Straggling Toward the Apocalypse

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In this month’s Booklyn, Michael Sauter gets spooked by the new zombie thriller Zone One, and revives Colson Whitehead’s earlier genre-benders

Just when I’d decided that the rivetingly intense cable TV phenomenon The Walking Dead was delivering the last (best?) word in zombie fiction (and make no mistake, zombies are the new vampires, in movies, TV and books), along comes the always provocative, usually brilliant Colson Whitehead, with many more words on the subject, in his gripping new genre-bending novel, Zone One. You think you felt fine with the end of the world as you thought you knew it? Read this grim, sobering, in-your-face visceral horrorshow, which seeps under your skin, slowly  coloring your consciousness so completely that you’ll be looking at rush-hour subway platforms and seeing only zombies, overrunning us. Such is Whitehead’s way of bringing his bleakly theoretical doomsday scenario to shuddering life.

Set in an unnamed near future year (2012, maybe?), Zone One starts out with–and pretty much sticks to–a familiar zombie trope: An apocalyptic plague has raged across the planet, and its zonked-out, flesh-eating, undead victims are pretty much all that’s left. We’ve seen this set up before, from George Romero’s seminal forays into movie zombiedom to the cine-manic 28 Days Later to the aforementioned Walking Dead. But with his darkly satirical, pop culture-saturated sensibility, Whitehead makes us look at the (waste) landscape with a refreshed set of eyes. Because, as in all the best zombie fiction, it’s not really about the zombies. It’s about the dying civilization: The scattered, in-shock survivors whom those lurching, ravenous “skels” are scrambling to scarf up.

Unfolding–and then unraveling–in our very own NYC, Zone One follows the days and nights (and daydreams and nightmares, waking and otherwise) of its protagonist Mark Spitz, a former semi-slacker who finds his calling as one of a team of paramilitary “sweepers,” scouring the blocks below a barricaded Canal Street, in search of any zombies that managed to survive an all-out U.S. Marines purge. He’s part of Phase Two of the provisional U.S. government’s plan to reclaim New York from its current cannibal occupants. Having escaped being “firebombed like Oakland or nuked like St. Augustine or whatever the hell happened in Birmingham,” Manhattan Island still stands tall and structurally intact—making it “an excellent candidate for early reboot.” Today Tribeca, tomorrow the Village! It’s morning in America all over again. Or is it? As Mark Spitz’s unit makes its way from street to street, uncovering leftover undead in various nooks and crannies, there is the vague, but slowly growing sense of dread that they’re just going to keep on coming. Like cockroaches. You know, those things that will be the sole survivors of Armageddon.

Less an out-and-out splatterfest than a harrowing (and still plenty gory) exercise in “What If?”, this book achieves transcendence (like all good science-fiction) as a socially critical cautionary tale—an offhandedly scathing, often gallows-humorous look at how the way we live today is setting us up to land really hard after the Fall. Glancingly alluding to all sorts of modern, media-hyped addictions–from video games to flat-screen TVs to designer shoes to social network blather to overpriced Mocha Bursts from a ubiquitous coffee-shop chain, Zone One’s recurring implication is that, long before it started fading fast, this civilization was already hollowing itself out.

As Mark Spitz and his fellow sweepers think back on all they have lost, clinging to their memories as if for dear life itself, we get vividly etched flashbacks of an all-too recognizable world: The swimming pools and backyard grills of unfinished suburban developments. The various W-forms from HR drones (“Your check cannot be processed without the proper paperwork”). The pomegranate martinis being served at Ladies Night Happy Hours. No one seems to miss any of this detritus; what they miss is the world that, for better or worse, could accommodate such clutter.

Meanwhile, in the here and now, Mark Spitz and his unit keep discovering the odd zombies–the “stragglers”–who have, in death, returned to the routines that defined them in life. An office intern stands at a copy machine. A janitor stands in one place, mopping the same floor tiles. A psychotherapist sits in her office, awaiting patients that will never come. They’re fixed in their locations, unwavering, as if locked into a programmed loop, in a trancelike pantomime of their former selves.

All of this plays out amid a daily dose of sanitized, feel-good broadcast news from the still smoldering hinterlands, as the government attempts to rebrand the reconstruction as “American Phoenix Rising,” while dubbing various survivor camps with names like “Happy Acres” and “Bubbling Brooks.” These camps, after all, are the pockets of surviving humanity–and they’re all being sustained (or is it subsidized?) by corporations that are donating food, medical supplies, booze, cigarettes, etc., having received the government’s promise of generous tax breaks, “when things get up and running again.” All that blind faith and false hope: Sadly, it rings too true.

But for all its shocking deaths and lasting losses, maybe the most disturbing thing about Zone One is Whitehead’s suggestion that if a civilization’s surviving rebooters had it to do all over again, they’d do it all over the same way. They wouldn’t change a thing. And what makes that so disturbing is that it, too, rings too true.

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Zone One is but the latest of Colson Whitehead’s novels to adopt a tried-and-true narrative form, while taking it to places we’ve not seen before. His epic John Henry Days (2001) revisits the Industrial Age man vs. machine folktale, while intercutting it with the contemporary story of an aimless, cynical journalist sent down South to do a story about the mythical John Henry. Like atoms colliding, these two intersecting narratives unleash no less than a century and a half of black American history, as Whitehead kaleidoscopically free associates among a multitude of bit players. By contrast, Whitehead’s self-described “autobiographical fourth novel,” Sag Harbor (2009) is sort of Whitehead Lite–but somewhat deceptively so. While in essence it’s an unsentimentally nostalgic coming of age story, it’s also a genuinely funny, pop culture-skewering comedy of manners about a well-to-do kid trying to find his balance between his African-American world and his white American world.

And then there’s Whitehead’s first novel, The Intuitionist (1999), a complexly-woven mystery revolving around the indomitable Lila Mae Watson–her city’s first black female elevator inspector–who finds herself  at the center of a sinister cover-up after a brand new, supposedly mistake-proof elevator crashes to the ground floor. Even at its starting point the book is unlike any other mystery you’ve ever read, because there is so much more to it than whodunit.

Set in a 1960ish, pre-civil rights movement metropolis–an ever so slightly bizzarro world, where elevator inspectors have the status and clout of TV homicide detectives–this densely evocative period piece at times feels almost retro-futuristic, as its narrative slowly eases into the groove of a Chinatown-type conspiracy thriller. But while we’re sussing out which power-hungry department official is dirty dealing with which  underhanded industry executive, Whitehead is laying down a sturdy parable of race relations as they stood a half century ago.

As the innocent who’s been set up to take the fall for someone else’s act of sabotage, Lila Mae must cope not only with political corruption and corporate greed, but also the general ignorance of co-workers and casual acquaintances, most of whom wonder how a black woman has attained a position of such importance–and what the hell she thinks she’s doing there. What’s striking as we navigate this noirish cityscape alongside Lila Mae is how much has changed since the social upheaval of the volcanic Sixties– and also how much hasn’t .

It’s been said that Colson Whitehead never writes the same book twice. But what his genre mash-ups have in common, of course, is Whitehead’s vision, and his voice. His sly irony, his slicing satire, his clear-eyed perspective on America, and the American condition. Whether he’s immersing himself in it (Sag Harbor) or holding it at arm’s length (Zone One), he’s looking at it in new ways, from unique angles. His angles. What he sees from there ain’t always pretty, but it’s almost always true.

Michael Sauter is a Brooklyn-based arts and entertainment journalist who has written about books for such publications as Entertainment Weekly and Publisher’s Weekly. He still hasn’t ruled out writing the Great American Novel, but isn’t holding his breath.

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