ZONE ONE: A NOVEL
by Colson Whitehead
272 pages, hardcover
Why, one might ask, has a literary novelist like Colson Whitehead chosen to use genre fiction (specifically a future reality in which zombies exist) as a vehicle for his sixth novel? He runs the risk of estranging admirers of his previous, non-zombie writing, and offending horror fans who might find its lofty philosophical insights detrimental to the action. After all, what gives a writer of mainstream literature the right to tap into so ardently coveted cult territory for his or her own literary purposes? Is this not just another instance of artistic dilettantism, cashing in on the vogue of vampires, zombies, and wizards? I don’t think so. Like other notable works (Orwell’s 1984, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Shelley’s Frankenstein, etc.) it hits that sweet spot between a generic, fantasy-grade thrill ride and the big concepts and theories that interrogate human existence.
Zone One is a hybrid in every sense of the word—in both style and content. Whitehead has taken the best parts of the conventions of the horror genre and applied his much celebrated, keen-eyed intellectualism and sensitivity of and to the human condition to his work. This is why Zone One is an ultimately successful project. What we get is an almost perfect rendering of deeply considered speculative fiction that sustains itself as a devastating allegory for the economic (read schizophrenic) plight of contemporary white-collar America in the thrall of a devastating recession.
The novel follows Mark Spitz, one of three civilians (along with Kaitlyn and Gary) that comprise the Omega “sweeper” unit, over a three-day period. Like the other teams that assemble once a week at logistical military headquarters located at “Fort Wonton” in New York City’s Chinatown, Omega’s job (proceeding the initial purge by the Marines) is to find and destroy any remaining “skels” (their word for the undead, a contraction of skeleton) still lingering in Zone One (a.k.a. Manhattan). In this reality, “regular” skels attack mindlessly, vying for a chunk of juicy human flesh. The other brand of skel, the “straggler,” is a motionless, mindless statue, permanently frozen in a place its ex-human brain associated with affection or happiness. A popular game among the sweeper units is trying to guess what brought the stragglers to these places? Why is that one posed before a copy machine? Why is she wearing “a gorilla costume,” no mask?
The human resistance and reclamation effort in Zone One (patriotically named “The American Phoenix,” back from the ashes) is coordinated hundreds of miles away by the provisional federal government in Buffalo. And indeed, the gulf between administrative and military strategy devised far upstate stands in stark, ironic contrast to the wasteland that NYC has actually become. Soldiers and civilians are taught to sing the new anthem “Stop! Can You Hear the Eagle Roar? (Theme from Reconstruction),”all the time facing the threat of being bitten or dismembered.
But perhaps the most potentially alienating aspects of the work are the emotional drainage and boredom we must endure along with the characters, and the striking lack of a plot. What we get instead is a series of present-day events interspersed with reminiscences of “Last Night” experiences (individual reactions to escaping the first signs of the plague) and other survival stories. Of course, this has likely been Whitehead’s underlying intention from the start. These moments commingle to form a fragmentary narrative that is reflexive of the end times it is trying to render. And in essence, it is a very effective stylistic vehicle for the content. A linear narrative would certainly have diminished the chaos and panic that Zone One presents. Like the minds of the infected, and the routines and mores of a once regulated society, it is out of order.
The non-linear juxtaposition of gory, visceral action and Mark Spitz’s lofty philosophical reflection on the value of life, the loss of the past, and the future of the human race put the novel in the same category as artistic works such as Terrence Malick’s film The Thin Red Line. Only during war could such polarized conditions be so absolutely married. A typical example of this kind of juxtaposition runs thus:
The Marge nabbed Mark Spitz first, snatching his left bicep and taking it in its teeth. It never looked at his face, ferocious on the mesh of his fatigues and aware exclusively of the meat it knew was underneath
It happened every so often that he recognized something in these monsters, they looked like someone he had known and loved. Eighth-grade lab partner or cashier at the mini mart…
What makes Mark Spitz so ideal for this pivotal role is that fact that he is in no way pivotal. He’s generic. As Whitehead informs us, there was nothing unique or special about him in the world before the plague, coasting as he did on the perennial B grade. He is not the hero, but the stoic, enduring everyman. This is why he has survived as long as he has. Why, indeed, the sheer terror of the narrative has not yet subsumed him. He mourns but is able to let go of the loss of the past. In pre-apocalypse life he was unexceptional. Within this new context, amid the commonplace banality of death and horror, his greater banality is exceptional.
Many of the civilian sweepers, Mark Spitz included, suffer from what Dr. Neil Herkimer, an eminent psychotherapist in the world of the book, has identified as PASD, or Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder. Whitehead uses the acronym to pun on the concept of the past, the baggage of which still affects many of the novel’s characters. Each person is ailed by some form of PASD, and based upon their individual life experiences, and their differing experiences with the plague, the symptoms are highly tailored to each individual. Mark Spitz sees a constant rain of grey ash falling from the skies—even when it isn’t there. Gary, one of a set of triplets, refers to himself in the plural (“We didn’t know they made this candy anymore”), even though his brothers died long ago at the outbreak of the plague. The Lieutenant at Fort Wonton, Omega’s immediate superior, hesitates before every sentence he speaks.
PASD, much like shellshock, affects everyone very differently; and sometimes the methods for coping with this psychological illness, after more innocent games like “Name That Bloodstain!” (a variant on naming the shapes of clouds), can turn sinister. There are reports of straggler humiliation and mutilation before their brains are blown out. Perhaps even more troubling than this new form of recreation, however, is the revelation that the top military brass condones it as a form of battlefield therapy. In this changed world, the goalposts of humanity have been shifted, and Whitehead is clearly using this scenario as an indictment on the present. In allegorical shorthand, the zombie narrative is an excellent medium for illustrating such criticism.
Throughout the book we wonder if camps like Bubbling Brooks and Happy Acres will hold strong, or plunge back into the hinted-at ruination that took place in “loathsome Connecticut”? More importantly, can Zone One (everything South of Manhattan’s Canal St.) stay secured; or will the steadily increasing influx of skels from the outlying boroughs and, by way of the George Washington Bridge, New Jersey overpower it? And what happens if and when they do? But the central question and driving force of the novel is whether those still alive can reclaim human civilization.
Much like Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, Whitehead challenges the assumption that humanity is sacrosanct. As the minority, does it have the right to persist, or is it in fact now the inferior species, outnumbered and outmatched? It is these questions and the constant threat of their fruition that keeps the narrative moving at a breath-taking pace. Buffalo calls the period between the start of the outbreak and the reestablishment of control “the interregnum.” But what should it be called if they lose control again? As Gary helpfully suggests, “Time out’s more like it.“
All the staples of a horror story are there: the gore, the gloriously graphic suppurations, the jumps and the starts. It is genre fiction at its literary best: A close-to-the-bone social satire that scrutinizes our culture, economy, military, and politics, deriving its potency from distortion and fracture through alternate reality. I wouldn’t be surprised to see this on best-of genre and mainstream booklists in the near future. Such is Whitehead’s expansive talent.