by Colson Whitehead
Dallas Morning News
14 October 2011
Zone One, Colson Whitehead’s fifth novel, is a beautifully written tragi-comic cultural critique about New York, disaster and America’s living dead.
Whitehead imagines that a plague has scrambled the planet’s inhabitants into groups of survivors, “skels” (voracious, flesh-eating zombies) and “stragglers” (also infected, but stalled catatonically, as if their hard-driven neural webs needed reloading). Encamped like pioneers, the uninfected kill off zombies while re-establishing civil order and national governments. America’s recalibration is managed from Buffalo, the new capital, where the nation’s rebirth is marketed as “American Phoenix.” The survivors call themselves “pheenies,” and they struggle with the new order and with post-apocalyptic stress disorder, or PASD.
|George Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968)|
Marines have taken lower Manhattan, walling it off from northern neighborhoods and cleansing it of free-range skels. Whitehead’s protagonist, Mark Spitz, is among the warriors enlisted from the camps to patrol the area, taking out any remaining zombies wandering the underground, locked in office buildings, trapped in basements, listless in high-rise apartments or waiting in curio shops.
“Zone One” is the area south of Houston Street. Little Italy, Chinatown, The Lower East Side, TriBeCa, The Bowery, Wall Street: Mark Spitz marches along the zone’s perpendicular and incongruous pathways, all streets curving and running eventually toward Battery Park and original Dutch foothold.
Covering three consecutive days, Whitehead’s novel shuttles between Spitz’s past, before and during the zombies’ rise, and his present among them. Though he’d always been a mediocre every-dude, battling the undead enlivens him, supercharging his survival and killer instincts. His name signals an American Olympian masculine myth. Yet “Mark Spitz” is also a joke about black people and swimming.
Whitehead improvises humorously and poignantly on some favored themes — advertising and marketing language; names and naming; reverence for the city’s machinations — through the protagonist.
Reminding himself of New York’s prowess for re-creating itself, Spitz exclaims, “Inevitability was mayor term after term. … In every neighborhood 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 anyplace else. It was New York City.”
In an example of Whitehead’s wordplay, it’s the survivors’ yearning for the safe, enabling mythologies of the past, their sentimentalizing the past, that seems to incite their PASD.
Because Zone One is both New York’s birthplace and its original necropolis (from the African Burial Grounds to the World Trade Center Memorial), it’s hard not to read Whitehead’s geography and genre-play allegorically: It’s about border fences, terrorism, war, breached levees, financial collapse and our present zombification, accustomed as we’ve become to consuming the status quo’s poisons.
Zone One is paean and protest.