Zone One is not a zombie novel.
Sure, there are plenty of lurching, chomping, and chewing “creatures,” the plagued dead who are affectionately titled “skels” by survivors who shoot, stab, and firebomb them. In this sense the novel certainly conforms to a generic paradigm. But the titillating idea of Colson Whitehead’s gripping book is that there really is no such thing as a zombie novel. There are zombie graphic novels, which, for all their literary dexterity, are closer in form (and content) to films like Dawn of the Dead and 28 Days Later, television series like The Walking Dead (adapted from a series of graphic novels with the same title), and video games like those of the Resident Evil and Fallout series. But this paradigm – which cuts to the core of popular fears of literal and figurative contamination – has not found sufficient articulation in the novel form, until now.
Whitehead’s brilliance resides in his ability, though, to slash through generic expectations, all the while tipping his cap to them. At his reading at Politics and Prose recently, he admitted that some zombie puritans have complained that this novel is some sort of an impostor, because it consists of “a bunch of sitting around and thinking.” That is, it lacks a requisite amount of horror and action commensurate to the genre. Yes and no. There’s plenty of warfare and stomach-fulls of the generally visceral, but Whitehead is too conscious of those moments as generic to dwell on them. Rather, as any “literary” (Whitehead was smart enough to put this word in air quotes through his talk) author should do, he places a compelling protagonist at the center of this dystopian milieu, providing a meditation on just what apocalypse means for the individual.
This character is Mark Spitz (this is a nickname, so consistent reference to him by this full moniker adds some humor), a decidedly mediocre man who struggled to make it in a formerly perfect world. But now, the narrator points out, that the world is suddenly mediocre, his skills ensure his survival. “He just couldn’t die.” He, along with other members of Omega Unit, aid “reconstruction,” or what the new government operating out of Buffalo refers to as “The American Phoenix” (whose loyalists are called “pheenies”). Specifically, he is a sweeper – he combs empty Manhattan for the dead, “putting them down” and leaving them in body bags for Disposal teams to collect and, eventually, incinerate (the snowing ash from the incinerator complex is a morose reference to 9/11 Manhattan, not to mention the Holocaust). The novel opens in an office building, and Mark Spitz is reminiscing about childhood visits to his Uncle Lloyd, who lived in the city, his apartment enticing Mark Spitz, a Long Islander, to fantasies of Manhattan living. These memories are quickly interrupted by the novel’s first skel sighting. The subsequent sequence allows Whitehead to flex his considerable stylistic muscles:
He was the first live human being the dead had seen since the start, and the former ladies of HR were starving. After all this time, they were a thin membrane of meat stretched over bone. Their skirts were bunched on the floor, having slid off their shrunken hips long ago, and the dark jackets of their sensible dress suits were made darker still, and stiffened, by jagged arterial splashes and kernels of gore. Two of them had lost their high heels at some point during the long years of bumping around the room looking for an exit. One of them wore the same brand of panties his last two girlfriends had favored, with the distinctive frilled red edges. They were grimed and torn. He couldn’t help but notice the thong, current demands on his attention aside. He’d made a host of necessary recalibrations but the old self made noises from time to time. Then that new self stepped in. He had to put them down.
Not without an admittedly thrilling scuffle. But note the dual movement in the above passage. Mark Spitz has a habit of seeing people from his past in the grotesque forms of the dead (he even names one of the adversaries in this scene Miss Alcott, because of whose “bushy eyebrows, the whisper of a mustache – it was hard to avoid recognizing in this one his sixth-grade English teacher”). But in order to carry out his duty, he has to cultivate a “new self,” capable of capping a former human, but, more dramatically, annihilating his memories.
These metamorphoses provide the emotional core of the novel. The most obvious type are the (and this terminology has some eerily apt timing) ninety-nine percent, who, like their famous predecessors, nosh on our flesh. But Whitehead reserves a privileged position for the one percent, known as “stragglers.” The difference:
There were your standard-issue skels, and then there were the stragglers. Most skels, they moved. They came to eat you – not all of you, but a nice chomp here or there, enough to pass on the plague…The stragglers, on the other hand, did not move, and that’s what made them a suitable objective for civilian units. They were a succession of imponderable tableaux, the malfunctioning stragglers and the places they chose to haunt throughout the Zone and beyond. An army of mannequins, limbs adjusted by an inscrutable hand. The former shrink, plague-blind, sat in her requisite lounge chair, feet up on the ottoman, blank attentive face waiting for the patient who was late, ever late…The pock-faced assistant manager of the shoe store crouched before the foot-measuring instrument…The vitamin-store clerk stalled out among the aisles, depleted among the plenty…The owner of the plant store dipped her fingers into the soil of a pot earmarked for a city plant…A woman cradled a wedding dress in the dressing room’s murk, reenacting without end a primal moment of expectation. A man lifted the hood of a copy machine. They did not move when you happened on them. They didn’t know you were there. They kept watching their movies.
Brian McHale has labeled genres such as these the “ontological genre par excellence” because of their clear allegorical function. In the case of the skels, populist fears of cultural mixing, contamination, plague, apocalypse, starvation and poverty immediately arise. In the case of stragglers, we move beyond allegory to a more empathic state. Consider the trigger-happy Lieutenant, an unlikely voice for the following sentiment:
They’ve been studying this thing, squinting at the microbe, cutting it up, and all the British guys can come up with is that the stragglers are mistakes. Nobody knows anything…Personally, I like them. Not supposed to say it out loud, but I think they’ve got it right and we’re the ninety-nine percent that have it all wrong…They know what they’re doing. Verve and sense of purpose. What do we have? Fear and danger. The memories of all the ones you’ve lost. The regular skels, they’re all messed up. But your straggler, your straggler doesn’t have any of that. It’s always inhabiting its perfect moment. They’ve found it – where they belong.
The stragglers’ existence, in other words, brings the existential agony of surviving an apocalypse into clear focus. Frequent scenes of straggler abuse recall Abu Ghraib and succeed in garnering genuine pity for these poor “wretches.” But it’s not a case of certain human qualities persisting post-contamination, but a case of a positive evolution, a zombie Nirvana that humans in this dark future, Mark Spitz being the prime example, struggle to achieve. If the ninety-nine percent symbolize the stupefied bourgeois masses, the stragglers point to an enlightened state of being.
This state is directly linked to nostalgia, the “forbidden thought” that Mark Spitz’s new self strives to efface. He’s done well to quell his memories, but the irruption of those very memories into his rounds of skel popping characterizes his plight by the end of the novel.
And we become privy to plenty of them. Whitehead’s narrative, like his nonfiction prose (including his talk at Politics and Prose) is exquisitely digressive. In fact, beyond the routine sweeps, there isn’t a primary plot to speak of here. Rather, we follow Mark Spitz through his memories of how he came to work for Omega Unit. Two days surrounded in a farm house here, weeks holed up in a toy store there (falling in love with its other inhabitant). We see how he developed his “new self” who is able to let go of his attachments when they disappear as swiftly and effortlessly as they materialize. But the locus of memory for many of the novel’s characters is Last Night, that collective Where-Were-You-When-You-Realized-The-World-Was-Ending question that occupies late nights around campfires with rationed whiskey. They tend to be gruesome and devastating, and Mark Spitz’s is no exception. It is the point at which everyone took on a new self, but the tragic irony resides in the fact that the main aim of these survivors is to access physical (and, we see, emotional and spiritual) remnants of the past and “carry them across” into a reconstructed future.
This interplay of cutting losses and preserving “the good old days, which we are having right now” pulls Mark Spitz in multiple directions, but eventually things come to a head. Consider a pithy exchange between Mark Spitz and the Lieutenant in which the former asserts, “I’m here because there’s something worth bringing back.” “That’s straggler thinking,” replies the Lieutenant. Mark Spitz eventually recognizes his inner straggler when he comes across the old restaurant his family used to frequent. He pauses and reminisces at length, frozen in an otherwise discardable moment. He finds his happy place. The enlightenment, the brief recovery of his humanity, is, of course, short-lived, as he is swept up in the mad dash to the novel’s conclusion. It doesn’t end like a zombie narrative would, but rather as one should. It is the apocalypse, after all.
And this subversion of generic expectations constitutes Whitehead’s singular achievement. The last fifth of the novel is loaded with aphoristic meditations on what is really happening here. Ultimately, it’s not the mindless skels that terrify us, but the fact that after the destruction of society and its norms, “I’m more me” – I can become the monster I always wanted to be. Because really “It was the business of the plague to reveal our family members, friends, and neighbors as the creatures they had always been.” Survival is a curse, and the stragglers, “they’ve got it right.” But we quickly learn the fallacious nature of nostalgia in the face of survival. The allegorical, symbolic, and emotional cores of the novel are bleak through and through. The problem, and the sad beauty of Zone One, is that we don’t need a plague-apocalypse to see the monster within. The world crumbles around us, one moral disaster at a time.