A very fine zombie novel, maybe the best one yet, Zone One takes place during three days late in a zombie apocalypse. Zombies (never named as such, always called "the dead", or "skels") have overrun most of the world and devoured the majority of the human race.
The main character, "Mark Spitz" (a nickname; we never learn his real name) works on a team of soldiers clearing out Manhattan, renamed the titular Zone One - "obviously, sightseeing had taken a hit over the past few years" (73). They work through city buildings room by room, exterminating any leftover zombies, helping prep the area for eventual resettlement. North of their "sweeping" stands a giant wall across the island, from which soldiers rain down fire upon a fairly steady stream of invading zombies. New York is a magnet for human stagglers from around the northeast, a safe haven and place for action. America, led by a new government in Buffalo, is getting ready for rebirth.
Alongside this martial action in the present, half of the book is flashbacks and stories. Indeed, a major theme of Zone One is the role of memory, its fragile construction and the doomed passion with which we hang on to it. Whitehead seeds the novel with hints of the past, returning to each one later, fleshing out main and secondary characters. This focus is one way the book seems to reach out beyond the zombie subgenre.
The world is very well realized through these frequent detours into the past. We also see the many ways America reinvents itself, from a new anthem/theme song to corporate donations to a pervasive armadillo logo. Additionally, Whitehead has fun inventing terms and nicknames: skels, for zombies; stragglers, the malfunctioning and poignant living dead; the American Phoenix, a kind of rebranding/imposed social movement for post-zombie reconstruction (adherents are "pheenies"); Last Night, the zombie onset; PASD, Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder; No-no Cards, helpful behavioral instructions from the new government. The satire is grim, reminding me of Margaret Atwood in her post-apocalypse trilogy.
Speaking of satire and style, Whitehead's prose is a pleasure to read, combining sensual details, a wry eye, and rich (for the subgenre) language. For example,