Why Zone One?
If Neil Gaiman is a genre author who has attained a certain level of (sometimes grudging) literary acclaim, Colson Whitehead is an eminently literary author who threw a spanner in the works by writing a zombie apocalypse novel. Prior to Zone One, which came out in 2011, he wrote The Intuitionist (1999), John Henry Days (2001), Apex Hides the Hurt (2006), and Sag Harbor (2009); I’ve read all but Apex, and can comfortably say I agree with many of the critics that he is one of the best American novelists of the twenty-first century. His writing is gorgeous, dense but lyrical, and he has a remarkable ability with turns of phrase and a penchant for employing unusual or rarely used words.
His novels prior to Zone One all deal in varying capacities with questions of race and identity in America, employing both realism (in John Henry Days and Sag Harbor), as well as, at times, an almost quirky absurdist sensibility: The Intuitionist is set in a parallel New York in which elevator mechanics are an elite and celebrated group, and the protagonist of Apex Hides the Hurt is a “nomenclature consultant” whose job is to act as an expert in naming things. His most recent novel is The Underground Railroad—currently sitting in my “to read” stack—which is set in an alternate antebellum America in which the underground railroad is not a figurative term referring to slaves’ escape route, but a literal subterranean locomotive.
Can’t wait to get to that one.
Zone One is unusual in Whitehead’s oeuvre insofar as it does not seem at first glance to be concerned with race at all. Indeed, we don’t learn the protagonist’s race until the last fifty pages or so; at that point, however, the revelation has a retroactive effect that colours (pardon the pun) our prior experience of the story and its key themes.
But I’ll address that in a later post.
Why Zone One? Not just because it’s a “literary” author slumming it in genre-town, which is an increasingly frequent occurrence (Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Michael Chabon come to mind), but because of what he does with genre, in this case the ubiquitous zombie apocalypse narrative. I think it’s safe to say we’ve reached peak zombie: there was a ten-year surge in the undead’s presence on film, television, and in fiction, with Zone One serendipitously published at the apogee. The vagaries and themes of the zombie genre will also be fodder for a future post, but suffice it to say that stories of the living dead have emerged from the realm of horror sub-genre to become genre in their own right. And Colson Whitehead toys with the genre’s conventions beautifully.
Reviewing Zone One for the New York Times, Glen Duncan makes recourse to a somewhat cringe-inducing analogy: “A literary novelist writing a genre novel is like an intellectual dating a porn star. It invites forgivable prurience: What is that relationship like? Granted the intellectual’s hit hanky-panky pay dirt, but what’s in it for the porn star?” To start with, I don’t know that such prurience is forgivable; understandable, perhaps, but only if one makes the same assumptions about genre as tends to be made about porn stars: that they’re mindless, intellectually shallow, and solely concerned with pleasure. It’s an unfortunate analogy, not least because it conflates porn stars with their physicality and obviates their potential as thinking, intelligent people.
More specific to my discussion, it’s unfortunate because it betrays an either/or mentality on Duncan’s part that hampers a nuanced reading of what Whitehead is actually doing with genre. Sadly, he also doubles down on this attitude with regard to those readers potentially drawn to the novel because of its subject matter:
Colson Whitehead is a literary novelist, but his latest book, “Zone One,” features zombies, which means horror fans and gore gourmands will soon have him on their radar. He has my sympathy. I can see the disgruntled reviews on Amazon already: “I don’t get it. This book’s supposed to be about zombies, but the author spends pages and pages talking about all this other stuff I’m not interested in.” Broad-spectrum marketing will attract readers for whom having to look up “cathected” or “brisant” isn’t just an irritant but a moral affront. These readers will huff and writhe and swear their way through (if they make it through) and feel betrayed and outraged and migrained. But unless they’re entirely beyond the beguilements of art they will also feel fruitfully disturbed, because “Zone One” will have forced them, whether they signed up for it or not, to see the strangeness of the familiar and the familiarity of the strange.
Speaking as an academic who has, for four years running, delivered quasi-lectures at “Sci-Fi On The Rock,” St. John’s equivalent of Comic-Con, I can cheerfully say that Glen Duncan has no fucking clue what he’s talking about when he characterizes “genre” fans in this way. True, there are a significant number of voices in the fan enclaves of social media that resist the encroachments of “literary” interlopers and anything that reeks of diversity or simple change (see my post from last year on the Sad Puppies), but these are a small number of loud voices. In my experience, fan culture is, broadly speaking, curious, inquisitive, and intelligent—my SFOTR audiences (on two of the four occasions standing-room-only) were more attentive and engaged than most of the classes I have taught over the years. Granted, I was speaking on topics (maps in fantasy fiction, Game of Thrones and The Wire, Terry Pratchett+Neil Gaiman+Joss Whedon, and world-building) in which they had a deep and abiding interest, but I was doing so in a decidedly professorial manner.
A more astute review is the Guardian’s, by Patrick Ness, who offers a far more useful analogy. A novel, he writes, is not a song—it is the performance of a song:
Genre fiction, literary partisans might say, may indeed have interesting songs, but they tend to be sung by the tone-deaf. Who cares how brilliant a sci-fi premise is if you have to wade through pages of indigestible prose to get to it? Literary fiction, on the other hand, is accused by genre lovers of being so concerned with performance alone that it’s devolved into an echo chamber for a diminishing number of elitists.
Here is something we can work with, not that it’s a new distinction: content versus execution, plot versus style. To be “literary” in this estimation is to achieve a certain virtuosity of prose, with less concern paid to content; to be “genre” is to be preoccupied with content at the expense of aesthetics. The latter, says Ness, risks abandoning quality, while the former risks disappearing “up its own arse.” As someone who has read plenty of exemplars of both tendencies, I’m inclined to agree with Neil Gaiman when he invokes Sturgeon’s Law: that ninety percent of anything is crap, be it genre or “literary.”
I’m more than inclined to put Zone One, both as a work of literature as a work of genre fiction, into the other ten percent.
The Triumph of Mediocrity
Why? Well, aside from being exemplary of Whitehead’s extraordinary prose, this ain’t your typical zombie story—and indeed, it goes out of its way to subvert expectations, even as it delivers everything we’ve come to expect from the genre, from terror and gore to the inevitable crumbling of barricades before the onslaught of the dead. Of the various reviews I read of Zone One, it was perhaps unsurprising that the best was by a genre aficionado—Charlie Jane Anders at i09.com—who opens her discussion with the observation that “Post-apocalyptic stories are chock full of wish-fulfillment. Rugged individualism holds sway. Every survivor is as special as Harry Potter, just by virtue of being alive.” The fantasy of apocalypse is almost always the fantasy of winnowing—of paring down the world by excising the excess, the unworthy. In my popular culture class this week we’re looking at Independence Day, which is about as explicit on this point as these narratives get: you can practically keep a checklist of the expendable characters as they get killed off (the gay dude, the dumb stripper, the undisciplined pilot, the disobedient wife), while at the end there’s symbolic unity among the caricatures of three traditionally factious dimensions of the American experience (the white leader, the black warrior, the Jewish scientist).
Zombie narratives complicate such clean apocalyptic purges simply by dint of the fact that the dead return to prey on the living, and those who were unworthy can still come back and chomp on your meaty bits. They also tend to be somewhat more nihilistic in the end than your average disaster/alien invasion film, such uplifting examples as World War Z notwithstanding. But as Anders points out, one of the principal attractions of the genre is the survivalist fantasy, in which some innocuous schlub finds his (almost always his) niche when, liberated from the banal sturm und drang of office life or retail purgatory, he realizes a hidden talent as implacable killer and leader of the dispossessed. Shaun of the Dead lampoons this beautifully, not least because Shaun immediately reverts to his slacker ways the moment the zombie threat is eliminated (I’ll have more to say about Zone One and Shaun of the Dead in a future post, but will refrain here because one of my students will be doing a seminar presentation comparing the two tomorrow, and I’d hate to step on her toes or steal her thunder).
Charlie Jane Anders goes on to point out one of the key elements that makes Zone One distinct: the novel, she says, “is about the only thing worse than living through the apocalypse—taking part in a heroic effort to rebuild civilization afterwards.” While the protagonist, a survivor with the unlikely nickname “Mark Spitz” (which is the only name we know him by), provides plenty of standard zombie-horror stories by way of his flashbacks, the present moment of the narrative follows him over the course of three days as he and the two other member of his “sweeper” unit do building-by-building searches in “Zone One,” clearing out the undead missed by the military juggernaut that massacred the zombie hordes. “Zone One” is Lower Manhattan south of Canal Street, where a tall Trumpian concrete wall has been erected. Sweeper teams have the tedious task of securing the area in advance of resettlement.
Mark Spitz is at once the epitome of the zombie genre’s ordinary-joe-turned-undead-killer, and a mordant critique of the very concept. He attributes his survival to the fact that all his life he had been aggressively mediocre, that in school “he staked out the B or the B chose him; it was his native land, and in high school and college he did not stray over the county line.” He assiduously kept to the middle, not that he really seemed to have much choice in the matter:
He was not made team captain, nor was he the last one picked. He sidestepped detention and honor rolls with equal aplomb. Mark Spitz’s high school had abolished the yearbook practice of nominating students the Most Likely to Do This or That, in the spirit of universal self-esteem following a host of acrimonious parent-teacher summits, but his most appropriate designation would have been Most Likely Not to be Named the Most Likely Anything, and this was not a category. His aptitude lay in the well-executed muddle, never shining, never flunking, but gathering himself for what it took to progress past life’s next random obstacle. It was his solemn expertise.
It’s a testament to Colson Whitehead’s talents that Mark Spitz is simultaneously a nuanced and textured character, and a total cipher; he has depth and individuality, but also functions as a neutral screen upon which we can project our own selves into the post-apocalyptic landscape. More significantly, our vicarious experience of the undead-stricken world is necessarily tinged with Mark Spitz’s morbid fatalism. If the pleasure of apocalypse in fiction, as Charlie Jane Anders suggests, is in the singularity of survival—and the thrill of surviving in a world reverted to primitivism—Whitehead systematically denies us that pleasure in giving us a protagonist whose everyman qualities ironically frustrate our desire to take pleasure in the fantasy of survival.