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.’’
Post-apocalyptic novels require a lot of lean, quick exposition - or, at minimum, the promise of it - in order to answer the many questions a reader will be justified in asking: What sort of disaster has happened here? What year is it? Who are the bad guys? Who are the good guys? What are the ground rules? Whitehead is quick to inform us that Spitz performs the role of a “sweeper,’’ patrolling desolate streets and mowing down zombies. Apart from his assigned duties, Spitz is a free-floating entity who exists in a netherworld stripped of fear and yearning. By around page 40, the closest thing we have to an animating desire is the knowledge that Spitz wouldn’t mind a new pair of socks. It’s a strangely passive character around which to organize a story, and it is with Spitz that the book’s trouble originates.
For a novel concerned with bone-crunching hellions, “Zone One’’ is a curiously slow read. It is tricky to pull off long set pieces and intricate descriptions of weather in any book, even if they are executed with the elegance and skill of a writer like Whitehead. Readers of Whitehead’s “The Colossus of New York’’ won’t be surprised by the pleasures of his language. His sentences are uncommonly perfect, his similes startling and delightful: new buildings “shak[e] off the past like immigrants’’; a klatch of zombies descend upon a man “like ants who received a chemical telegram about a lollipop on the sidewalk.’’ No lazy word or pat description finds its way into the pages. Still, a funny conundrum arises in “Zone One’’ as we are presented with words that are fantastic and motionless at the same time. A 2 1/2-page dream sequence is a fine thing if the dreams contain a scent of forward momentum, but Spitz’s are both mundane and pointlessly lyrical. “The only unsettling thing about the dream,’’ that section concludes, “was that he’d never taken a yoga class in his life.’’ The banal dreams of other people are tedious enough to entertain in real life - why replicate the experience in a novel?
Spitz is the problem. Spitz, whose grayscale personality has the effect of making his situation seem dreadfully low-stakes, throws a damper on the book’s potential energy. Gore-spouting corpses and narrow escapes are only exciting if something is on the line, and our main character - whose reactions tend toward variations on “huh?’’ - is a man sunk in traumatized resignation. The situation (zombie invasion) may be high stakes, but the events themselves (poking around a chain restaurant, waiting for the rain to let up, shooting different kinds of zombies) are not. “He missed shame and guilt and a time when something higher than dumb instinct directed his actions,’’ Whitehead writes. It is beautifully stated, yes, but a character left only - or mostly - with dumb instincts is not a character well-poised to trap a reader’s heart. Or, indeed, her attention.
“Zone One’’ is a frustrating book to spend time with. Its strengths (the sentences) and weaknesses (the underseasoned Spitz) are equally conspicuous. Whitehead writes with all the brilliance and daredevilry of a natural - of somebody who grew up addicted to reading and discovered, one day, that he could perform the same magic as the authors he loved. But good writing needs good storytelling, and good genre fiction needs a sharp plot. Without these things, it just feels like people-watching.