is told in a non-linear fashion, as he attempts to move forward despite suffering PASD (because the world has moved beyond “post-traumatic” to “post-apocalyptic” stress disorders). As he observes the new world around him and performs his duty of putting down zombie stragglers in a reclaimed lower Manhattan, he reflects on what he’s witnessed, who he’s left behind, and on what he’s survived while doing his “cockroach impression.”
Glancing over the reader reviews on Amazon before I sat down to type this, I have to admit that I’m surprised by the harsh criticism that many have brought against the novel. Some had issues with the non-linear nature of the story-telling, some felt it didn’t move fast enough, some thought the author was “showing off” or using “absurdly big words,” some seem to simply hate New York. There were many complaints about the protagonist, and I’ll admit that he’s not a dynamic character. He’s a traumatized everyman chronicling a dying world. Don’t go into this expecting an upper. There are more critical reviews than complimentary, and many of them are thoughtful and articulate. All I can tell you is that I disagree with these criticisms. I read this book in two days, and despite the depressing story told, I didn’t want to put it down. I was very invested in the fates of the primary and secondary characters. Whitehead’s prose was a pleasure to read without being overly ornate or intrusive in any way.
And one last thing—this is one of those rare novels where the author had me hanging on his words until the very last page. And those final words were just so… perfect. They gave me chills. I read them over several times. The end of this novel was amazing, and I simply don’t know how it could fail to impress. But that’s opinions for you. If you’re prepared to read a heavy, disturbing, and, yes, horrific tale, I’d highly recommend this novel. But you might want to survey some other opinions of this polarizing book before you take my word on it.