Colson Whitehead Takes Smack for Zone One

I don’t know what it is about public libraries and their ability to draw the wackaloon factor, but when a writer does a reading at a library, something unexpected always seems to happen—at least in my experience. In February, I decided to go see Colson Whitehead’s reading and Q-and-A for Zone One, his newest genre-bending novel about the post–zombie apocalypse in Manhattan. Zone One has been described as a “thinking man’s novel about zombies,” and while I’m not crazy about the descriptor, I was anxious to read a literate take on zombies.

There’s not a lot of good zombie lit out there. Stephen King’s Cell and Max Brooks’s World War Z shine, but I’ve found most of zombie lit to be a wasteland, where the major plot point becomes the living women who are forced to become sex slaves for the surviving male population. Is this the best we can come up with for the end of the world?

Whitehead’s zombie apocalypse is much more civilized, where teams are mobilized by a centralized government in Buffalo, New York (which the author admits he has never visited), and corporate sponsors step in immediately, taking over just about where they left off pre-apocalypse. Whitehead’s zombie nightmare also has very different types who survive the apocalypse. Manhattan is a beacon for ambitious types from all over the world, and you would think that it would be the tenacious Wall Street traders and fashion flacks who would survive the chaos. Surprisingly, it is the meek who inherit the earth in Zone One. They’re the only ones who can handle it.

Going by what I overheard from the sixtyish Park Slope couple behind me who had come out for the reading based on name factor alone, I was expecting a low-key event. This was the Colson Whitehead who had won a MacArthur Fellowship, after all. Thankfully, the library wackaloons did not disappoint. There’s always one in the audience, and authors who do public library readings and especially Q-and-A’s are my heroes. I think they have to know what they are getting into; it’s a trial by fire that only the strong survive.

The reading had gone well, and there was a little back-and-forth going on between the host and Whitehead about how the book came to be, zombie anxiety dreams, and so on. Then the talk was opened up for questions from the audience. This is always when it gets interesting. As soon as a microphone was being walked around, a man in the front row of the auditorium lurched for it. He argued some points that had been made in the general discussion and then got right into it about Zone One. “I was fortunate enough to get an advance readers copy, and I was eagerly looking forward it, but when I was reading it I got the sense that I…had read basically the same novel before by another writer and that writer was Richard Matheson who wrote I Am Legend. I felt as I was reading Zone One and then looking back…at Matheson’s work that in main respects you were trying to deal with the same issues, but that back in the fifties, I think, Matheson did a much better job.”

People started heckling the guy right away and a woman wrestled the microphone away from him. Whitehead was good-natured about the criticism, though, and he knew his zombies well. He said, “The first zombie novel is I Am Legend. That’s where the zombie comes from. That’s the master text in terms of fiction. For me, I’m mostly influenced by novels, by the movies of Romero and…28 Days Later and its sequels, so if somebody said that this is the second-best zombie novel after I Am Legend, I’m very happy.”

Ah, you gotta love the library loonies. They bring out the best in everybody.

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