Zone One – Colson Whitehead

Zone One – Colson Whitehead I have never found zombies especially interesting. Indeed, in terms of genre tropes, I’ve never been quite clear what they are actually for. Once you get past the idea of their being the ‘living dead’, with an unfortunate taste for live flesh, and especially ‘brainssss!’ there is not a lot to be done with them except to get rid of them. This in turn leads to orgies of shooting or setting fire to them (and indeed, Zone One, will fall victim to that though not as much as other zombie novels, and it will show some concern about the brutalisation of zombies). This in turn becomes mind-numbing, which may or may not be the point. It is extremely hard to feel any emotional connection towards a zombie, unless it’s someone you knew well in real life, and even then any connection is quickly destroyed by the way the zombie itself must inevitably behave, even towards someone it once knew. So, the presence of zombies tends to prompt one of two things. Either they become a usefully slow-moving and endlessly disposable background against which to play out a drama which may be utterly irrelevant to their presence or else they carry some sort of metaphorical burden for the rest of the novel.

And so we come to Colson Whitehead’s Zone One (Harvill Secker, 2011), an unequivocal zombie novel. However, there is a curious tagline on the cover, which runs ‘A zombie novel with brains’. On the one hand, it is of course playing with the one thing we all ‘know’ about zombies, their alleged love for brains; on the other it’s difficult to avoid the implication that Whitehead’s novel is different, special even, because, not to put too fine a point on it, Whitehead is not known as a genre writer but as an inhabitant of the ‘literary’ end of the island, in the same way that Harvill Secker is not known for publishing genre. Goodness knows whose idea it was to include this tagline, given that Whitehead is a man who, as his article in the New Yorker last year showed, has a well-developed appreciation of horror films and their tropes, but I already dislike the air of sniffiness it generates, with its suggestion that Whitehead’s novel is somehow better than other – genre – zombie novels. The trouble is, based on the small sample of zombie novels I’ve read in the last two or three years – the first two volumes of Mira Grant’s lamentable Newsflesh Trilogy and Alden Bell’s curious but frequently irritating The Reapers are the Angels – Whitehead’s novel is head and shoulders above both.

In this novel, as in others, zombification comes about because of infection and is spread in part by the dead biting the living. We are given no idea of how the plague began, though we incidentally learn much about the havoc it has wrought. However, what is noticeable from the very beginning of the novel is that rather than having his protagonists make long journeys in search of other survivors, enabling him to present the broader post-apocalyptic situation, a typical trope in recent zombie novels, Whitehead’s protagonists are instead much more limited in their movements, hunkered down as they are in a military-run refugee camp in Manhattan, part of a force whose job is to clear the island of zombies and make it safe for human residents again. Government, such as it is in these parts, has retreated to Buffalo, NY, but regaining control of New York, Manhattan especially, as it is an island, would be good for morale, and indeed for public relations. (As we shall see, PR plays an important part in this zombie apocalypse.) Zone One is the lower part of Manhattan, now cordoned off behind a hastily thrown-up barricade, and already cleared of ambulant zombies. It is the job of the civilian volunteers to go from building to building, clearing out the so-called ‘stragglers’ (and I’ll come back to them shortly).

Being tied to a particular place, at the mercy of poor communications, emphasises people’s vulnerability, inevitably, but on top of this Whitehead’s narrator, ‘Mark Spitz’ (we never learn his ‘real’ name, insofar as that matters, given that much of this novel is engaged with what it means to be forced into a new life, and a new identity), is introspective and has been all his life. It is as though he has always viewed his life at a distance, being emotionally detached from all of it, waiting for the moment when he will finally engage with the world. For Mark Spitz, as we will begin to realise through the course of the novel, that moment came during his period ‘in the wild’, fighting zombies, surviving, finding his way to the refugee camp. Since then he has merely existed, biding his time, waiting from day to day for … well, for what? One might argue that for much of his life ‘Mark Spitz’ has lain dormant, waiting like an insect pupa for the very particular circumstances that will allow him to realise his full potential. Occasionally, a different person shows himself. Mark Spitz is a nom du guerre bestowed after Mark refuses to jump off a bridge to save himself, because he can’t swim, and instead shoots his way out of a trap, singlehandedly killing seventy-something zombies in the process. Mostly, though, Mark Spitz gets by; the only real indicators that he is in any way distressed are his comparative silence and his belief that he sees white ash falling around him all the time.

While Mark Spitz may be geographically confined, there are no such restrictions on his thoughts. In the three days that we travel with Omega patrol (Mark Spitz, Gary from Connecticut, and Kaitlyn)– their last three days together, as it turns out – we travel back and forth through Mark’s memory, gradually learning his story and something of his companions’ stories as well.

One thing to be aware of is that being confined to Manhattan and its environs is, for Mark, something of a dream come true. The novel opens with a lengthy passage concerning his memories of childhood visits to his Uncle Lloyd, who lived in Manhattan: ‘in the long stretches in between visits he daydreamed about living in his apartment’ (3). In part it is because Uncle Lloyd’s flat contains everything missing from Mark’s life. While Uncle Lloyd has all the latest devices, Mark’s parents have ‘a coffee machine that didn’t tell time, dictionaries made out of paper, a camera that only took pictures’ (3). One might speculate whether Mark isn’t really in love with Uncle Lloyd’s heavily consumerist lifestyle. On the other hand, one might equally ask why it is that Mark’s parents are so resistant to these markers of progress? It’s not money, so far as can be told, nor even a fully articulated resistance to rampant consumerism, so much as a sense that they just don’t need these things. As a result, Mark exists in a state of consumerist feast and famine, seeing these wondrous things only when they visit his uncle

Yet, it isn’t just about the gizmos and gadgets. Mark describes watching the skyline from the windows of his uncle’s apartment, ‘feeling weird about the pull the skyline had on him’:

He was a mote cycling in the wheels of a giant clock. 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. (4)

As Mark walks through the streets of the deserted city, he has an acute awareness of what it was once like.

He remembered how things used to be, the customs of the skyline. Up and down the island the buildings collided, they humiliated runts through verticality and ambition, sulked in one another’s shadows. Inevitability was mayor, term after term. Yesterday’s old masters, stately named and midwifed by once-famous architects, were insulted by the soot of combustion engines and by technological advances in construction. Time chiseled at elegant stonework, which swirled or plummeted to the sidewalk in dust and chips and chunks. Behind the façades their insides were butchered, reconfigured, rewired, according to the next era’s new theories of utility. Classic six into studio honeycomb, sweatshop killing floor into cordoned cubicle mill. In every neighbourhood the imperfect in their fashion awaited the wrecking ball and their bones were melted down to help their replacements surpass them, steel into steel. The new buildings in wave upon wave drew themselves out of rubble, shaking off the past like immigrants. The addresses remained the same and so did the flawed philosophies. It wasn’t any place else. It was New York City. (6)

That’s a long quotation but it seems to encapsulate much of what is going on in this novel, and is reflected in Mark Spitz’s thoughts as he and Omega patrol go about their work. They clear stragglers. Stragglers are zombies who might best be described as having become stuck in time and space. For whatever reason they have returned to a place, a memory, that holds significance for them and have become frozen in a pose that is a part of that memory. One can only guess at what has prompted them to do this. They seem to be harmless but, if Manhattan is to be reclaimed, they must be removed, so Omega patrol, like all the other patrols, sweeps each office block, each apartment block, up to twenty stories high, putting a bullet through each head so they cannot come back to life, then bagging and disposing of the corpses.

Mark is constantly aware of the ways in which buildings have been altered, retrofitted, converted. He’s sensitive to the reiterated layouts of flats and offices, as well as to the consumer choices people have made. He is also acutely aware of the fact that however familiar each situation seems to him, for the people he finds this was their unique experience. It is, though, also a powerful reminder to Mark of what he might have become; although he finally worked in Manhattan he never quite made the move to live there too, instead returning to his parents on Long Island, saving for the transformation that never came about. The reader suspects that it would never have happened at all, but now we will never know.

Mark Spitz ‘believed that he had successfully banished thoughts of the future’ (26), but it is obvious that for all his silence, he hasn’t banished thoughts of the past, and late in the novel, revisiting a restaurant he went to many times with his parents as a child, Mark Spitz addresses the fact that he is himself a straggler of sorts, fluttering around Manhattan, unable to bring himself to leave. He wonders what sort of straggler he might have been, already knowing the answer: ‘What did he love, what place had been important to him? Job or home, bull’s-eye of cathected energy. Yes, he loved his home. Perhaps he’d end up there, installing himself in his worn perch on the right-hand side of the sofa’ (155). It makes it easier perhaps to understand by Mark prefers to live in a constant state of ‘now’, suspended in time.

However bizarre it might seem, Mark Spitz is a survivor. He has always seen himself as a student, doing just enough to get by, yet one could as easily interpret this as a knack for knowing instinctively what a situation demands in order to survive as comfortably as possible without too much effort: ‘There was a code for every interaction and he tuned in. … 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. At any rate his lot was irrevocable’ (9). In perilous situations this is translated into ‘a knack for last-minute escapes and improbable getaways’ (26) – think of the bridge shoot-out with a huge crowd of zombies. It is a skill uniquely suited to his present situation but does this mean that between times Mark Spitz functions like a zombie? That most other people do too? It is perhaps not surprising that Mark Spitz takes some time to realise, after Last Night, that anything is wrong because to all intents and purposes his neighbourhood seems much as it always is.

One wonders too how Mark Spitz will function in a future which already has its own theme tune, in which low-grade looting by volunteers is allowed, but only from the goods of the reconstruction’s official sponsors, and to a certain price level. This is a reboot of civilisation being organised by creatives and business types; as such it seems to have little purchase on reality. When Ms Macy, all stilettos and highly buffed nail polish, visits from Buffalo to note progress, she is disappointed to find broken windows and shot-out locks and is more concerned with changing the decor of the apartments to be commandeered for the new inhabitants of Manhattan. It is difficult to imagine that someone could be so out of touch as Ms Macy and yet, to judge from the reports we see, Buffalo is some sort of fools’ paradise, about to be rapidly disabused of its belief in its own rhetoric that things are getting better by the moment.

As Whitehead shows, rebooting civilisation is not about anthems and changing the decor but about tiny achievements, like growing a field of corn and harvesting it, working from the bottom up rather than top down, which suggests already that this attempt at regeneration if not doomed to failure is going to turn out rather different to how the government imagines. Those who try to stay in the countryside or attempt survival by holing up in an apartment are referred to as ‘homesteaders’, the implication being that those pioneer skills are what’s needed in order to survive, not corporate sponsorship. Having said that, it’s also clear that one cannot survive in isolation yet big gatherings bring bigger dangers, attracting the zombies.

Disintegration, when it comes, is swift and as dreadful as one might imagine, though not always in the way one might imagine. Alongside the zombie invasion comes the revelation that this was only ever a PR stunt: lives being wasted to provide a little of that vital morale-boosting PR copy . We’ve been with Omega patrol for one novel, spread over three days and this sudden intimacy has brought us to care about these people, however artificial the circumstances. Yet, when the system fails, we run with Mark Spitz because what else can we do? It’s been three short days in the middle of something incomprehensible. We’re no closer to knowing why there are zombies, what the zombies want now that there are more of them. Maybe they all wanted what New York City represented and have been migrating across the country, struggling to reach this beacon of prosperity, success and consumer durables. Perhaps plague has stripped them of everything except their deepest consumerist impulses, and here they are, unstoppable.

Perhaps that is why this is a zombie novel with brains. Whitehead undoes those flights of survivalist fantasy in which the survivors win the day, examining the standard tropes in which humans can and finally will outnumber the zombies, set up a new civilisation and go on as before. He seems to be suggesting that something so new, so radical is required that it can barely be articulated, though it is perhaps embodied in the unlikely shape of Mark Spitz and people like him. On the other hand, it certainly does not lie with corporate sponsorship, feelgood anthems and all the other trappings of a modern consumer culture.

There is of course an argument to be had that Whitehead is being a little too obvious in his targetting – zombies as the product of an overwhelming consumer culture – and this is perhaps true to an extent, insofar as this is obviously intended in part to be a satire, but I think it is redressed by Mark Spitz’s commentary. He is fully aware that he is as much a zombie as those stragglers he encounters but he is always acutely aware of the fact that they were once living people, like him and his parents, with hopes, fears, aspirations which, however absurd to others, meant something to them, and it is his understated tenderness in accounting for that which protects the novel from that accusation. He may be a straggler but he is also a living witness, providing a poignant testimony of that which has been lost.

This is the first of Colson Whitehead’s novels that I’ve read but I doubt it will be the last. My response to his writing seems to be of a piece with my response to Hari Kunzru’s Gods Without Men; in each case I was drawn to a novel with a sort of genre connection but the quality of the writing prompts me to seek out their other novels, irrespective of subject. I’ve not been disappointed with Kunzru so far; I’m hoping Whitehead won’t disappoint me either.