Zone One by Colson Whitehead
Reviewed by Chris Kammerud
21 October 2011
The zombies have won. After wizards, vampires, and a brief fling with the possibility of werewolves, the results are in. Shaun of the Dead. Generation Dead. The Walking Dead. Zombies vs. Unicorns. Etc. Popular culture has arrived at a point where it craves a monster both overwhelming in number and completely devoid of spirit. Our world, for better or worse, belongs now to the dead and to those that love them. #yay.
Into this perhaps overpopulated landscape comes Zone One, a precise, somber, and elegiac zombie novel by Colson Whitehead. Whitehead—a native New Yorker, avid tweeter, and MacArthur "genius"—sets his apocalyptic proceedings, as have so many novelists, within the toothsome jungle of Manhattan. It has been some time since "Last Night"—the night when the plague struck in full and split humanity into the living and the living dead. Mark Spitz, our hero, has joined with other survivors in venturing to Manhattan as part of a Buffalo-based operation dubbed "The American Phoenix" ("pheenies" being the term applied to true believers by some, such as Mark Spitz, who are more ambivalent about the project's long-term prospects). Among its many strategies of a societal reboot, Buffalo has begun recruiting survival-hardened civilians into teams that will sweep through the island of Manhattan, searching for any "skels" that the initial wave of Marines might have missed. To aid matters, a wall has been built around the area, preventing further entry by any members of the poor, huddled, and plague-ridden masses that yearn to feast freely. This cordoned off area in the heart of Manhattan forms the titular Zone One, the place where America's triumphant rise from the ashes will begin.
Zombies, as opposed to their monstrous brethren, provide something of a blank to the artist who wields them. For the most part (excepting such works as Generation Dead), zombies lack any personality of their own. This lends them to the sort of wide-angle social commentary in which the Edwards and Jacobs of the world generally don't participate (vampires and werewolves being much more attuned to the passions of an individual's heart than a society's ills). With zombies, though, we have the mindless consumers of Dawn of the Dead; the mindless rage of 28 Days Later; and the mindless deluge of information and distraction described in Chuck Klosterman's New York Times essay, "My Zombie, Myself: Why Modern Life Feels Rather Undead." Zone One partakes in the social commentary party as well, but Whitehead has his own particular way of doing things which both dances along and around the familiar steps of most zombie narratives.
For one, the zombies (or dead, or skels, or what have you) in Zone One are not all completely devoid of personality. Some of them—perhaps 1 percent according to Buffalo—are named "stragglers." These dead do not seek out the flesh of the living. Rather, they seek out some place, or moment, or feeling, associated with who they were and what they've lost. In a field, a dead man lives, holding onto the string of a kite that has long since torn itself free. In a law firm a boy stares at a copier, pushing buttons, waiting for something that isn't coming. Mark Spitz does not know whether to pity or hate these things. To think of them as in any way connected to us will hamper his ability to kill them. To hate them, though, Mark Spitz knows, is to hate both himself and the living world. The world wants back the pleasures of civilization and cloud storage. Mark Spitz wants to see a beloved old building, alone out there beyond the wall, reclaimed. Both are stragglers in their way. Both are stuck in some sense on returning things to the way they were.
Secondly, the zombies of Zone One are not the center of the story. Whitehead concerns himself more with the humans, and their attempts at rebuilding a lost world, than he does with the undead's attempts to feed. The survival of our hero, Mark Spitz, for the most part, is not an immediate concern. The world has pushed back. Civilization stirs inside the protected walls of Zone One. There are mad and lovably depressed lieutenants. Debriefings occur in the dining area of a wonton restaurant in Chinatown. Comms occasionally function. Fewer and fewer dead are spotted. The past few days of work for Mark Spitz—his team's sweeps through the mostly empty streets, dropping and bagging "skels" for collection by undertakers and their ringing, formerly tourist-carrying, horse-drawn carriages—have been, according to Mark Spitz himself, "so boring that this could not be the first time he had experienced it" (p. 8).
By removing the focus from the immediate question of whether our hero will make it out of this one, Whitehead gives his narrative more room to explore the shady business of a civilization trying to rebuild itself after a fall. He returns often to the marketing and implementation of the American Phoenix operation, as well as the accompanying "pheenie" optimism that has emerged among believers in the inevitable rebirth of the American dream. There remains, even post-apocalypse, a lingering vein of corporate sponsorship and brand awareness: from the adorably armadillo-branded notebooks provided by a surviving stationery outfit that sweepers use to record the census of the living dead, to the list of approved items—such as a particular brand of juice box—which may be legally looted in the wild. As well, there are the viral stories of hope and myth that spread through the Zone and other camps, of triplets born in a place called Happy Acres, or of an Italian model whose continued existence and gun-wielding skills have become the stuff of legend and frequently passed around pin-ups. Mark Spitz is ambivalent about such hopes and markers of civilization. He longs, like everyone, for a return to what was, but some part of him suspects that—for the world and for himself—there's no going back.
Whitehead relates Mark Spitz's journey from Last Night to Zone One (as well as how he earned his Olympic moniker), in flashbacks that float gracefully in and out of the narrative. We learn, for instance, that as a boy Mark Spitz always wanted to live in New York. His visits to the city with his parents—to catch the latest Broadway show and to stay with his uncle—formed the chrysalis of his growth and transformation into the man we see. In his uncle's apartment, he fed on views of the city skyline. He imagined one day possessing a revolving rack of bosomy women to rival his uncle's. Sometimes, with whomever was his uncle's current accessory, the boy watched old monster movies on TV and dreamed of being the hero.
Zone One works, for much of its time, in this mode of bittersweet nostalgia and elegy for what was. Whitehead sprinkles across his wasteland the poignant ache of those "stragglers." Mark Spitz wanders often in the streets of the city and his memory, lingering, for example, in the modern mausoleum of a familiar, empty, and retro-themed restaurant, touching the red leather seats and silent table-top jukeboxes. And then there are the huge incinerators along Manhattan's wall that burn through the bodies of the dead, throwing up hordes of ash that fall from the clouds, in what Mark Spitz—with his own brand of post-apocalyptic stress disorder (PASD)—imagines as a constant rainfall over Manhattan. It is an image both terrible and lovely, and it evokes, consciously or not, our collective memories of those early hours surrounding the collapse of the Twin Towers when death, literally, rained from the sky.
And yet, one can happily see Whitehead struggling in Zone One with this reliance on the sometimes easy emotional punch of nostalgia and the endurance of an idealized past. There are moments, scattered about, that serve to remind us, and Mark Spitz, of the value and cost of such memory and such hope. Daydreamers tend to be the team-members that lose their fingers to hungry mouths. Mark Spitz, distracted by how much a dead woman's face resembles an old teacher, nearly has his own face chewed off. The myth of Manhattan's return to its past glory becomes problematic as the waves of chaos, kept at bay for some time by the wall, eventually—inevitably—sweep again into Zone One. Within the flashbacks as well, something subtle and ambivalent creeps along, casting aspersions on the idea of an innocent and halo-ed past.
In one extended set of scenes, Mark Spitz falls in love with a woman in a toy store. They eat what they can scavenge and hole up in the winter, watching the dead retreat from the snow. One day, Mark Spitz wanders among the aisles, looking at the plastic swords and BFGs (big, erm, frakkin guns) that populated the store and the imagination of his, and others' youth. He remembers playing and imagining himself as a ruthless hero, cutting down countless hordes of enemy soldiers, aliens, and monsters. He stares at these boxes of plastic for some time, until it occurs to him that the end of the world is his boyhood dream come true.
In recent weeks, we have heard in prime-time debates the audience members cheering for death in an apparent nostalgia for the days of yore, when men were men and justice was decided by whoever carried the biggest BFG. Zone One may not reinvent zombies, but it does push them, as earlier masters of the genre did before, to someplace modern and adjacent: a place ripe for metaphorical and emotional exploit. There are echoes here of the stories and fears surrounding the supposed American (and Western) decline, not to mention the continued transformations wrought by climate and unsustainable habits of food and energy consumption. Our world certainly seems to be living at a moment when, perhaps (hopefully?), more and more segments of society have begun shambling to the realization that everything we have been talking about (the "apparent" decline of American power or the "so-called" changing climate) are not things which are happening, but things which have already happened—things not so much to be avoided, as to be dealt with. Whether the American "pheenies" of Zone One (not to mention our own pundits, tea partiers, and other vocal call-backers to the days of old, grand U.S.A.) want to admit it or not, Whitehead seems to say and Mark Spitz eventually realize, is that the world we all knew is not, in fact, ending. It has already ended, and it's time to move on.