As the Pandemic Drags On, “Zone One” Warns Us Not to Hope
Colson Whitehead's 2011 zombie novel argues for taking off your rose-colored glasses and stomping them to bits
Hope is irresistible. A dozen years ago hope got us a president, and against all logic we’ve continued hoping ever since. But Colson Whitehead’s 2011 novel Zone One dumps a bucket of ice water over those who dare to hang on to hope as a pandemic unfolds around them. The denizens of the zone live minute-to-minute dodging zombies, securing rations, and scouring Manhattan to find an abandoned pied-a-terre in which to crash, just as we’ve all been living minute-to-minute in the face of indifferent leadership, traumatic grocery runs, and the endlessly punishing newsfeed of our own catastrophe. Whenever humans are in constant peril, hope is a life-threatening distraction.
Mark Spitz, Zone One’s protagonist, loves to call himself “mediocre,” the consummate B-student—but Spitz (a sobriquet, and the only name we ever get for him) is first and foremost a survivor. The central command he has for us is to stop dreaming of a better tomorrow. No one knows when or if the plague will end, and the sooner Zone One’s residents accept that situation, the better equipped they’ll be to put their heads down, kill the “skel” in front of them, power through their night terrors, and do it all again in a few hours. You don’t waste precious mental resources reliving the glory days of punching a time card, eating at chain restaurants, or commuting to Chelsea, because even a moment’s distraction can make you a victim.
In the old world, Spitz’s mediocrity took the forms of doing lame jobs in lieu of having a career, ducking out of relationships at the slightest hint of vulnerability, living with his parents, and maintaining a social schedule consistent with these life choices. It’s fitting that Spitz spends his last night before the monsters come in the most humdrum way possible—playing table games in Atlantic City, then enduring hours of traffic to return to his Long Island home. When, post-zombie apocalypse, Spitz and his fellow grunts are tasked with clearing the undead out of New York City, he finds that his previous indifference to his own future makes him enormously qualified to succeed in pandemic life.
There’s a name for those in Zone One who, against all odds, continue to believe that the zombie apocalypse will soon disappear: “pheenies.” As in “phoenix,” as in oh yeah, we’re definitely going to rise from the ashes and get everything back the way it was. Better to fall in line and be content with the “MRE bacon-and-eggs paste” in front of you. The novel tells us point-blank that “you never heard Mark Spitz say, ‘When this is all over’ or ‘Once things get back to normal.’” As someone accustomed to getting by on the bare minimum, Spitz quickly learns the only lesson he’ll ever need: “If you weren’t concentrating on how to survive the next five minutes, you wouldn’t survive them.”
Most of the zone’s zombies are of the usual raving brain-eater variety, but roughly one percent are “stragglers.” These poor saps spend their undead days haunting the mundane places of their former lives, silent and immobile. Even with their entrails dangling or jaws missing, Mark Spitz can’t help but look upon these macabre flesh sculptures and see his former elementary school teacher, his old drinking buddy, an erstwhile lover. In these moments, Spitz comes as close as he ever gets to experiencing nostalgia, and thus he is nearly eaten. Our past is just as dangerous as our future. For my part, I don’t dwell on the hugs I used to give, or how the air around me used to be breathable without a cloth filter, and Spitz doesn’t dwell on the friends and relatives he’ll never see again, or how losing money at blackjack might not have been the best choice for a final blowout blast. But memories persist, perhaps more so than fantasies, and even the best of us can have lapses.
I reread this novel for a book club a few months ago, in the doldrums of the Trump presidency as COVID continued its national assault on prisons, on nursing homes, and on some of our most vulnerable citizens. At the time, the specter of a permanent authoritarian regime perpetuating these conditions forever seemed very real, and Spitz’s never-look-forward mantra spoke to me. Indeed, it was the only advice that made any sense. What else was there to do? Pretend that not only would we defeat the virus but also stop locking our fellow humans in cages, start giving everyone health care, and restore science to its proper place as one of the foundational pillars of our society? Please. How could I negotiate hand-washing, mask-wearing, social-distancing, and pretend enthusiasm for Zoom calls while deluding myself in this way? Maybe imagining a better world constituted self-care for some people (vaccinies?), but when I caught myself trying to conjure up a nation where we lived up to barely acceptable standards, it seemed so utterly impossible that I only got more depressed, more likely to say screw it and invite 20 of my closest friends over for karaoke.
But a few scant weeks later, I don’t know what to think. Just when I had trained myself to be content only getting through this, my one lifetime, all of a sudden the usual doomscrolling turned into the end credits of our horror movie. While I remain in mortal fear of experiencing anything that could be called joy, now COVID’s number one abettor will be removed from office on January 20, and an effective first-generation vaccine is already finding its way into our immune systems. Even as we set the record for new cases of the virus, the urge to smile has fought its way back from the brink, bubbling up in my gut and threatening to appear unannounced instead of restricting itself to a prearranged digital happy hour. I can’t help it—I’m turning into a pheenie after all.