I love big words. I have a solid vocabulary, built on the foundation of obsessive reading since childhood. I rarely have to stop and look up words while reading. Although we have dictionaries all over the house, my husband instead often chooses to yell at me “what does X mean?” while he’s reading. But to me there’s a limit, a line between being well-read and being pompous. Which is not to say I don’t enjoy the impossibly big words too. It’s just that they’re too special for everyday usage. Like using Grandma’s fancy china for Sunday dinner, when you take them out everyone’s a little bit stiff and uncomfortable. And let’s face it, they usually come out when company is over and you’re trying to impress someone.
I can’t tell you what word of Zone One first hit a discordant note for me. I think instead it was the general rhythm that felt clunky and ponderous to me. I do remember a vague jarring feeling after the first few pages. It’s the feeling that I would get (I imagine) if I saw a Shakespearean actor starring in a romantic comedy. I was uneasy. I was confused. I thought this was a zombie story.
I don’t mean to imply that zombie stories aren’t smart. Or that smart people don’t read them. Clearly I’m a thinking person and I love zombie apocalyptic mayhem. But with this book I kept thinking what is going on here? We’re busting out the china and we don’t even have visitors coming. When on page 75 defenestration was thrown out there (pun intended), I audibly groaned. Who says that in pre-apocalyptic society? Besides overly literate teenagers having fun placing it in casual conversation. Are we assuming a higher level of erudition in the masses surviving zombie slaughter? We shouldn’t. My guess is the dudes slinging dead zombie bodies out windows would be saying “later motherfuckers!” On that same page came the words (also regarding the defenestration of zombie corpses) “. . .splashing him with ichor and grue.” So hard on the heels of defenestration, these words almost did me in. If I hadn’t just read a review in the New Yorker about Magic Mike XXL, I would have thought the world was ending. Clearly there are no boundaries for the highly articulate.
There is no doubt that Mr. Whitehead is a clever writer. Sadly, his subtle, snarky asides reminded me of a precocious child screaming for attention in a room full of adults. I do not like precocious children. He wants us to see how clever he his. Which, being the contrary person I am, makes me want to ignore him entirely.
So why did I finish the book? Well for one, I’m also stubborn besides contrary. It amounts to a very petulant attitude of You think you’re more clever than me? I’ll show you. And also, as I kept reading I found out just how clever Mr. Whitehead really is. When he’s not trying to show off, his legitimate brilliance eked out. The following paragraph made me stop and say out loud “Now THAT is good writing!”:
“Parenthood made grown-ups unpredictable. They hesitated at the key moment out of consideration for their kid’s abilities or safety, they were paranoid he wanted to rape or eat their offspring, they slowed him down with their baby steps or kept him distracted as he pondered their erraticism. . .The parents were dangerous because they didn’t want your precious supplies. They possessed the valuables, and it hobbled their reasoning.”
THAT is what I want to think about when I think about zombies. I want the humanization of a world filled with unhumans. Tell me what it’s like to live with the undead and survivors. No fancy words required.
Finally, begrudgingly I came to really like this book. I may even read it again, defenestration, ichor and all. By the end I was satisfied with story. It was simple and rang true.
“The world wasn’t ending: it had ended and now they were in a new place. They could not recognize it because they had never seen it before.”