[Doubleday; 2011]

We can take the country we live in and extrapolate a future wherein corporations have removed the thin veil between the seats of power and themselves and still be just as lost as we were before we made that leap.

A zombie, an incomprehensible fascination, rests on the idea that the monsters in our life are unseen, until, because of only sheepishly explained circumstances, our family reveals themselves as cannibalistic atavists from a time when morals or Ipods or Gods didn’t matter. They have a funny attachment to the consumption of our flesh, when really they always only represent just how monopolized and feeble our minds have become in the face of global capitalism. It’s a boring, tired, and untrue trope and rightfully one that is now only mined for senseless violence or laughs.

Zone One, Colson Whitehead’s existentialist take on the genre, begins with our hero, Mark Spitz, battling a group of “Skels” in the human resources office they have been locked in since Last Night, the night that everyone became flesh-eating zombies. Spitz is a sweeper for whatever is left of United States authority, clearing out Zone One, the financial district of Manhattan, for possible repopulation by the still living. The geography of the novel gives way to some good quips, “Manhattan was empty except for soldiers and legions of the damned, Mark Spitz noted, and already gentrification had resumed,” but mostly operates to display how already pointless our lives are when we are consumed by the false comforts of the digital age (as opposed to being consumed by the undead).

Spitz, who strives for mediocrity from a young age, simply wants a Condo on the Bowery, like his hip uncle whom he would visit from Long Island when he was young. He finds comfort in a chain restaurant and survives simply by eschewing attachment from anyone. The rule is always to run, when wandering the wilds of Northampton, when clearing out the subway tunnels of the 1, 2, & 3 trains. Not only is running an extremely pessimistic form of salvation, but also it makes for a pretty redundant novel. So Whitehead focuses on the family units we create to survive either the apocalypse or, once again, the analogue of our modern lives.

Spitz flashes back to the multiple havens he finds while running from zombies, from a family unit in a barn to a romantic tryst in an abandoned toy store. But they fail. All of our walls will eventually crumble, every defense we put between ourselves and whatever pathetic force devastates our confused minds. Spitz ruminates, “We never see other people anyway, only the monsters we make of them.” The message is that we are all already among the dead.

The great mystery of the novel is “stragglers,” individuals who have been infected but have not turned to flesh-crazy demons. Instead they return to ruined fields, copy rooms, fortunetellers, living rooms, places they connected to while living. They just stand there. Even when dead, nostalgia is such a cultural force that it persists. It is perhaps the most potent lie of our age, Whitehead astutely figures. It can resist this unexplained plague. But even it has its limits.

The fledgling world, the new American Phoenix, begins to crumble when these “stragglers” shake off whatever sentimentality they harbor, see through the lie of a felt existence, and return to killing. Zone One crumbles and with it, the final wall we were able to build. Whitehead’s book is a rally against the walls we build between each other, exploring if we could somehow make peace with the gargantuan, unruly whole. And what does he see when looking at the masses? Monsters. He paints the whole human struggle as a pointless denial of inevitable death. It’s irredeemably pessimistic.

Where other zombie epics have us celebrate survival, Whitehead asks, survival from what?

Become a Patron!

This post may contain affiliate links.