Audiobook Review: Zone One by Colson Whitehead

20 10 2011

Zone One by Colson Whitehead

Read by Beresford Bennett

Random House Audio

Length: 9 Hrs 57 Min

Genre: Zombie Apocalypse

Quick Thoughts: There is a lot to love about Zone One, brilliant concepts and beautiful writing, yet in the end, Zone One was a novel I appreciated much more than enjoyed.

Grade: B-

I recently read a scathing blog post which the writer says she’s tired of zombies, then goes on to deride the entire genre. She says that all zombie fiction is basically the same thing, Dork Porn where nerds fantasize about "all the dudes that beat them up and girls that didn’t want to date them have been reduced to the sub-human…" She feels qualified to make this assumption based on three movies she saw, and one graphic novel despite the fact she does not name one zombie book she has actually read. Now, as someone who has read 23 zombie novels, this year alone, I can tell you that they are not all the same. I doubt when Mira Grant wrote Feed, it was an attempt to dehumanize all her past enemies. When Jonathon Maberry wrote his YA zombie novel Rot & Ruin, I highly doubt it was akin to Hustler magazine for him.  Sure, a lot of zombie fans and authors are proud members of the geek culture, but many are normal men and women who never owned a comic book nor wore Spock Ears to a convention. Even so called literary authors have embraced the zombie subgenre, with books like Alden Bell’s The Reapers are the Angels and Isaac Marion’s Warm Bodies breaking down the barriers between zombie fans and fans of great writing. This blogger goes on to say that her fatigue of zombies has kept her from reading Colson Whiteheads newest book Zone One, despite the fact that he is obviously a writer she enjoys, based solely on the fact that it is about Zombies. So I am going to do a favor for her and reveal that Zone One is not Dork Porn. It is a unique look at society trying to bring itself back from ruins, and yes, the ruin was caused in part, by zombies.

Zone One is about Mark Spitz, a survivor of the zombie apocalypse now working as a sweeper in Manhattan, clearing his teams designated zone of the undead. There is a lot to love about Zone One. Whitehead builds a unique world that was fascinating. He has also created an interesting twist on zombie lore, with a small percentage of the undead classified as "stragglers," zombies who don’t chase down humans looking for a snack, but hover in one place seemingly performing mundane tasks. I like that Mark Spitz’s team seems to have more trouble with the government bureaucrats in Buffalo than from the zombies themselves. All these concepts I found brilliant, and the writing was quite beautiful at times, yet as a whole the novel never came together for me. Zone One is told in an almost stream of consciousness style that took you into Mark Spitz’s rambling non-linear mind.  The story jumped around quite a bit, which it made it hard to follow, especially in audiobook form where page breaks, and transitions are not as obvious.  The other issue was that Whitehead goes into a lot of detail about how Mark Spitz was a boring man, mediocre in every way, and then went on to prove that fact by never really allowing us to even want to connect with this character. Zone One was a novel that I appreciated much more than I enjoyed. I think it’s possible that I just missed a lot of the point of the novel, because I had a lot of trouble following the overall timeline. This is a novel that I feel would be much better in the written form where someone can concentrate more on the story.

I think another aspect that had me less than enthused was the narration. Now, Beresford Bennett has a lovely voice, but I feel he struggled finding the overall rhythm of the writing. It’s hard to judge the reading of such a stylized non-linear novel without actually seeing the printed word, but I felt that the fluidity of  his reading, while not monotone, just rarely changing pace, made it harder to follow the narrative transitions. I would have loved to see what a younger narrator, like JD Jackson, who is quite skilled in finding a book’s rhythm would have done with a novel like Zone One. I am quite happy that I listened to Zone One, for its overall themes and concepts, and I enjoyed the experience, but it really never truly came together for me. Perhaps, this is more due to my weaknesses as a reader falling victim to Whitehead’s style.



5 responses

20 10 2011
Book Riot (@BookRiot)

Good review – thanks for joining the conversation!

20 10 2011
Books are my Boyfriends

It was not scathing, it was cranky and mostly joking and I was very clear that it was my own subjective experience and that I didn’t speak for the majority of viewers/readers, only myself. I never claimed to have a Ph.D in the genre, all I did was document and share my experience with some specific examples. I get that it makes a better rebuttal if you make me sound both angry and ignorant, but I’m neither of those things, I’m smart and grouchy. Plus you gave this audiobook a B-, I’m not chomping at the bit to spend hours listening to a B-. Try me again with an A.

20 10 2011

Well, my purpose wasn’t to get you to listen to Zone One, my purpose was to explain that Zone One didn’t fit into your view point of Zombie novels. In fact, I would venture a guess that you may very well enjoy it more than I did.

I will stand by the fact that it was scathing. Anytime you choose to evaluate the genre by attacking it’s fans even in a funny manner, it seems more than just good fun. I agreed with some of what you say, and disagree with more, but I believed I attacked your words and not you.

20 10 2011
Samuel Montgomery-Blinn

1. Looking forward to the novel, but I’m not sure I won’t just read the book vs. the audiobook; monotone, off-rhythm narrations are not really my cup of tea, and particularly for books with timeline jumps (Embassytown for example was very hard to follow timeline wise in audio) they do get hard to follow in audio.
2. re: “I recently read a scathing blog post which the writer says she’s tired of zombies,” At first I thought you were talking about a blog post of Colson’s, and calling him a “she” 🙂 due to “the writer”. That was a confusing mis-read on my part for a good while.

20 10 2011

Very difficult to really enjoy an audio when the narration just doesn’t do it for you. Thanks for linking up!

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