This week a friend took me to my first Talking Volumes event: Colson Whitehead spoke with Kerri Miller about his new book Zone One last Thursday at the Fitzgerald Theater in downtown St. Paul. To prepare, I bought an electronic version of Whitehead’s new genre masterpiece (for $12.99!) a few days before the event, thinking that I could probably zip through a book about zombies, no problem.
In fact, I have yet to finish the book; the prose is sticky and thick, much like I imagine it would be walking through a field of the undead. This is going to sound dumb, I know it, but it’s the truth—Zone One is the thinking man’s zombie novel. I sort of knew this before going to Talking Volumes, but again, I hadn’t made it too far into the book, and had focused more on what Stephen Elliott had to say about Glen Duncan’s review than what Glen Duncan had to say about Zone One in the New York Times Sunday Book Review. I think I might have been on the right track though with where I was focusing my attention, because as it turns out, what Duncan had to say about Zone One and what Elliott had to say about Duncan’s words were far more interesting than what Whitehead had to say about his own book.
True, it was my first visit to Talking Volumes—a joint effort by Minnesota Public Radio and the Star Tribune and in collaboration with The Loft, billing itself as “a book club where the author shows up”—and truer still, I hadn’t finished the book, but I found myself a little bored by the event, and I’m exceptionally bothered by this fact. I had a fantastic seat—we took a box right in the author’s sightline, because whatever swell had reserved it hadn’t shown. I had a couple glasses of wine in me, so the mood was right. I love zombies, books, and authors who like to talk about their zombie books. Still, there was something out of rhythm with the whole event.
Maybe it was that the Fitz was emptier than I had ever seen it, with the main floor dotted with the blackness of empty seats, and the first balcony not even half full. Perhaps it was the slow, electronic take on Zone One by Mrozinski and Nau that interrupted the rhythm of the night. More possible still, I didn’t get what was so funny about what Whitehead was saying. Whether this is due to the fact that I hadn’t read the whole book yet or that I’m just not the audience for Whitehead is up for debate.
While I’m not particularly into genre fiction, nor am I particularly into books that err on the side of the esoteric, I was really looking forward to hearing about why someone would combine the two, and what new things could come of this endeavor. However, judging by his answers to Kerri Miller’s hoarse line of questioning, Whitehead didn’t have anything new to add to the genre. Miller had to ask the author three or four times—with each question phrased a little differently—about his actual intent in writing the book, and after all that time his best answer was about the struggle after 9/11—touching, but trite. During the evening, Whitehead revealed that he has this “annoying necessity to write about a specific thing,” and can’t move on until he does it. I’m going to finish the book because the writing is fantastic, but knowing already that the whole is not greater than the sum of its parts makes the exercise feel nearly as hopeless as sweeping the city for the undead.
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