That grim humor slithers through most of this novel, along with touches of Whitehead’s topical satire: Even when their lips are eaten off, New Yorkers are still cursing the traffic. As the “necrotic multitudes” descend on one doomed office, a disciplined administrator looks around his desk for the proper form to record a casualty. The remnants of a national government holed up in Buffalo work on “rebranding survival” along the lines of President George W. Bush’s “go shopping” response to Sept. 11. And the whole industry of corporate-sponsored optimism — profiteering even in the final moments of life on Earth — gets flayed in these wry pages.
The climate of sorrow makes some of this a fairly mirthless parody. After Gary Shteyngart’s exuberant satire of consumer culture in the dystopian future of “Super Sad True Love Story,” Whitehead’s riffs on the superficiality of social media or the ubiquity of Starbucks seem tired. Mark’s soul-weariness infects the tone and pace of the novel, too, which offers more eulogy than suspense. Whitehead borrows bloody chunks from Romero’s gore fest, but he’s stingy with the thrills. There are only a couple of good zombie battle scenes to get the heart pumping. The spine-tingling progression we expect is repeatedly interrupted by the narrator’s aimless chronology and memories of Mark’s previous life. Some of these flashbacks are particularly effective, such as the night Mark walked into his parents’ bedroom. (Hint: Freud’s primal scene is transformed into a zombie primal scream.) But other sections of the novel seem aimless. Whitehead’s previous book, the autobiographical “Sag Harbor,” didn’t have much momentum either, but it sparked with linguistic energy and its chapters worked charmingly as short stories. The pieces of “Zone One,” alas, are not so animated. There are — forgive me — too many dead spots.