“I did have to give myself permission because zombies were so popular,” Whitehead told NPR about taking on a horror theme that can be seen in everything from AMC’s popular TV show “The Walking Dead” to Seth Grahame-Smith's 2009 parody “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” soon to be a movie. “But I think the idea is that if it's good, people read it. So all I could do is really salute my childhood influences and try to do the best I could in reinvigorating the genre, putting a new spin on it.”
If reviews are any indication, it’s a satisfying spin. The new book by Whitehead, author of books including "Sag Harbor" and "The Colossus of New York" and a 2002 recipient of a MacArthur grant, is titled “Zone One” and will be released tomorrow. In Whitehead’s new novel, society collapsed when zombies (called skels in this world) took over, but now the survivors are determined to take back the city of New York. Groups called “sweepers” are sent into Manhattan to roam the area and kill any skels they encounter; our hero Mark Spitz is one of them.
Whitehead said he was a fan of movies like “Escape From New York” and “Planet of the Apes” growing up and that “Zone One” is an homage to movie depictions of a post-apocalyptic New York.
“I wanted to cut back on the Whole Foods lines and make it easier to get a cab for my main characters,” he said about his decision to destroy New York in his interview with NPR. “If you get rid of 90 percent of the population, life gets a bit easier in the city.”
Reviews for the novel have so far been mainly positive, with many writers praising Whitehead’s fresh take on the subject matter.
“When a Macarthur Fellow takes a whack at zombie lit, you know the neighborhood has gentrified,” James Kennedy wrote in an article for the Wall Street Journal. “But Mr. Whitehead comes by zombies honestly – he riffed memorably on Romero's zombies in his last novel, ‘Sag Harbor’… an astute and often suavely ironic explorer of race in America, Mr. Whitehead is clearly aware of the subtle racial legacy of zombie stories, but what truly drives 'Zone One' is a sincere love of the genre.”
Patrick Ness of The Guardian praised Whitehead’s character development.
“These are real, three-dimensional characters fighting for their lives, for the future.” Ness wrote of Mark Spitz and the other members of his sweeper team. “And, what a surprise, that makes this zombie story rather affecting.”
Molly Driscoll is a Monitor contributor.