In the Late Victorian era, an age of sexual repression and widespread, often fatal sexual diseases, it was the vampire and the werewolf. In the Fifties , when our two biggest fears were nuclear annihilation and Communist takeover there were body snatchers and a series of monsters created by atomic radiation. In the late Sixties and early Seventies, at a time when it seemed like our society was abandoning traditional religion and losing its moral compass, it was the devil (Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, The Omen).
In the new millennium, teenagers may be vampire-crazy, but the monster of choice seems to be the zombie. In the last ten years, we have had remakes of Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, 28 Days Later and its sequel, 28 Weeks Later, zombie comedies like Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland, even erotic zombie movies. The biggest hit on cable is The Walking Dead. And now Colson Whitehead, the author of rarefied novels like The Intuitionist and John Henry Days, tries his hand at the genre with the novel Zone One.
Zombies? Not exactly the most exciting monsters around, are they? They lack the glamour and philosophical bent of vampires, the exotic charm of aliens, even the athleticism of werewolves. Clumsy and slow-moving, they are interchangeable creatures of pure appetite.
Yet this very ordinariness could be the source of their contemporary appeal: the zombie may represent our fear of our fellow man in the aggregate. Look at the post-millennial world: resources and elbow room getting scarcer, globalization turning the whole planet into a level playing field in which survival is guaranteed for nothing and no one. In this scary landscape, our fellow man looks less like a brother and more like a depersonalized enemy.
Zombie stories are also appealing because they are stories of scarcity and survival; in the genre, the emergence of zombies is usually simultaneous with large-scale ecological catastrophe. In Zone One, an indeterminate catastrophe called Last Night has created a race of zombies and changed the world from a recognizable contemporary terrain to a post-apocalyptic one in which only shards of civilized society remain.
But in this mordantly funny novel, some habits never change. For example, as a man runs for his life from a mob of zombies, he ‘narrates his progress’ into a dead Bluetooth. The infrastructure may be in tatters, but the military’s mission to restore order, christened American Phoenix (sounds like Desert Storm or Operation Iraqi Freedom, doesn’t it?), has still managed to attract a few corporate sponsors.
The best parts of Whitehead’s previous novels have always been trenchant, detachable passages of observational humor. Zone One‘s protagonist, Mark Spitz, a ‘sweeper’ who clears urban areas of zombies after the Marines have done their initial search-and-destroy, is remarkable chiefly in his averageness:
His most appropriate designation [in high school] would have been Most Likely Not to Be Named the Most Likely Anything, and this was not a category. His aptitude lay in the well-executed muddle, never shining, never flunking, but gathering himself for what it took to progress past life’s next random obstacle.
The sweepers in the story are charged with de-zombifying Zone One, which is the post-apocalyptic name for the island formerly known as Manhattan. The typical wartime camaraderie evolves among the sweepers, who share the same black humor and exchange the usual wistful, pained before-the-war stories. There ‘s the inevitable scary recon scene in a mutant-infested subway tunnel. There are enough of the conventions of the zombie story in Zone One, including copious amounts of gore, which it could pass to reach a broad audience.
Yet Whitehead, who has an ear for absurdist jargon second only to Don DeLillo’s, is true to his tongue-in-cheek vision. The survivors suffer from something called PASD, which turns out, after some pages of teasing, to stand for ‘Post Apocalyptic Stress Disorder. This is, after all, the writer who published a helpful guide to writing contemporary fiction, including genres like the Southern Novel of Black Misery (“I’ll Love You Till the Gravy Runs Out and Then I’m Gonna Lick Out the Skillet”) and the Novel based on a Little-Known Historical Fact (“People like to be educated about tragedies that they’ve never shaken their heads sadly over before. Getting them to say “I didn’t know about that” is a surprisingly effective marketing tool”).
Whitehead is one of the writers who reserve their tenderness chiefly for inanimate objects, and who has imagined destruction so he can gaze lovingly at the ruins. In the novel’s most poignant passage, Mark Spitz reflects on a city storefront:
These stores had opened every morning to serve a clientele extinct even before the plague’s rampage, displaying objects of zero utility on felt behind smudged glass, dangling them on steel hooks where dust clung and colonized. Discontinued products, exterminated desires. The city protected them…The typewriter-repair shop, the shoe-repair joint with its antiquated neon calligraphy and palpable incompetence that warned away the curious, the family deli with its germ-herding griddle: They stuck to the block with their faded signage and ninety-nine-year leases, murmuring among themselves in a dying vernacular of nostalgia.
As the faceless Mark Spitz sifts through his generic, buzzword-laden, pre-apocalypse memories and marches passively towards his fate, the suspicion grows that, in Whitehead’s world, the human and the undead might just be two different classes of zombies.
—John Broening is a chef and writer based in Denver, Colorado. His work has appeared in the Baltimore Sun, the Baltimore City Paper, Gastronomica, Edible Front Range, and the Denver Post, for whom he writes a weekly column about food.