Zombie Novel

A review of Colson Whitehead’s Zone One

From all accounts, it is Colson Whitehead’s time. The Brooklyn writer, 140-character artist, and MacArthur fellow is set to release Zone One, his first novel since Apex Hides The Hurt in 2006. Since then, Whitehead published the successful memoir Sag Harbor, amassed nearly 100,000 Twitter followers, and wrote a novel about the zombie apocalypse. Given publisher Doubleday’s promotional support, the faddish marketability of novels featuring the undead, Whitehead’s media presence, and the general readerly desire to imagine a large number of New Yorkers eaten alive, Zone One is as close to a literary fiction sure thing as anyone not named “Franzen” is allowed.

Whitehead has understandably tried to distance himself from the zombie trend, declaring on his blog that “Zone One is a zombie novel in the way [his debut] The Intuitionist is a detective novel.” Innovative twists on the genre are a dime-a-dozen in today’s media market, so I was excited to see how this imaginative writer would deal with a subject that’s been interred and exhumed so many times it could only be undead.

Our narrator is Mark Spitz, a civilian volunteer with a post-plague clean-up crew restoring Manhattan (the titular Zone) to livability (hah). He is a part of a three-person team sent to dispose of milquetoast zombies (“stragglers”) who, despite being harmless, have the disturbing habit of repetition-compulsion—mindlessly redoing what they did in life in undeath. As far as undead critiques go, this is pretty standard fare and disappointing from Whitehead, usually a solid one-man argument for the subtle central metaphor. Mindless consumer zombies are only a level or two of figurative nuance above a mall full of sheep. In Zone One, Whitehead has an unfortunate inclination to make his premise more literal, spelling it out in case you didn’t get it before, with sentences like: “The plague merely made it more literal, spelled it out in case you didn’t get it before.” It’s his stunning reserve, so much in effect in The Intuitionist, John Henry Days, and Apex that’s notably missing, as if he no longer trusted zombies like us to get the joke without an explanation.

Rather than the muttered dark humor Whitehead’s novels are known for, Zone One mines outer-borough spleen for laughs, ticking through regional nightclub one-liners. What if the world ended and we still hated people from Jersey? In one of Whitehead’s low-hanging-fruit jokes, the authorities have diagnosed nearly the entire population with “Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder” (PASD). And in case you didn’t get it before, the author clarifies the homophone, thereby robbing at least a few college English students of some easy class participation points:

“’What happened,’ Mark Spitz asked, he get bit?’
‘No, it’s his past,’ he heard the comm operator say. The recruit moaned some more.
‘His past?’
‘His P-A-S-D man, his P-A-S-D.’”

Like everyone else, Mark Spitz has a past (and PASD), but not a particularly interesting one. His nom d’apocalypse, which always occurs in full, is an ironic reference to the Olympian swimmer of the same name. It’s his deliberate mediocrity that allows him to survive in the post-plague world:

“He knew when it was time to split. It clicked in his brain, the same way he’d known which desk to choose in a new classroom on the first day of a fresh school year, the one that would place him in a zone that reduced the chances of being called on, amid a high concentration of smart kids and inveterate hand-raisers but at a distinct and quirk angle to the teacher’s vision that enabled Mark Spitz to pop in and out of his or her attention … In his mind, the business of existence was about minimizing consequences. The plague had raised the stakes, but he had been in training his whole life.”

But this is hardly much of a spin on the traditional end-of-the-world outsider—the everyman turned extraordinary by crisis, but enduringly quiet and reserved. Whitehead has always focused his stories through under-named loners like John Henry Days’ freelance writer “J.” or the unnamed nomenclature consultant in Apex, but Mark Spitz’s detachment goes beyond any of the author’s previous protagonists. He finds the post-apocalypse “boring” and it’s hard to argue; the soldiers move through the Manhattan grid block by block wasting and bagging zombies for the cleanup teams, exchanging the occasional line of dialogue, drinking whiskey, and being traumatized. Our narrator has a lost love somewhere in the desecrated landscape, but even if he can’t quite manage to forget her, the reader sure can.

The catchphrase “It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism,” having been attributed varyingly to Slavoj Žižek, Frederic Jameson, and still others, has become a core principle of leftist cultural analysis. But Zone One takes the late-capitalist lack of political imagination prescriptively. Here’s how Whitehead describes the post-plague social changes:

“The new micro-societies inevitably imploded, on the island getaways, in reclaimed prisons, at the mountaintop ski lodge accessible only by sabotaged funicular, in the underground survivalist hideouts finally summoned to utility. The rules broke down. The leaders exposed mental deficits through a series of misguided edicts and whims. … So tentative bureaucracy rose from the amino-acid pools of madness, per its custom.”

Whitehead waves off any questions about the post-plague order with three paragraphs of Hobbesian cliché in order to set up the new government in Buffalo (hah). To stave off looting, the government’s comical attempt to maintain the commodity form is corporate “sponsors,” company executives who make it out alive and legally release their goods to other survivors in exchange for future tax breaks. It’s a clever if somewhat underdeveloped element—Weren’t these goods owned by distributors? Weren’t the companies owned by stockholders?—but like much of the novel, the critique is too dulled from use to cut.

Rather than grapple with questions of authority and freedom, Whitehead yields to a cartoonish view of abstract humanity in which most of the people mediocre enough to survive are just looking for orders to follow: “Now the big groups were in again: the elite antsy to drop their pawns, and the pawns hungry for purpose after so long without instruction.” Such straw men wouldn’t even make substantial zombie snacks. But it’s not simply humanity in general that receives such an ungenerous characterization, Whitehead’s deserving victims fit a certain profile. Whether they’re the bridge-and-tunnel crowd from “Connecticut, repugnant Connecticut,” artisanal pickle-growers from Vermont (“We were really huge at all the big farmers’ markets”), or the Manhattanites themselves with their “modern Danish furniture,” the punished in Zone One belong to the same extended class—what gentrification shill Richard Florida might call “the creative class.”

Whitehead takes particular narrative relish in subjecting them to zombie attacks: “Asher, Jackson and little Eve didn’t even spare a goodbye, trotting into the playroom where the other kids toiled in their commotion. ‘Good luck,’ Mim said, as Gladys shut the door to keep the AC in.” With such gleefully murderous prose, the next sentence (the never good “When she returned an hour and a half later…”) is unnecessary. Between the cheap and easy real estate punch-lines and the extraneous uses of “On Demand,” “DVR” (as a verb), and “the cloud,” if it’s not a typical zombie novel, then Zone One must be a novelization of Stuff White People Like, with the number one thing being benignly ham-fisted criticism of stuff white people like.

The author’s most credible explanation for the plague comes through the mouth of Spitz’s lieutenant at the end of the penultimate chapter: “Not God. Nature, if you have to call it something. Correcting an imbalance. It kicks us out of robotic routine, what they called my dad before we pulled the plug: persistent vegetative state. Comeuppance for a flatlined culture.”  Despite the lieutenant’s protestations, this righteous punishing nature is exactly God, he is Deuteronomy’s Jehovah, dealing out suffering and destruction for perceived infidelity. But while Whitehead declares—with more than a little satisfaction—the end of irony post-plague, his characters play a game called “Name That Bloodstain!” in which they try to come up with the best New Yorker style cartoon subtitle for the grizzly scenes of carnage they encounter. It’s the culture that Whitehead seems intent on exterminating once and for all (and who could blame him?) that walks undead in his own narration. Could it be those ripped apart by the hordes of diseased are the same people who saw Zone One excerpted in Harper’s? Perhaps the chai-sipping Netflix-watching bourgeoisie had been listening to an NPR rebroadcast of Whitehead in conversation with Michael Krasny when the plague hit.

In his book Combined and Uneven Apocalypse—the single most comprehensive text on the political meanings of zombie movies—Evan Calder Williams cautions:

“As with other films and cultural objects that upfront their political/social critique, that very critique often becomes an obstacle to better critical thinking: Well, we know very well that it’s against racism, sexism, crass consumerism, corruption … Simply because a film seems to point out problems of social inequality does not mean that it is a radical film, or even one that is therefore ‘smarter’ and more aware than those films hell-bent on entertainment, social critique be damned.”

Whitehead spells out his didactic central metaphor, and then notes that he explained it, just in case. The better critical thinking that never occurs in Zone One is crowded out by winking in-jokes and their various explications:

“They didn’t stop to appreciate the scenery, these dead visitors; they ranged on the grass and walkways without purpose or sense, moving first this way then strolling in another direction until, distracted by nothing in particular, they readjusted their idiot course. It was Mark Spitz’s first glimpse of Manhattan since the coming of the plague, and he thought to himself, My God, it’s been taken over by tourists.”

Tourists! If the novel holds up a mirror to its audience, it’s a piece of fun-house glass that renders them so stretched and two-dimensional it doesn’t hurt to point and laugh.

In his previous novels, Whitehead has paid close attention to the fraught relationships between individuals and real (especially racial) abstractions. John Henry Days is a sweeping critique of American race relations, with a scope the most playful literary architects wouldn’t dare attempt, and no easy answers. But in this latest book, the enduring conflict resolves in a wholesale rejection of anything you can’t touch, and most of what you can. He embraces the anhedonic side of “new sincerity” that Jonathan Franzen described at the end of his Kenyon College commencement speech:

“When you stay in your room and rage or sneer or shrug your shoulders, as I did for many years, the world and its problems are impossibly daunting. But when you go out and put yourself in real relation to real people, or even just real animals, there’s a very real danger that you might love some of them. And who knows what might happen to you then?”

While almost all the individuals in Zone One are sympathetic in one way or another, every group described is filled with suckers and drones. Zombies. Whitehead jabs at the problem with Franzen’s rhetorical question: we can rage, sneer, shrug, and love individuals all at the same time. Cling to your lost girlfriend and hate the tourists. And how much easier and more satisfying would it be with a shotgun?

The author of Zone One is guilty of what Calder Williams calls “the darkest, and simultaneously most joyous, heart of the zombie film: the consummate bad faith of the savagery you’ve wanted to inflict all along.” Think of the neighbor whose walking corpse you were a bit too eager to batter back into the grave: We’re never as unprepared for slaughter as we’d like to think. I don’t know when Whitehead started wanting to kill his readers. Maybe it was after the critical and commercial success of Sag Harbor, a book he once Tweeted ironically(?) was clearly his worst to date. Maybe it was when his fans started following him around the internet in droves. But I know it wasn’t all along; in his previous novels Whitehead stood out for the respect he showed his reader, refusing to spell out the conclusions he artfully implied, forcing us to go back and reread for errant pieces of the puzzle. Professional narratologists have yet to develop the terms necessary to describe the structure of John Henry Days, and I imagine they won’t any time soon. That Whitehead wasn’t resigned to any “flatlined culture;” his earlier novels are heartbeats, signs of life. But if Zone One redefines the zombie novel, it’s because the book itself manages to walk—no doubt all the way to the bank—without a pulse.