Once upon a time, way back in 1957 when I was nine years old, I found two paperback books in my parents' book case that grabbed my attention for life. They were, "The Cross Of Iron", by Willie Heinrich and Richard Matheson's "I Am Legend." The former told the story of a young German soldier finding his humanity just before his death on the Russian Front during World War Two. The latter deals with a human survivor of a vampire plague who discovers that he is somewhat less than human himself.
The first time I saw George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, I was reminded of Matheson’s story and its core element – the real monsters are not simply mindless automatons. They are the human survivors, who, released from all moral ethical constraints and fueled by self-preservation, let their inner monster run rampant. Colson Whitehead’s Zone One take on the Zombie Apocalypse is not new to the genre but introduces a new type of protagonist into the mix in the person of Mark Spitz, a low rent Odysseus, survivor of the plague that has turned the population of the world into skels (rabid zombies), stragglers (catatonic dead that stand in a stupor at a place they may have frequented in life), and survivors.
Mark is a slacker who, up until the plague, lived a life of diminishing returns at his parents’ home on suburban Long Island. The plague forces him and other survivors to make simple choices – survive or become food. He is in no way heroic and neither are the others he meets during his odyssey. He is, however, all too human in the negative content of his character. Mark takes a job as a sweeper once he finds refuge in a survivor camp. A sweeper is a paramilitary who terminates remaining skels and stragglers, those not disposed of by regular military forces. While terminating skels on I-95 Mark has an epiphany:
“He was a mediocre man. He led a mediocre life exceptional only in the magnitude of its unexceptionality. Now the world was mediocre rendering him perfect. He asked himself: How can I die? I was always like this. Now I am more me. He had the ammo. He took them all down.”
The world of the future is in the hands of Mark and the other survivors of this bleak desolate landscape. The unseen authorities located in Buffalo, New York, have deemed it right and proper that they should take back Manhattan, the logic being – If you can jump start Manhattan, you can do anything!
Mark transfers to a sweeper unit in lower Manhattan where his unit picks off the skels and stragglers the Marines have left behind. This Is Zone One. His comrades in arms are Kaitlyn, their unit leader and ex-debutante, and Gary, a rural farm boy and only survivor of a set of triplets.
Block by block, building by building, they search their grid of the zone putting down skels and straggler alike, all the while speculating about the world to come once the plague is eradicated. Mostly they talk about the banalities that they miss and will return to again once things are brought back to normal. What they fail to realize is that the world of Zone One and the waste land around them is the new normal. Mark knows that there is no going back despite what the politicians in Buffalo decree. Mark is the new order of disorder.
Colson Whitehead has taken the zombie/horror genre, transferred it from film to prose and infused it with wit, insight and the pathos of dystopian novels worthy of Matheson, Orwell or Philip K. Dick. Underneath the blood, gore and body counts there is a disturbing examination of a society that would make icons out of monsters.
Like Odysseus, Mark Spitz meets his Circe and his Calypso, but there will be no home coming, no Penelope waiting for him at the end of his odyssey. Mark Spitz knows there will be no victory, no rising of The New America Phoenix. To survive is to keep moving. Attachments slow you down and to slow down is to eventually be caught by skels, bandits or by one’s own sense of futility as to this new world order.
I am reminded of the Man and the Boy from Cormack McCarthy’s The Road. The Man and the Boy engage in a Socratic dialog as to the nature of good and evil throughout the book. In Zone One, the dialog is at once banal and revealing as to the state of dumbness the world has sunk into even before the onslaught of the plague. Colson Whitehead has given us a Swiftian allegoric analysis of American culture reduced to the pulp fiction grind house values of a society without values. What is really chilling is that everything about Zone One, except for the zombies, are spot-on real and a rude infringement on daily life in our own time and space. Bring on the dead…some might even say they are already here.