IN ZUCCOTTI PARK ON HALLOWEEN, protesters dressed up as zombies in suits, eyes vacant and deranged, fake blood and money dripping from their lips. A directive had been sent from Occupy Wall Street organizers:
Everyone come dressed as a corporate zombie! This means jacket and tie if possible, white face, fake blood, eating Monopoly money, and doing a slow march, so when people come to work on Monday ... they see us reflecting the metaphor of their actions.
Oh, the insult of this metaphor — of all the monsters to pick! Zombies aren't sexy and glamorous like vampires, or changeable and muscular like werewolves. They represent appetite run amok, violence without thought, and total abdication of the individual will. The undead are not just monstrous in their greed, but unreflective in it. You can't argue with them.
That the corporate zombies on their way to work appreciated the reflected metaphor is, let's say, unlikely. But the conflation of money and blood in the OWS costumes indicates the severity of the situation — the feeling that economic injustice has grown to a monstrous condition. And though the movement has spread across the country, there is a reason that the occupation started in New York. The city is the beating heart of the crimes under protest, as it is the heart of Colson Whitehead's satirical zombie novel, Zone One.
Whitehead isn't especially interested in pandemics, or ecology, or (in this novel, anyway) economic injustice. But he is deeply interested in New York. The city is Whitehead's great subject and the love of his literary life; when he describes it — as in, for example, his 2004 collection of essays, The Colossus of New York — there's a passion to his writing that is deeper and stronger than anything he ever allows to occur between characters. Appropriately, then, New York is not only the backdrop for his apocalypse story but, in many ways, its subject. "Zone One" refers to a section of downtown Manhattan that the remaining human population is trying to clear of zombies after the apocalypse, the event referred to in the novel as "Last Night." The people who inhabit the zone are not concerned with rebuilding, but simply with surviving day to day. The book reflects 21st-century New York: post 9/11, mid-recession, in the thick of incomprehensible wars that continue without any end in sight. However futuristic this fiction may seem, it's more than anything a portrait of the way we live now.
Zombies, it turns out, have much to tell us about our lives in the 2010s. In the literature of the 1940s and 1950s, as critic Morris Dickstein points out in Leopards in the Temple, the Holocaust and the A-bomb rarely appeared explicitly; they seemed perhaps too big to grasp, and too far removed from the personal experience of many writers. What appeared instead was an undercurrent of anxiety shooting through both mainstream literature and popular culture, sublimated, displaced. Expression of the looming threat often took the form of fantastical creatures, especially in the B-movies and comic books that birthed the gigantic likes of Godzilla and the 50-foot woman.
If postwar fiction and popular culture were haunted by the technologies humans had made and the danger that they might backfire and destroy us completely, our own moment's fears seem to take o...