Our Zombies, Ourselves: Colson Whitehead's "Zone One"

By Alix OhlinNovember 14, 2011

Zone One by Colson Whitehead

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 on a more manageable, face-to-face, if no less terrifying character. We live in an era of rampant overpopulation, ever-increasing consumption, and limited resources, and our monster of choice, today, is the zombie. The current zombie renaissance — and make no mistake, they are everywhere, from movies like  28 Days LaterResident Evil, and Zombieland and the television show The Walking Dead to the proclamations of the Center for Disease Control, which last spring issued tongue-in-cheek preparedness guidelines for the zombie apocalypse ("If zombies did start roaming the streets, CDC would conduct an investigation much like any other disease outbreak") — is a clear descendent of the kind of displaced cultural anxiety Dickstein diagnoses, but with a difference. Zombies aren't space invaders or giant insects; they're not "others" in the way most monsters are. They're human victims, really, who can't control what they do. They are uncomfortably, uncannily close to being just like us: our zombies, ourselves. 

Whitehead's main character, Mark Spitz (it's a post-apocalypse nickname; we never learn his real one), is a descendent of Ben in George Romero's  Night of the Living Dead, the movie that invented the modern zombie. Like Ben, Mark is practical, levelheaded, unsentimental, and unencumbered by family attachments. He doesn't seem panicked or heartbroken. We are told at great length that he is the most mediocre man in the universe (a B-student all his life, a middling performer in sports and at work) and this mediocrity is, for some reason, responsible for his success as a "sweeper" — a paramilitary job that involves going into abandoned buildings to flush out any remaining zombies. We also meet the members of Spitz's sweeper squad, the fearsome and rattled Lieutenant from whom they take their orders, the woman with whom he all too briefly finds a connection — all of them quickly but sharply drawn. In Zone One, apocalypse is like a subway car, yet another container that throws random urbanites together.

Reclaimed Sewer Pipe by Kelly Barrie The saddest moments in Spitz's history have to do with the loss of his parents, whom he found turned into zombies in their Long Island home. His sorrow seems less specific to their death and more keyed to a general loss of childhood security. (Spitz has a surfeit of primal scenes: The sight of his mother eating his father reminds him of the time he saw them having sex.) A native of the suburbs who worshipped New York but was scared to move there, his condition seems that of all children who are forced to leave the nest and make their way in the big city. Now that he's arrived, he's gone numb.

In many ways Spitz's closest analogue is Patrick Bateman in Bret Easton Ellis's  American Psycho — not because he's a deranged serial killer, but because he's so totally representative of the New York in which he lives. The apocalypse seems to have granted him a kind of freedom. Confronting an onslaught of zombies, he reflects without fear:

He was a mediocre man. He had led a mediocre life exceptional only in the magnitude of its unexceptionality. Now the world was mediocre, rendering him perfect. He asked himself: How can I die? I was always like this. Now I am more me.

How can I die? Spitz is so emotionless that he's almost zombielike himself. Scene by scene, we follow his listless progress through the hopelessly contaminated world. The structure of the novel — it moves around in time — doesn't do much to build narrative tension. There are few unanswered questions or developing relationships. Instead, Whitehead seems interested in crafting a mood, one of psychological difficulty and labor. In spite of several nail-biting, brilliantly evoked encounters — including a hilarious one featuring the undead ladies of a human resources department, and a riff on the classic trope of people inside a boarded-up house fending off a zombie siege — the book is mostly about what it's like to trudge through the end times, in a world that is only colored gray.

Zone One  becomes a study in anomie, examining what happens when love, family, ambition, and even fear have lost their power to propel. Zombies are the perfect incarnation of this affective state, offering the lingering nightmare of secular apocalypse without the saving moral grace of revelation. They are thousands of monstrous Meursaults, killing strangers without reasons or remorse. (Zombie motivation is actually fairly confusing, if you think about it. They don't need to kill people to survive, after all — aren't they already dead? Like viruses and narcissists, they seek only to replicate themselves.) 

Whitehead introduces us to two distinct kinds of zombies, stragglers and skels. Skels are your typical zombies, out to eat and convert you. Stragglers, in  Zone One's world, are unthreatening figures (or are they?) that stand paralyzed in the midst of mundane tasks to which, for mysterious reasons, they are everlastingly drawn. Mark Spitz and his crew find them poised in a cornfield, or lifting the cover of a photocopier machine. They're sort of pathetic, really, more sentimental than many of the humans in the book; they're the ones who can't move on, literally stuck in the past.

The battle between Spitz and the zombies is a contest between hollow vessels on both sides, which is one reason why  Zone One ultimately feels like such a sad book. Not that Whitehead — who can be a very funny writer — passes up any opportunities for a little zombie humor. A pop psychologist coins the syndrome PASD (or "post-apocalyptic stress disorder") to explain the jitters people feel about the new dispensation, and the government hands out helpful pamphlets on how to cope with it; of course everyone on earth is grappling with their PASD, or past. And few writers could combine horror and fashion criticism as effortlessly as Whitehead does, when explaining how to distinguish between zombies and humans from a distance: "Only a human cursed with the burden of free will would wear a poncho."

Still, the overall tone is melancholic, even elegiac. Why doesn't our hero seek to get out of Zone One, give up the sweeper lifestyle, try to get somewhere safe? The impulse to escape is utterly absent from these pages, presumably because New York City is still, for Mark Spitz as for Whitehead, the center of the world, and the place he always wanted to live. After all, New York is never what we dreamed it was going to be when we were young, and the zombie apocalypse is just another teacher of that hard lesson. (The most tragic aspect of postapocalyptic existence is that in the new world, corporate headquarters are not located in Manhattan. They're in Buffalo.) "Why do these yokels build a house there when they know it's a flood zone, why do they keep rebuilding?" Whitehead asks in the book's final pages. "Because this disaster is our home."

What we're left with in the final moments of the novel is the city, always the city, still teeming with crowds. The zombies crowd into Manhattan like any other mass of out-of-towners determined to seek their fortune. It's a perfect match of character and setting. New York has often been the target in disaster movies — how many times have we seen the celebrated skyline crumbling, or the Statue of Liberty blowing up in the harbor? In other kinds of narratives it's the agent of disaster, the city that chews you up and spits you out. From Wall Street to Broadway, people don't so much occupy the city as get absorbed by it. That is its lure and its threat. No wonder it will ultimately fall to zombies; the city that never sleeps will one day be populated by the living dead. Of course it will eat you up. It has always been this way.

LARB Contributor

Alix Ohlin is the author of four books, most recently Signs and Wonders (stories) and Inside (a novel), which was a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Rogers Writers' Trust Prize. Her work has appeared in Best American Non-required Reading, Best American Short Stories, and many other places.


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