Monday, March 31, 2014

My First

If I were drawing up my literary bucket list, Zombie Novel wouldn't be on it. But there's a first time for everything. And how better to dip my toe in the genre than with respected literary novelist Colson Whitehead? So with some trepidation I stepped into Zone One.

The story is set mainly in Manhattan, in the section south of Canal, where the narrator, nicknamed Mark Spitz, is part of a team of three “sweepers” searching for “skels” - short for sleletons. The word zombie is never used, but these skels are the walking dead and they feed on human flesh, so you get the picture. An unexplained plague has struck the world, and those unaffected are attempting to seal off a section of the island as a safe zone, while unnamed powers in Buffalo devise the structure of a new civilization. All survivors suffer from P.A.S.D. (post-apocalyptic stress disorder), but Spitz, a self-proclaimed slacker who was content in his mediocrity, functions better than most because his expectations are low and he views his situation with clear-eyed honesty. And yet, his flashbacks reveal a touching tenderness and sadness for what has been lost.

The story covers just three days. Whitehead's prose may seem over-wrought early in the book, but he is masterful at conveying grim humor, horror and tenderness, with social commentary stirred in. I can't compare this to other zombie novels, but let me just say this - the third day is scary, scary, scary.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

It's Not You, It's Me

Rachel Kushner, your novel The Flamethrowers is beautifully written and deserves the many accolades (including National Book Award finalist) it has received. I admire the power of your prose, the engaging stories your characters tell, the deft weaving of fiction with historical events, the subtle skewering of the art world, the vivid scene you painted early in the novel of the speed trials in the Bonneville Flats.

And I really wanted to like it. I know the problem is mine, not yours. But it just didn't work for me. I'm frequently critical of readers who insist that a good novel must have a character they like, even admire. But I now realize I have my own prejudice. I need to feel engaged. Reno, a young woman from Nevada who enters the New York art scene in the early 70's, is by nature a passive observer. She is acted upon but rarely initiates action. This is not a failure by Kushner – she means for Reno to be a non-judgmental narrator. But this kept me at a distance from her, and I had trouble staying interested.

Sorry, Rachel. I look forward to trying again with you.