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Colson Whitehead: Not even literary fiction is safe from zombies.

October 31, 2011

What’s your costume for Halloween? The esteemed literary novelist Colson Whitehead, who will be at the Miami Book Fair, is going as a horror writer.

Zone One, Whitehead’s new novel, is set during a three-day clean-up operation after the military has already wiped out most of the living dead teeming in the streets of Lower Manhattan.

Visit the Miami Book Fair International website to see the glittering author list (Roseanne Cash! Jeffrey Eugenides! Nicole Kraus! Michael Ondaajte! Hundreds more! Literally!). This year’s fair runs Nov. 13-20. More details to come. Watch this space!

Whitehead is best known as a gifted literary novelist, thanks to four previous novels and a highly regarded nonfiction book. His first novel, The Intuitionist (1999) , came out when he was only 31 and earned many accolades, including best first novel of the year from Esquire magazine.

No less a high-brow scribe than John Updike called The Intuitionist “strikingly original” and anointed Whitehead a writer “to watch.”  Since then, he’s fulfilled that promise, with each succeeding book receiving rave reviews.

Why, then, would such an esteemed younger novelist decide to slum through one of the genres, especially one with such limited possibilities as the zombie-apocalypse thriller? Hordes of living dead lurch in pursuit of a small group of human survivors.

Zombies get shot in the head. Humans get eaten alive. The End.

Plus, zombies are suddenly everywhere, from Danny Boyles’ movie 28 Days later to the brilliant spoof Sean of the Dead to Max Brooks’ bestselling book World War Z to the surprise hit AMC show, The Walking Dead. Movies, comic books, YA thrillers. Zombies are the new vampires — the cliche that would not die.

The obvious reason a writer like Whitehead would turn to such a chewed-over horror genre is money and Whitehead — nothing if not self-aware — jokes about having a mortgage (though in a slightly different context) in this New York Magazine interview.

Before we damn Whitehead as a sell out, however, two points: 1) Who cares if Whitehead is writing to make money (imagine that, a writer making a buck!) or, more genteelly, to expand his audience, so long as the result is well wrought and entertaining?

And 2) Whitehead may be attracted to the opportunities for social commentary, satire, or deeper meaning afforded by the familiar tropes of the zombie story. After all, George Romero, inventor of the modern zombie tale with his exploitation film Night of the Living Dead and its several sequels, used it to good effect to represent racial tensions and the dehumanizing effects of mass-market consumerism.

Reviews of Zone One are promising. The Los Angeles Times, in a more thoughtful review than the usual zombie novel receives, says “Whitehead’s zombie universe is a much more tragic and undeniably more human place.”

The New York Times review, written by Glenn Duncan (who knows a few things about mingling high and low art in the horror genre) is downright unrestrained in its praise, calling Zone One “a cool, thoughtful and, for all its ludic violence, strangely tender novel, a celebration of modernity and a pre-emptive wake for its demise”

What really raises my hopes for the book — I haven’t seen it yet, by some mischance — can be found in Whitehead’s published comments on his love of horror movies and fiction growing up in the 1970s and ’80s. I mean, really, we all swim in the cesspool of popular culture, which explains Quintin Tarantino, and we lie if we claim not to love some of it.

Whitehead is honest, citing  such adolescent faves as Twilight Zone, Clive Barker, H.P. Lovecraft, George Romero, Dario Aregento, Hammer horror– hey! I love those, too!

“I grew up as a horror fan,” says Whitehead in an interview, “It was those influences that made me want to be a writer, to sit at home and make up stuff all day.”

Sold. Now I can’t wait to get my hands on this book.

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