Zone One – It was New York City

*** The following is a chunk from the Epilogue of my dissertation. In a moment of poetic justice I am cannibalizing it into a sharper reflective section. Who wants to do readings in their conclusion anyway? This was largely influenced by Andrew Hoberek’s excellent review of Whitehead’s zombie novel (the full citation appears in my citations). So if you’re looking for a place to dig into that novel, I would start there. ***

With three long chapters titled “Friday,” “Saturday,” and “Sunday,” Zone Onedescribes the passing of three days in the titular segment of Manhattan. The protagonist Mark Spitz is part of Omega Unit, and along with the gaunt Gary and the ever-practical unit leader Kaitlyn he moves up and down office towers and apartment blocks searching for any remaining “skels” or “stragglers.”[i]Skels resemble a typical zombie—hungry for human flesh, in a state of decomposition, more dangerous in groups, and vicious—the stragglers, less so. The latter are Whitehead’s contribution to the zombie plot: stragglers just stand or sit or lie and stare. They are skels that have thoroughly checked out; they often return to a fixed place, perhaps still meaningful to some recess of muscle or blood memory, and just wait. Omega unit’s mission is straightforward: clear each room, dispatch any skel found there, and record everything. However clear the plot is, the story must be pieced together through the regular digressions of the third person limited narrator, who fills the reader in on Mark Spitz’s story from the time of the ruin through to the present. The narrator’s dislocation and overlap with Mark Spitz dislodges a similar correspondence in earlier post-apocalyptic novels, from Stewart’s Earth Abides to Brin’s The Postman. There is no ruse of history here, instead Mark Spitz’s mediocrity, rather than his exceptionalism, is the root cause of his survival and the basis for his radical anti-post-apocalyptic decision at the end of the novel.

The narrator’s digressions cannot quite be characterized as flashbacks, but they are motivated by Mark Spitz’s memories. The narrator describes him as a “thorough, inveterate B,” while, in his review of the novel, Andrew Hoberek calls Mark Spitz “the modernist antihero cum superhero,” whose power of mediocrity “renders him perfectly suited to the post-Last Night world. Or so the narration, so finely calibrated that his thoughts blend seamlessly with those of the narrator, insists.”[ii]Similar to the way memory functions in The Road, this blending of memory and reflection maps the novel’s post-apocalyptic present through the affective attachment Mark Spitz maintains with the past. Unlike the way McCarthy’s novel maintained a distinct sparseness, Whitehead’s novel draws on popular and mass culture to fill in the gaps in the narrative. For instance, Mark Spitz identifies a skel in the first group he encounters as reminiscent of an old grade school teacher who had a hairdo called “a Marge, after Marge Halstead, the charmingly klutzy actress who’d trademarked it in the old days of red carpets and flirty tete-a-tetes on late-night chat shows.”[iii]This kind of reference shuffles the typical trope of zombie stories—rather than having to kill his friends (i.e. “I had to kill her, she was going to turn”) he dispatches unknowns but only after assigning them affective weight from his memory. But, memory in the novel does not only originate from within the individual; instead, the city itself seems to be able to project something resembling a memory.

In an incredible passage from early in the novel, the city becomes the subject, deindividuating any of its particular denizens and reframing the apocalyptic event of the novel as another in a long line of reformations and reshapings that have changed the composition of Manhattan. Mark Spitz used to visit his uncle there. He would stare and look out the window at the city:

He remembered how things used to be, the customs of the skyline. Up and down the island the buildings collided, they humiliated runts through verticality and ambition, sulked in one another’s shadows. Inevitability was mayor, term after term, yesterday’s old masters, stately named and midwife by once-famous architects, were insulted by the soot of combustion engines and by technological advances in construction. Time chiseled at elegant stonework, which swirled or plummeted to the sidewalk in dust and chips and chunks. Behind the façades their insides were butchered reconfigured, rewired according to the next era’s new theories of utility. Classic six into honeycomb, sweatshop killing floor into cordoned cubical mill. In every neighbourhood the imperfect in their fashion awaited the wrecking ball and their bones were melted down to help their replacements surpass them, steel into steel. The new buildings in wave upon wave drew themselves out of the rubble, shaking off the past like immigrants. The addresses remained the same and so did the flawed philosophies. It wasn’t anyplace else. It was New York City.[iv]

Everything is here: the consecration of each age of urban planners and architects by the previous generation of social planners, the marks left by the smog of automobile use, the shift from labour heavy industry to the cognitive lightness of creative industries, and the crash of wave after wave of new immigrants eager to become “American.” But, for Whitehead, each of these figures becomes a mere synecdoche, something contained in the still vastness of the New York skyline as it is surveyed by the mediocre boy in his uncle’s apartment. This narrated rise and fall of a city echoes what Samuel Zipp has described as Manhattan Projects, those efforts in the nineteen-sixties to remake the city which allow Zipp to articulate “the rise of a world city and the decline into urban crisis,”[v] as twin processes, which, in turn, shapes the moment of Whitehead’s own formation in the wake of the nineteen-sixties and his response to this formation in Zone One.[vi] The turnover of New York City from the mid-century to the post-industrial city of tomorrow in the 1960s and 1970s is a change that Zone One figures in order to target the contemporary turnover of U.S hegemony—the places remain the same, and in many cases so do the names, but everything seems different now. This attempt to come to terms with a new economic order makes up the backdrop of Mark Spitz movements through the Zone.

Breaking up the action and mediating activity through memory and recollection, the insistent interruptions of the narrator demonstrate presumed self-importance through referentiality. As in other post-apocalyptic novels, the network of relations, now dead, from whom the protagonists draw sustenance, speak through the narrator, as they cannot speak in the present. In his review of the book Thomas Jones find this type of digression to be uninteresting:

The banality of the backstory is part of the point—Mark Spitz is proudly mediocre and credits his mediocrity as the core reason for his survival—but compared to a post-apocalyptic novel like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Zone One gives little sense of what, if anything, has been lost.[vii]

Mark Spitz is caught between a host of memories and the grim, slow task of combing nearly every square inch of Manhattan for skels. Through its focus on slow process, the novel suggests that loss is rarely a punctual event, but occurs slowly, accreting shape and form until one day it confronts us fully fleshed out and hungry. For commentators like McGrul, this process of loss registers a “rapid corrosion even of our secular myths about the self, not least the myth of its rational autonomy,” which shifts Zone One “not to realism but to the weirdness of allegory.”[viii]Not unlike the racialized fears captured by the earlier post-apocalyptic novels of the long-fifties, Hoberek suggests that Zone One could be read in an allegorical light “for more specific fears of immigrants, of terrorists, of the people who want to get into our gated communities.” The post-apocalyptic novel form that once used to contain and process white racial fears, as in Matheson’s I am Legend, in the hands of Whitehead becomes a critical tool to examine the way those anxieties return to fore after 9/11 and what this might mean for the U.S. in the wake of its catastrophic bid for hegemony in Iraq.
In the wake of massive crisis, PASD (Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder), one of the novel’s great innovations, generates a moment of profound reflection on the cultural function of post-apocalyptic genre as a whole. Most often used to refer to the still human who cannot seem to cope in their post-apocalyptic world, the novel plays with the aural similarity of PASD and past:

“What happened,” Mark Spitz asked, “he get bit?”“No, it’s his past,” he heard the comm operator say. The recruit moanedsome more.“His past?”“His P-A-S-D, man, his P-A-S-D. Give me a hand.”

Accounting for the trauma of the post-apocalyptic story world has not been done before in this way. Indeed, that version of skels known as the straggler even seem to have PASD and simply stop or return to places of profound meaning from their pre-apocalyptic lives. The novel names these figures stragglers because they seem to be living in the past. Hoberek neatly traces this slippage to the way trauma plays across the register of the individual and the collective, “like the Last Night story, and like a past more generally, trauma is the thing that makes everyone at once unique (because everyone’s is different) and the same (because everyone has one).”[ix]PASD, thus cuts across identity lines (and even unifies the living and the undead) to mark a culture that is in deep shock and denial. As Hoberek has it, “crucially, the moment late in the novel when we find out that Mark Spitz is black occurs when he is telling Gary his Last Night story, and Gary—otherwise an encyclopedia of ‘racial, gender, and religious stereotypes’—fails to recognize the one (black people can’t swim) that adds an additional element of irony to Mark Spitz’s nickname.”[x] Thus, Mark Spitz final decision in Colson Whitehead’s Zone One (2011), to dive into a mass of zombies, rendered in the novel as a “sea of the dead,” flags one resolution to the tired march of survival undertaken time and again in post-apocalyptic novels.[xi] Whitehead’s novel, which features zombies who have given up, dramatizes a new finale for the familiar narrative movement of post-apocalyptic novels from destruction to survival. Like the mother from The Road, in the face of an eternal return to the same, Mark Spitz decides to give up. So even though “Now the world was muck,” the narrator still suggests that systems die hard—they outlive their creators and unlike plagues do not require individual hosts—and thus it was a well-organized muck with a hierarchy, accountability and, increasingly, paperwork.”[xii]Rather than read Mark Spitz’s decisions to embrace the mass as a discreet act within a novel, what seems striking about his decision is that it flies in the face of the genre as whole. His gruesome decision to “learn how to swim” shakes the foundation of both the repetition compulsion and the focus on the individual demonstrably found in the post-apocalyptic. But, eliminating the focal character does not eliminate the post-apocalyptic scenario it only undoes our access to it.

The long architectural passage I quoted above gains new significance in light of the close of the novel. Whitehead may be narrating the changing urban plan of the city, the social relations that undergird it and shore it up, but in providing a theory of the urban metabolism he also gestures to a deeper connection between the form and content of the post-apocalyptic novel itself. If anything, the allegorical slippage of Whitehead’s narration makes up an informal history of formal change that is not strictly limited to the city at all, but can be read as a metahistory of the post-apocalyptic novel: “Up and down the island the buildings collided, they humiliated runts through verticality and ambition, sulked in one another’s shadows.” The effects wrought by the writers taking on their visions of after the end are replaced or one-upped as “Time chiseled at elegant stonework, which swirled or plummeted to the sidewalk in dust and chips and chunks.” It wasn’t New York City after all it was a zombie novel.

[i] As Thomas Jones points out, the name Omega Unit is “a nod to the 1971 movie The Omega Man, starring Charlton Heston, one of the many adaptations of Robert Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend, also a major influence onNight of the Living Dead.” Thomas Jones, “Les Zombies C’est Vous,” in The London Review of Books 34.2 (26 January 2012), 27.
[ii]Hoberek, “Living with PASD,” Contemporary Literature 53.2 (2012): 410.
[iii] Colson Whitehead, Zone One (New York: Doubleday, 2011), Zone One 14.
[iv]Whitehead, Zone One 5-6.
[v] Samuel Zipp, Manhattan Projects: The Rise and Fall of Urban Renewal in New York (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2010), 29.
[vi]Hoberek’s review is one again instructive for me here: Whitehead “presents New York as an imagistic assemblage of scenes glimpsed through windows: the curator is none other than the author himself. Here we see a profound difference between Whitehead’s approach to his genre materials and that of, say, Junot Diaz in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Both Whitehead (b. 1969) and Diaz (b. 1968) belong to a generational cohort of mostly male American authors—Michael Chabon (b. 1963) and Jonathan Lethem (b. 1964) are others—who embrace the genre forms of their youths. But whereas Diaz, in Wao, turns to the clunky, semi-Victorian diction of comic books, science fiction, and fantasy as a way beyond the minimalist, Carveresque prose of his first book. Drown (1996), Whitehead tells his zombie story in highly polished, formally perfect prose.” Hoberek, “PASD,” 409.
[vii] Jones, “Les Zombies C’est Vous,” 28.
[viii] McGurl, “Zombie Renaissance.”
[ix]Hoberek, “Living with PASD,” 411-412.
[x]Hoberek, “Living with PASD,” 412.
[xi]Whitehead, Zone One 259.
[xii] Whitehead, Zone One 162.

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