Uncategorized | April 05, 2012

**WARNING: Ahead there be spoilers, matey. Like, for serious. I’m not even joking. I will ruin the ending of this book for you, and even though it is a book more about the journey than the destination, the destination is a little bit important. So, I don’t want you to forget that, and then yell at me. Because I’m a “Writer” and that means I am sensitive and go to therapy, and being yelled at is bad for me therapeutically.**


We recently read Colson Whitehead’s Zone One in a class I’m taking here, and so a lot of what I’m going to say is distilled in some way from comments/pokings/ proddings that other students and the professor might have made on my definitely-not-alone trip to the conclusions I’m making. Of course, I was a little confused and dazed in class owing to persistent insomnia, so I don’t remember exactly who said what and when. That’s my academic excuse for not citing anything, and–by lord– I’m sticking to it.

A couple of things have happened in this nation (regarding this nation) in the last month or so that, I feel, make this novel particularly relevant for discussion. The first, of course, is the raging box office battle between Twilight and The Hunger Games. Well, not really. I’m lying, because I’m trying to hide behind humor, and what I want to mention is pretty terrible and I wish I’d picked something else to think about (or have you read)– the killing of Trayvon Martin, and the massacre of Afghani civilians by Robert Bales (who, incidentally, was on his fourth tour of duty, a fact that will rapidly become important in what I’m about to say).

What both these incidents do is point out to us the constant dehumanizing that we, as a species, are embroiled in. If this was a freshman composition paper, I’d say, “From the beginning of time, man has been mean to other men by pretending they are not actually human and sometimes they do it for no defensible reason either.” It’s not, so you got my customized spoiler alert at the beginning instead. The thing though is that these instances of dehumanizing occur and are explained on a local level–George Zimmerman & Robert Bales are bad guys who did bad things that the rest of us wouldn’t ever, ever do. We should ensure that lone bad guys can’t pull this off again.

Now, I’m not defending either of these men. I kind of want to make sure we’re clear on that. I do, however, think that there’s a code that allowed them to do what they did, that’s a little more complicated than the “bad apple” theory we like to espouse in these situations.  It might be because I read Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz as an undergraduate, and I remember that at a certain point Levi says, basically, that it’s amazing that as humans we can still imagine humanity as good when every bit of evidence has proved that theory to be incorrect.

Levi is talking about possibly the greatest human atrocity–Auschwitz– ever, but its a worthwhile thing to look at. A lot of the work coming out of studies of the Holocaust argue, convincingly, that a nation did not collectively lose it’s mind, snap into evil, and then snap back to being normal, but was a case of people who just fell in lockstep with others, who spoke more loudly, because–well, that’s just what people do. In works like Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem or Browning’s Ordinary Men, the operative word is “banal.” There’s something banal about how Nazis looked at a majority of the human race as not being human, as being sub-human, as being impediments to progress. The Nazis were not all inflamed with Hitler’s harmful, hateful, illogical ideology. They just did what others were doing. It’s the same logic that dictated the slave trade, that is currently being used by Assad in Syria, that is the logical thought process anytime someone says, “Hey, there’s somebody who doesn’t really deserve to live. We should probably rectify that situation.”

What does this have to do with Colson Whitehead? Well, Zone One is a zombie novel, and we all know from experience with George Romero that zombies are best used as allegories. Except, in Zone One the reader is not entirely sure what the allegory is. Who is represented by the zombies? African-Americans? Minorities? General malaise? White collar workers? Suburban families out of touch with the world? The result of an environment gone mad?

Knowing Whitehead’s work as being very interested in the issue of race and conversant in the ways of allegory (as exemplified in The Intuitionist), one can assume that perhaps the zombies are an allegory for race relations in this country. After all, there’s segregated living areas, and a persistent worry about gentrification once Manhattan has been cleared of both “skels” and “stragglers”–the two kinds of zombies in this world. Whitehead’s protagonist, Mark Spitz and two others are part of a team that’s clearing buildings of “stragglers”–non-dangerous zombies who must nevertheless be killed because what if? It’s not the most glamorous work, but its necessary as the country tries to fix itself after the zombie epidemic nearly wiped everything out.

Whitehead’s protagonist is a singularly laconic man, which gives rise to the first complication in reading the book. While this is ostensibly a “zombie novel” and invests itself in the genre, having a main character who consistently talks about being “average,” takes a lot of time to think about stuff, and doesn’t seem to run into too much obvious danger kind of explains all the Amazon reviews that are mad about how slow and non-action filled the book is. It doesn’t have a plot, it doesn’t have an arc in which the zombies are beaten by good ol’ fashioned elbow grease, and it’s organization (ostensibly spread over two days) takes a fairly cavalier attitude toward the representation of time–the novel constantly flits back and forth in time without ever clearly signalling to us what happened when.

There’s two ways to look at it then: The first option is that Whitehead, who’s a pretty good novelist by any account and has a MacArthur ‘Genius’ grant, just kinda got sloppy. He wanted to write a genre novel, but literary writers are inherently boring and fuddy-duddies and sit around in their pajamas reading Harold Bloom, so stop messin’ with genre, will you please? The second is that Whitehead might have planned some of this.

In which case, what exactly is he planning? Why write a zombie novel? Well, there’s the success of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies; there’s a movie about Abraham Lincoln being a vampire killer coming out, we’ve already worked through wizards and vampires and werewolves and the chupacabra might be fake. It’s a good way to get in on the top floor and sell as many copies as Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult. Whitehead is a self-serving hack in this distillation of events.

Or, Whitehead is using the inherent allegorical systems and structures built into the zombie novel to talk about something else. Besides race, what could he be talking about? The novel is set in Manhattan, the humans are penned into a secure base named ‘Fort Wonton’, they go out in small groups on sorties and excursions, and once in a while, when they’re bored, they’ll draw stuff on zombies they then splatter.

Gottit. It’s an allegory for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. We shouldn’t have done that. It’s weird being at war with these invisible enemies. How do you know who’s a friendly Iraqi and who’s a “bad” Iraqi? How can you really tell the difference between “skels”–who are coming to eat you–and “stragglers”–who are the soulless carcasses of once-healthy people? You could if you investigated, but why bother? Kill the stragglers because, well, they could be bad sometime later, right? In other words, kill the damn zombies.

The case should be closed here. Colson Whitehead, like every other latte-drinking, arugula-guzzling, PBR drinking East Coast snob just simply hates the troops, and by extension America. But the thing is that he doesn’t castigate the remaining civilians for treating the zombies as sport. It’s sort of what they do–it’s a result of their PASD (Post Apocalyptic Stress Disorder), and–in the absence of a full bureaucracy– is just the cost of doing business.

Here’s where the allegory gets interesting. Because the thing about Mark Spitz (Major spoiler ahead) is that he’s black. Ain’t nothing wrong with that, you’ll say. I agree. But Whitehead doesn’t let us have that piece of information till he’s fifteen pages from the end of the novel. Then he just drops it. As in, it doesn’t have much importance after that.

Is Whitehead messing with us? Did he think that by not telling us the protagonist’s race we would just assume this average, suburban kid was white, and hey, that’s a real problem ’round these parts? Why give us this piece of information as late in the game as he does?

And if the black protagonist is fighting against the zombies, who’re supposed to be the faceless hordes of savages baying at the walls (literally in this novel), then what are we supposed to think about the zombies? And how does Mark Spitz’s being black reflect on that? Was it just a side note, a little inside joke Whitehead is making while telling us about zombies?

Or is he trying to gauge American reactions to this protagonist being black as a way of making them think of the zombies (Afghans & Iraqis) as being deserving of that sort of individualized attention? Because, here’s what Trayvon Martin and Robert Bales have kinda shown in the last couple of weeks. Firstly, what happened to Trayvon Martin is a travesty. It’s a violent, unnecessary example of institutionalized racism–racism practiced by George Zimmerman, and the Sanford Police Department. But Trayvon Martin’s death will not be in vain. There’s a whole lot of good people in this country who want to rectify the situation. Now contrast that with reports of the Robert Bales case. In report after report we hear about Robert Bales, we hear about his breakdowns, we hear from his attorneys, his friends, his wives, previous business partners. We do not necessarily hear from the families he decimated. We do not get invited–not regularly anyway–to be in the shoes of the Afghans. The dominant narrative is one of, “How could one of our soldiers have done that?”

It’s that dichotomy that I think Whitehead is getting at. He wants us to think about race when we finish reading Zone One. That’s why he answers the novel’s biggest question (“why is the protagonist named Mark Spitz?”) with the answer that well, Mark Spitz can’t swim, and isn’t that a black stereotype? Because American audiences know how to handle this information. They know how to read a novel about race when it comes to black Americans. Because of Maxine Kingston Hong and Sandra Ciseneros and Sherman Alexie, they can do a passable reading of Asian-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, and Native Americans. But what about the zombies outside America? They’re a different ‘race’, one America doesn’t know what to do with. The “humans” in Zone One are arranged and deployed much as the American bases in Afghanistan and Iraq are. The scene where the clearing squads break up the tedium of shooting confused zombies by painting their faces and posing resembles nothing so much as the atrocities of Abu Ghraib. And the soldiers who are out there, on the ground, might think of their antagonists in somewhat personalizing, characterizing terms, see them as human (in other words). But for us, the reader and the American, they are faceless, blending into one, non-understandable, ciphers and mysteries that pose some sort of danger even though we’re not sure what.

And I think what Whitehead gets at is that there’s something a bit wrong with that. Because here’s the thing about America post-9/11: the country as a whole has realized there’s a world outside of itself. It’s gone to war with that world, but all we get are images of the war, and sanitized images at that. It’s almost impossible to actually understand the Iraqis and Afghans, and there’s very little attempt to–at least in open dialogue. They are, because of our inability to conceptualize them, sort of “sub-human.” When Mark Spitz is alone with his thoughts he wonders why “stragglers” attempt to do the most boring tasks–photocopying, operating the fryer at a Mickey D’s, sit at a desk. He has no way of understanding them beyond knowing that his orders are to kill them.

And it isn’t necessarily the individual soldiers’ faults. There’s a shadowy headquarters in Buffalo (which is how you know it’s a post-apocalyptic novel) that sends out orders that the grunts basically have to do. The dehumanizing of the dehumanized zombies is an institutional problem. It’s the same institutional problem that allows George Zimmerman to shoot someone for the crime of wearing a hoodie, being black, and carrying a soda and Skittles. It’s the same institutional problem that doesn’t tell its soldiers what is happening, sends them into dangerous territory against enemies they don’t understand, then sends them again and again till they do something wrong. Which is sort of what I think Whitehead is pointing us at. It’s complicated out there, and it’s complicated in here. Against the Iraqis we are all American; it is only when we are by ourselves that we are members of our ethnicity or creed. Which makes this more than just a zombie novel or even a political allegory. It makes it a very, very good book.

Feel free to disagree.