The zombie genre provides unlikely inspiration for the author’s creative renewal.
Whitehead (Sag Harbor, 2009, etc.) never writes the same book twice, though his eclectic output had fallen short of the promise he flashed in his early novels (The Intuitionist, 1998, etc.). Yet here he sinks his teeth into a popular format and emerges with a literary feast, producing his most compulsively readable work to date. Though there’s enough chomp-and-spurt gorefest to satiate fans of the format, Whitehead transforms the zombie novel into an allegory of contemporary Manhattan (and, by extension, America), where “it was the business of the plague to reveal our family members, friends, and neighbors as the creatures they had always been” and the never-explained apocalypse “sentenced you to observe the world through the sad aperture of the dead, suffer the gross parody of your existence.” The reader’s guide through this particular circle of hell is a clean-up/extermination operative called Mark Spitz (for reasons that aren’t worth the elaborate explanation the novel eventually gives). He was formerly employed as a social-network functionary for a Starbucks-style coffee chain, an occupation that seems even more ludicrous in the wake of a society transformed by hordes of organ-eating zombies. (A colleague’s former occupation was “a sommelier at a high-end eatery in Cambridge that specialized in offal.”) With its savage sense of humor and thematic ambitions, the narrative is to contemporary zombie novels what the movies of George Romero are to other zombie flicks. As survivors of the “Last Night” struggle through “PASD, or Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder," the government (located in Buffalo) peddles hope in the form of its “American Phoenix Rising” campaign, with its own power-ballad anthem: “Stop! Can You Hear the Eagle Roar? (Theme from Reconstruction).” When the protagonist was a child, he asked his father the meaning of the word “apocalypse.” His father replied, “It means that in the future, things will be even worse than they are now.” And, sure enough, they are.
The latest from a generation of literary novelists who are erasing the distinction between art and pulp.