Sunday, November 27, 2016

Zone One by Colson Whitehead

Source of book: Audiobook from the library

How to even explain this book? It’s a zombie apocalypse novel. And a literary novel written by a serious author. It’s a thoughtful examination of consumer culture. It’s an ode to the trappings of our culture, from strip malls to chain restaurants to bureaucracy. It’s these things and more.

I would never have just picked a zombie book off a shelf. Not that I have anything against zombies. I’m not a big genre fiction reader, even if I do enjoy a murder mystery from time to time. This one caught my eye because the author, Colson Whitehead, recently wrote a re-imagining of the Underground Railroad as a literal train. The book sounded interesting, but, as it was new, it was popular, and thus on a waiting list. So, I checked out his other books, and discovered that this one was available on audiobook. Since I had several out-of-town cases within a two week period, and this book was about the right length for the combined trips, I gave it a shot. 

It was, to say the least, an interesting experience. There is the requisite blood and gore - although not gratuitous. There are the standard boxes checked, although some zombie tropes are changed for the story. There are suspenseful passages, but suspense isn’t really the point. Horror abounds, but the banality of it all is more frightening than the horror itself. The pace is slow, and the constant flashbacks can be disorienting. Although some lines are a bit trite, most of it is written in a decidedly literary style, quite different from the page-turning pace of typical genre fiction.

One of the major changes to standard zombie orthodoxy is the introduction of “stragglers.” These are the one percent of the infected that don’t go in search of edible flesh. Instead, they hang around some touchstone of their previous life, endlessly repeating the same tasks. The copy boy in the law firm. The fortune teller at her desk. The man flying a kite that has long since disintegrated. These stragglers can be found throughout the book doing mundane things without recognition of anything else around them. It is these that make for the moral core of the book.

Since stragglers are not really a threat - they won’t harm anyone - is it ethical to kill them? On the other hand, they aren’t really “there” in any cognitive sense, so isn’t killing them an act of mercy? And can we trust them to stay benign? And, more disturbingly, how exactly are stragglers different from us? Aren’t most of us drones at what we do? Is the meaning we assign to our activities more valid than what the stragglers assign? How do we know?

In this book, the protagonist’s job is to go through part of Manhattan as a “sweeper,” cleaning up the remaining zombies that escaped the soldiers. Most of these are stragglers, easy to put down. But there are other zombies, the more common “skels” (short for skeleton) that have gotten trapped or locked in. These are more dangerous, and require decisive action to kill.

After the zombies are killed, the sweepers put them in body bags, and place them in the street for Disposal, who collects them and eventually incinerates them. One of the best lines in the book comes after the author describes why the sweepers are not permitted to toss the bodies out the window. They tend to splatter. Anyway, Disposal is not amused. “Defenestration unduly aggravated their job.”

This is one of the uncomfortable truths of war, though. At its heart, it involves killing. And killing humans. Real people. And one cannot do that without a protective defense mechanism to shield one from the horror of what one is doing. The protagonist, nicknamed “Mark Spitz,” (we never learn his real name) occupies an interesting psychological space. He tends to see people he knows in the faces of the stragglers, and yet he doesn’t really have difficulty killing. He himself isn’t sure why - or he doesn’t want to know.

One of the most disturbing scenes in the book comes as the author reveals how these defense mechanisms work for other characters. For Gary, the marginalized mechanic, he envisions the undead as the people who have disrespected him, the establishment finally getting theirs, the people who have called him epithets of all kinds, and called the cops on them for noise. For Kaitlyn, the former preppy girl, “this scourge came from a different population...single moms incessantly breeding, flouters of speed laws, and those who had only themselves to blame for their ridiculous credit card debt.” The sort who didn’t attend parent teacher conferences, and ate fast food too often. Both Gary and Kaitlyn are revealed as much by who they denigrate as anything else they do. The people who are subhuman to them. I’d say that Whitehead is being rather unsubtle here, caricaturing the views of the left and right, but at least as far as Kaitlyn goes, I have heard far too many of those things in my own circles. Heck, I’ve said some of them, something I am ashamed of having done. Whitehead’s summary is devastating:

If the beings they destroyed were their own creations, and not the degraded remnants of the people described on the “things’” driver's licenses, so be it. We never see other people anyway, only the monsters we make of them.

If this political season has proven anything, it is the tremendous power of making monsters of the “other,” the better to support policies that harm or destroy them…

That’s one of several truly depressing themes of this book. Another is that there are no permanent refuges. Every refuge fails. Every barricade fails. Every human tie fails. Mark Spitz feels this instinctively, and he seems to have a preternatural ability to sense when it is time to move on. This is his one survival skill. He describes himself as “B average” at everything. And mediocrity is perfectly suited to a mediocre world, as he puts it. He knows how to focus on what is necessary to get by. To get that B, but never an F or an A. To stay out of trouble and off of the radar of nearly everyone else. And thus, he survives where no one else can.

One of the strengths of this book is its characters, which are interesting and sympathetic. You really do care about them, even the ones destined to be zombie food. Everyone is flawed, and most have redeeming features. At first glance, many of the bit characters seem like “types.” And they are intended to be. But if they stick around for more than a page, the edges soften, and they become human. Kaitlyn should be annoying - and she is at times - but the war has changed her, and her attachment to Gary and Mark, who she would probably never socialize with ordinarily, shows a depth of character one would not expect from her shallow pre-apocalypse lifestyle.

In any suspense or horror book, there are bound to be set pieces. In many books, you can envision the future movie. (One of my beefs with Peter and the Starcatchers, which was mostly enjoyable notwithstanding.) Zone One has several set pieces. But they completely defy expectations. Normally, one would think of an action sequence that would play out with spraying blood and severed limbs. Or a tense scene with ominous music.

These are different. Each set piece ends up as a paean to some facet of culture. The opening scene in the offices of a large law firm has its suspense, but mostly, it is about the culture of the big firm, intent on winning and image and being important. It is no surprise that the zombies are locked in Human Resources. Even the details of the wall art and furnishings come into the story, and in a surprisingly loving manner. Whitehead both satirizes and eulogizes these trappings of our modern life.

Other sets include one in a chain restaurant, one in an expensively restored farmhouse, one on I-95, and one in an upscale toy store. It is easy to recognize each of these and their one-time inhabitants. Likewise, the diet fads, the addiction to cell phones, suburban car culture, and the ever-present corporate sponsorship and consumerism are both mocked and held up as the comforts of modern civilization that will be among the things missed after it crashes down.

For the most part, these are all things that this west coast denizen can recognize, albeit with an east coast twist. There is one, though, that puzzled me. Mark Spitz was raised as a member of the educated middle class on Long Island. For some reason, he seems to take every chance to run down Connecticut. Every depravity. Every annoyance. Every incompetence. Connecticut. So, east coast readers, what is this all about? Why does he hate Connecticut?

Colson Whitehead is an interesting character himself. He is an African American writer, who defies the usual stereotypes. In a 1999 interview with Salon, he noted that he had more freedom than previous generations.

Definitely, decades ago, there was the protest novel, and then there was “tell the untold story, find our unerased history.” Then there’s the militant novel of insurrection from the ’60s. There were two rigid camps in the ’60s: the Black Arts movement, denouncing James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison for being too white, and Ralph Ellison calling the Black Arts writers too militant and narrow, not universal enough. Now I think there are a lot more of us writing and a lot more different areas we’re exploring. It’s not as polemicized. I’m dealing with serious race issues, but I’m not handling them in a way that people expect.

Zone One is definitely that way. It handles plenty of serious issues, including race. However, we don’t know the races of the characters other than our assumptions about them - at least until near the end. Kaitlyn, naturally, is a blonde. Gary and Mark are both African American, but from totally different backgrounds. And it isn’t until the final couple of chapters that we learn this. There are others one can guess at. The Lieutenant (no name is given) kind of sounds like he might be black (at least in the audiobook), but mostly what we know about him is that he was is a military lifer. Other characters can be identified primarily by regional accents or interests. But, then again, not all vegans are white hippies - not even in my own acquaintance. So with the exception of the three main characters, we must rely on our prejudices, not on information the author gives us. 

One final thought that also ends the book. The new government that is trying to rebuild civilization in the wake of the disaster teeters between a pale imitation of our own bureaucracy and the totalitarian instincts that always arise in times of extreme peril. (And perceived peril, as well.) So you have the silly corporate sponsorships, the attempts at treating PASD (post apocalyptic stress disorder) which affects, well, pretty much everyone. And you have the slogans and patriotic songs, and so on. And you have a Forbidden Thought. It isn’t until the last pages of the book that we find out what this is. I assumed it was suicide, but it isn’t quite that. It is the thought that this is the end of the world. That downbeat thought is anathema to the reconstruction effort.

But after things go south (and boy do they ever), Mark Spitz comes to a realization. The world isn’t ending. It has already ended. What is past will never come back like it was, even if the zombies are eventually overcome, and humans rebuild. The big problem is that everyone keeps pretending that things haven’t changed forever. That the world they knew hasn’t ended. Only once they can admit that can the future become clear.

This idea really struck me. Fundamentalism of all stripes, after all, is really about going back to an idealized past. As such, it is particularly attractive to those who think they would have had power under past structures. Thus, groups like ISIS seek to return to the imaginary glory days of an Islamic empire. The Rushdoony’s of the world seek to return to their vision of a Patriarchal theocracy. “Make America Great Again” is just the latest in the series. An unwillingness to admit that the world has changed, that the past is gone - and never was like the vision anyway. It’s something I recognize all too well from my own sojourn in the Gothard cult. “We must return to the old ways, to the cultural trappings and unjust power structures of the past.” Whitehead is no optimist. He assumes that prejudice and tribalism will survive the apocalypse. But this book is intended to be bleak. After all, most of mankind has been infected with the zombie virus. Pretty hard to get worse than that, except maybe nuclear annihilation, that fear that was pretty justified in the middle of the 20th Century. But our own age also has its apocalypse. As Frank Kermode put it in The Sense of an Ending, we each face our own apocalypse: our inevitable death. And we face change. And to cope, we idealize a golden past before we came along, a cultural decay within our lifetime, and our only hope lying in recapture of that which cannot be recaptured.

And thus, we find zombie fiction to resonate with us, just as epics like The Lord of the Rings mine the same ideas and emotions.

Whitehead denies us closure. The book ends bleakly, but we never really know what happens. Mark Spitz himself realizes “you have to learn to swim sometime…” and we can assume he will live at least a little longer. But what of the world? The world has ended, but the future awaits. What will it be? What can be made of it?

I would not label this book as “enjoyable” in the traditional sense. It’s slow, disturbing, and nerve wracking. But it grew on me. And I have been unable to stop thinking about it in the days since I finished it. If nothing else, I am eager to read more of Colson Whitehead. He is an exceptional writer, and quite thoughtful.

Note on the audiobook: The book was narrated by Beresford Bennett, who I have never heard of, but apparently is an actor, writer, director, and musician. Whatever the case, he is a fantastic audiobook narrator, handling differences in gender, age, and dialect with ease. He is a perfect fit for this book, although I suspect he would be good at about anything. 


A few years back, some friends put together a zombie themed run to raise money for a local veterans charity. My kids probably got their love of zombies from that. We ran, but my wife dressed up as a Donna Reed zombie for it. 


Hey, we need some music. Cue Michael Jackson (who was considered the very devil in Fundie culture...until Prince came along…) 


  1. "So, east coast readers, what is this all about? Why does he hate Connecticut?"

    If you can figure that out, you're doing better than me and I've lived here my whole life. Because yes, this is an actual thing and I've actually thought a lot about it. Because sometimes things get annoying when you're the only one in the room defending CT. In CT.

    Though most of the reasons I've been given wouldn't really be relevant after a zombie apocalypse. Old habits die hard, I guess? Taxes are too high, high cost of living, jobs leaving the state, big govt, etc. (Some of that I'm sure is because I know a lot of conservatives and they want to paint all blue states as being dysfunctional and having crappy economies.) Some of it is also just a subsection of broader hating on New England in general (New Englanders are all cold mean jerks, etc.) and a trend I've observed to paint the South as the best, nicest part of America in every way. (Even down to "GA's DMV is awesome and CT's sucks!" Dudes, it's the DMV. There's a reason Zootopia satirized it as being staffed by sloths.) Other people see us as a cultural backwater between NYC and Boston, which I've never seen any evidence is true but to each his own I guess. This theory also seems to fail because RI is between NYC and Boston and doesn't attract the same kind of hate.

    I mean, it's not as if CT doesn't have problems. There's a huge budget deficit right now and we have some of the highest income inequality in the country. But it's always seemed to me that there's some aspect to the hate that goes beyond legitimate criticism. But I live in CT and I like it, which I admit makes me a biased source.

    1. It appears the DMV hate is universal. We use it as kind of the "awful government agency" stand-in here in CA. Even the liberals whine about the DMV.

      Ironically, once I started working in the legal field, I discovered that for all its faults, the DMV is actually one of the easiest entities to deal with. Nowhere near as bad as out-of-state banks. (B of A is evil incarnate...)

      Thanks for the clarification. Maybe we need to find a New Yorker to give their prospective on CT?

    2. Well, when you say "New Yorker," do you mean NYC New Yorker or someone from upstate? Because those aren't the same thing. :-) Not sure how Long Island fits into that exactly, I've never really known anybody from Long Island.

      Then there's Fishers Island, which is technically NY but essentially CT in almost every way (CT newspapers, CT utilities, etc.). Full of mega super rich people. I played organ out there this summer. When I got off the boat I found out I was playing for the baptism of a Dupont baby.,_New_York

      And then there's this guy. The ferry goes right past his house/Stonehenge/navy/country. He invented the Segway scooter.

      And now you know way more about the east end of Long Island Sound than you ever wanted to. Sorry for the sidetrack...

    3. I know an upstate New Yorker, but I'm not sure I really know a NYC denizen. Unless you count my wife's grandmother, who denies she has a Brooklyn accent. :) But she hasn't lived there in about 70 years, so probably not going to work.