Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Dead or Undead: Colson Whitehead's ZONE ONE

Had I known going into Colson Whitehead's "zombie novel," Zone One, that the story took place over only three days, I'd have seen the first third of the book as less resistant to the novel form and more as the kind of tight narrative, dense with delineated or implied backstory, that makes something like The Great Gatsby or On Chesil Beach so effective. As the plot crept forward in the early going, I knew why some online reviewers had complained about the book, though I thought, regardless, it was excellent and riveting. How could those reviewers not, once they'd reached the latter part of the novel, seen the purpose in the structure? I suppose they were expecting something with more "beats," a crisis-to-crisis heartbeat-accelerator in standard "genre" mode.

For my money, this novel got under my skin more than a typical horror narrative, and it's largely due to how little time Whitehead spends on "zombie attacks." What takes their place? 1) Anxiety about what might be behind any door. Whitehead hits us with that right away. 2) A deep history. Our protagonist, nicknamed (and never named) Mark Spitz, though now part of a civilian sweeper team prowling Manhattan, has seen, engaged in, and fled from any number of zombie attacks, and the farther into the book we proceed, the more time we spend in scenarios in which he's awaiting those engagements, so that the past becomes more horror-filled than his present—while also portending something terrible for the narrative's arc. 3) How the past overlays the present. Every moment sends Mark Spitz into his past. How can it not? The undead people look like people he's known. The city is a place where he's spent time. Some zombies don't attack, but remain stuck in some repetitive behavior, as if they were sealed in nostalgia for a particular moment, and those moments look like moments Mark Spitz has known. This is a haunted world, but it's haunted by the living and inhabited by the dead.

The last conceit is part of a larger schema in which things are flipped on their heads. The world we knew is dead, the undead now move through that world, but did we progress through it any more meaningfully? While this may seem an obvious and merely cynical modern commentary on the circular and purposeless nature of much human behavior, Whitehead's expressive writing and trenchant observations make it a point he never exhausts, though he moves from subtle to explicit comparisons later in the book in a way that doesn't help his point. The writing itself is cleverly saturated with words that take on double meanings or horror-inflected implications. Thus, for example, when someone "shuffles" off to work, the "shuffle" of a zombie is nodded toward.

Mark Spitz himself is a sign of this upside-down world. We hear only rather late in the novel that he's black, and the character observes that notions of race have, if not collapsed, at least become less relevant, even though one of his colleagues, he thinks, surely knows the signifiers for every stereotype. Ironically nicknamed for the white champion swimmer, Mark Spitz is a man who "dog-paddles" through life. He is successful in this new world because he doesn't stand out—and because he wasted so much time watching horror movies, playing first-person-shooter video games, and imagining himself in post-apocalyptic adventures. Now he's in one, more fully alive than in life, living out a Friday-to-Sunday reversal of the Resurrection narrative.

Highly literate, rich in detail, and existentially haunting, Whitehead's novel might be seen as another look at the milieu of Camus' The Plague. There, too, people move through life without real purpose, and the plague gives them purpose because they become aware of death's imminence. But whereas Camus' people are locked inside the walls of Oran with the plague, Whitehead's people imagine themselves to have sealed off the plague behind stone walls. In either case, the disease proves inescapable.

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