The difference between genre and literary fiction is easy to define. Great literary fiction can be great for a number of reasons, but every work of great genre fiction is great for one: a killer story. Dabbling in genre fiction is a dangerous thing for a writer to do. This is not a judgment about it in either direction; it’s simply an observation that those best at it tend not to be dabblers. When a novelist like Colson Whitehead tries on genre fiction for size, he knows exactly what he is getting into. He knows that he must, among other things, spin a gripping yarn.
“Zone One’’ is a zombie novel set over the course of three days in a dystopian Manhattan. A plague has swept the world and extinguished nearly all life from the island; only pockets of soldiers and the odd survivor remain. Those infected turn into one of two kinds of monster: catatonic souls (“stragglers’’) who drift about in stages of advanced rot but pose no threat to humans, and traditional gore-oozing, flesh-eating zombies. At the center of the mess is Mark Spitz, an oddly named individual of “unrivaled mediocrity’’ whose exposure to the plague begins when he walks in on his mother gnawing her husband’s intestines. Spitz’s state of fuzzy passivity might be attributable to the after-effects of such a memory if Whitehead didn’t assure us, to the contrary, that his character has always been an unexceptional, passionless type of person - a guy “constitutionally unaccustomed to enthusiasm.’’