Sorry, this one is a day late and half a loaf—I’d intended to write a post comparing elements of Zone One with Max Brooks’ World War Z, but as so often happens, the post grew in the writing … and so in the interests of getting this up sooner rather than later, I’m postponing the second part dealing with Brooks until mid-week.
As I quoted Charlie Jane Anders saying in her review of Zone One, Colson Whitehead goes out of his way to subvert generic expectations: not the structural, large-scale expectations of a given generic form, but the small-scale satisfactions and symbolic resolutions that that form tends to offer. Which is to say: Zone One provides the expected and by now rote depictions of post-apocalyptic survivalism, including interludes of relative safety in secure locations, followed by the inevitable collapse of that security as the dead overwhelm the barricades. We meet a veritable checklist of ordinary folk turned accomplished zombie killers, religious fanatics, madmen, would-be warlords, opportunists and thieves, families desperate to stay together in the face of disaster.
But all this typical survivalist fodder takes place in the novel’s past. In the present of the novel, civilization is in the middle of staging a comeback: there are secure camps and a functioning U.S. government (relocated to Buffalo), a well-equipped military, and that symbol of American wealth, commerce, and culture—Manhattan—is in the process of bring reclaimed. This reclamation, indeed, is the focus of the novel’s present moment, three days in which protagonist Mark Spitz and his squad of “sweepers” perform tedious building-by-building grid searches, dispatching what few undead were missed in the marines’ epic initial assault.
The usual zombie movie fare of waking up to an infected world in which one must scrounge and learn martial skills to survive thus unfolds in Zone One as a series of flashbacks—flashbacks that surface capriciously into the narrative, sometimes mid-sentence, in a manner that can at times be bewildering and discomfiting. The effect is twofold: on one hand, Whitehead’s intricate web of memories woven into Mark Spitz’s present impressions and reflections performs post-traumatic stress for the reader. By definition, PTSD (or PASD, as it’s know in the novel, “post-apocalyptic stress disorder”), occurs in part as an inability to distinguish temporally between the traumatizing event and the present moment; Mark Spitz, like all his fellow survivors, lives as much in the memories of trauma as in the current moment of (perceived) safety and security.
On the other hand, putting the typical genre furniture in the novel’s past is simultaneously a distancing gesture. Even as the characters inhabit their memories, readers experience Mark Spitz’s survival tale at a remove from his present disaffection. Whitehead emphasizes this distance by introducing the motif of horror films as a recurrent motif. The novel opens with a flashback to before the plague, when Mark Spitz and his parents would visit his uncle’s Manhattan apartment. His childhood experience of the city—a city that, as New York so often does, functions as a character in this story—is conflated with watching horror films on his uncle’s shiny and impressive audio-visual system:
Millions of people tended to this magnificent contraption, they lived and sweated and toiled in it, serving the mechanism of metropolis and making it bigger, better, story by glorious story and idea by unlikely idea. How small he was, tumbling between the teeth. But the girlfriends were talking about the monster movies on TV, the women in the closet trying not to make a sound or vainly flagging down the pickup that might rescue them from the hillbilly slasher. The ones still standing at the credit roll made it through by dint of an obscure element in their character. “I can’t stand these scary stories,” the girlfriends said before returning to the grown-ups, attempting an auntly emanation as if they might be the first of their number promoted to that office. His father’s younger brother was fastidious when it came to expiration dates.
If you’ve never read anything by Colson Whitehead, this is pretty typical of his prose: elliptical, lyrical, and subtly layered. One of the common conceits of zombie narratives is that they almost invariably unfold in worlds that are completely ignorant of zombie narratives; if such a plague or infection or virus were to resurrect our dead into ravenous abominations, contemporary society would stand a decent chance of survival simply by dint of our massive cinematic archive detailing how to combat the zombie threat. Not so for the denizens of the stories themselves, a fact Whitehead alludes to here on the third page of his own contribution to the genre: the “expiration dates” on the uncle’s girlfriends reflects ironically on the horror genre’s marked tendency to put comparable expiration dates on its ancillary characters, those who lack the “obscure element” that facilitates survival.
At the same time, this passage establishes a handful of themes and motifs to which the novel will repeatedly return, not least of which is Mark Spitz’s recurrent meditation on what “obscure element,” precisely, he possesses that allowed him to live. Also present here is the city as omnipresent, silent character, and the horror film as framing device. The motif is subtle but pointed, as evidenced in Mark Spitz’s extended reflection on how he always imagined himself one of the singular survivors in these movies:
When he used to watch disaster flicks and horror movies he convinced himself he’d survive the particular death scenario: happen to be away from his home zip code when the megatons fell, upwind of the fallout, covering the bunker’s air vents with electrical tape. He was spread-eagled atop the butte and catching his breath when the tsunami swirled ashore, and in the lottery for a berth on the spacecraft, away from an Earth disintegrating under cosmic rays, his number was the last picked and it happened to be his birthday. Always the logical means of evasion, he’d make it through as he always did. He was the only cast member to heed the words of the bedraggled prophet from Act I, and the plucky dude who slid the lucky heirloom knife from his sock and sawed at the bonds while in the next room the cannibal family bickered over when to carve him for dinner. He was the one left to explain it all to the skeptical world after the end credits, jibbering in blood-drenched dungarees before the useless local authorities, news media vans, and government agencies who spent half the movie arriving on the scene. I know it sounds crazy, but they came from the radioactive anthill, the sorority girls were dead when I got there, the prehistoric sea creature is your perp, dredge the lake and you’ll find the bodies in its digestive tract, check it out. By his sights, the real movie started after the first one ended, in the impossible return to things before.
It is in this final sentence that Whitehead makes clear Zone One’s peculiar sensibility (peculiar in the broader context of zombie narratives, at any rate), and subverts the standard pleasures of the survivalist fantasy animating post-apocalyptic stories. As we talked about in class last week, post-apocalyptic narratives that feature the demise of civilization’s infrastructures—electricity and communication, security, and governance—share with fantasy a return to a premodern world shorn of the technology we take for granted. Technology goes from being banal and everyday to rare and precious, precisely because of its newfound scarcity. Life reverts to the faux-authenticity of survival, along with the erasure of moral grey areas: in a kill or be killed environment, we get to slough off qualms about violence, and feel perfectly fine about it because the enemy is already dead.
One comparable element of the zombie narrative that cannot be overstated is the disappearance of the principle of private property, at least in the early days of the apocalypse—it is not for nothing that these stories almost invariably include scenes of survivors gleefully looting shops and stores for supplies while there are still plentiful supplies to be had. True, there are versions in which these scenes are fraught with danger from other looters, such as the one in the film version of World War Z when Brad Pitt, seeking asthma medication for his daughter in a pharmacy gripped in Boschian anarchy, finds himself facing an ostensible thug in a hoodie … only to have the man hand him the medication, saying that it works wonders for his own kid.
But more commonly, such looting is the pleasure of plenty in the midst of danger. We think of 28 Days Later, when they come across a deserted grocery store, delightedly riding shopping carts up and down the aisles and loading them up, of Brendan Gleeson taking for himself a bottle of Lagavulin—and then a second, and a third, and a fourth.
The gold standard for such consumerist excess, however, is the “shopping” montage in Dawn of the Dead, and the comparable sequence in the 2004 remake, in which the survivors—safe for the time being, barricaded inside a mall—play out the fantasy of the uninhibited spree and the hedonism consumerism always promised.
It is easy, in this respect, to make up a checklist of our buttons that the zombie narrative tends to press: transgressive badassery, the erasure of the technological banal, shucking of societal and economic obligations (even in the most dire of apocalyptic scenarios, such as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, I find myself thinking wistfully, “Well, I wouldn’t have to worry about my Mastercard bill”), free stuff, and a life that reverts to a set of simple equations. Which is why Zone One is such a discomfiting novel.
As I said above, Whitehead delivers on the broad strokes of the zombie genre, but on the smaller satisfactions just enumerated, he consistently frustrates us. In establishing horror conventions as a film with the credits already rolling, he takes us out of the fantasy of surviving and into the reality of survival, “the impossible return to things before.” Civilization’s return entails the return of implacable bureaucracy, micromanagement, and consumer culture. Mark Spitz and the other sweepers and enjoined from anything that will cause damage to the buildings they’re securing: no shooting out of windows or glass doors, no casual vandalism, and above all, no looting. However many stores in Lower Manhattan still in possession of their stock are not to be touched. At the same time, the sweepers are gifted with a variety of items, from energy drinks to notebooks (in which to log their activities), from corporate sponsors—from companies that have either survived the apocalypse, or founded by entrepreneurs who saw a new market in the post-apocalyptic world. And the return of civilization itself is subject to branding:
It was a new day. Now, the people were no longer mere survivors, half-mad refugees, a pathetic, shit-flecked, traumatized herd, but the “American Phoenix.” The more popular diminutive “pheenie” had taken off in the settlements, which also endured their round of cosmetics, as Camp 14 was rechristened New Vista, and Roanoke became Bubbling Brooks. Mark Spitz’s first civilian camp was Happy Acres, and indeed everyone’s mood did brighten a bit on seeing that name on the gate next to the barbed wire and electric fencing. Mark Spitz thought the merchandise helped out a lot, too, the hoodies and sun visors and such. The frigid hues and brittle lines of the logo conformed to a very popular design trend in the months preceding Last Night, and it was almost as if the culture was picking up where it left off.
The imagination of apocalypse almost invariably has to do with resolving the intractable problems of the real world by figuratively blowing them up: in some ways, it’s a failure of imagination, an inability to think outside of a given social or cultural system and so resorting to its wholesale destruction (not for nothing, but I firmly believe it is this precise sort of thinking that has given rise to Donald Trump as a viable presidential candidate—but that’s an entirely different post). The genre’s pleasures are thus concomitant with the real-world frustrations they resolve. Which is why Zone One functions as such a subtle, needling bait-and-switch, in which Mark Spitz’s tedious, corporatized sweeper job comes to remind him of the mindless corporate-drone jobs he held prior to the plague.
Wrapping this up here, with an eye to a second half in which I expand on Mark Spitz’s disaffection with regard to a comparable critique at work in Shaun of the Dead, and a contrast with the utopian spirit of World War Z (the novel).
Be good my friends, work hard.