Before I even began Zone One, I wondered what made it different? The end of the world as we know it? Check. The walking dead? Check. Lone survivors struggling to move toward a new and unsure future? Check. What is it about the novel that moves us beyond the established ticks of the genre?
Although it is difficult to say for sure after only 80 pages, I have my suspicions about Zone One’s primary point of departure. It is this:
Unlike the majority of post-apocalyptic fictions (in Kermode’s sense of the word) in which a rupture serves as the temporal hinge on which the plot and themes revolve, Zone One describes a continuum between the before and after of catastrophe. Whitehead’s zombies, especially his “stragglers,” are literal incarnations of a plague we are already suffering in the here and now. Repeatedly, Whitehead reminds us of the zombie-esque resonances on either side of civilization’s Last Night.
Look at the first page. We are introduced to the protagonists’ childhood visits to his Uncle Lloyd’s single-swinger’s pad in New York. The narrator describes the passersby on the streets, the “cow-eyed vacancy in their tourist faces or local wretchedness inverting their spines” (3).
The narrator figures the invasive ubiquity of technology as monsters. “…the wireless speakers haunting the corners like spindly wraiths” (4). The central-air units, “hunked and coiled on the striving high-rises, glistening like extruded guts” (5). “The city as ghost ship on the last ocean at the rim of the world” (6). Manhattan a, “…tenuous creature in its true nature” (6). Whitehead lamiamorphizes (my desperate attempt to coin a term; from the Ancient Greek word “λάμια / lamia,” a monster said to feed on human flesh) the people and products of the here and now.
Often these resonances verge on the parodic, harping on the leveling, abstracting, nullifying qualities of post-millennial civilization: the number-crunching, the rote tasks, the tourism, the consumerism, the systemization, the lack of critical response among the citizenry. The stragglers personify what humanity had already become: “Their lives had been an interminable loop of repeated gestures; now their existences were winnowed to this discrete and eternal moment” (50).
The narrator constantly refers to the power of consumer fetishizing and popular culture to flatten and universalize human personality. “Infected by reruns” (59), is how the narrator describes our memories before and after the virus. Just before Last Night, we find the narrator and his friend haunting an Atlantic City casino, “Their brains fogged over as possibility and failure…” (66). As he returns home, he faces the “recurring epidemic” (68) of Monday morning’s return to work. When Spitz is flown by helicopter into Manhattan he sees the skels and stragglers inhabiting Central Park and thinks to himself, “My God, it’s been taken over by tourists” (74).
As if incarnating Marx’s famous quotation from the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, that “world historic facts and personages appear twice…the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce” (Marx), “the dead city continued its business in mirthless parody” (76) of the mindlessness of urban routine.
What haunts Spitz is that the zombies, especially the stragglers, sometimes remind him of people he knew in his youth. Each dead soul is a monstrous madeleine dragging his reveries into the present. There is no doubt that we can look forward to Spitz’s increasing obsession with the act of memory, and its manifestation, both atrophied and hypertrophied, in the straggler’s mysterious “returns”.
In a sense, this obsession with memory is taking place in the form of a question, of an inquiry into just what we can salvage from the mental standardization of modern commodified dissent. If we all, “Think Different,” in the same way (a much more powerful because subtler leveler than the Orwellian brand of uniformity), how do we recuperate the trace elements of exclusive personality lost to the murk of postmodernity, however we define that term?