Colson Whitehead's Zone One shatters your post-apocalyptic fantasies

Post-apocalyptic stories are chock full of wish-fulfillment. Rugged individualism holds sway. Every survivor is as special as Harry Potter, just by virtue of being alive. We get to rebuild this whole mess, without all that postmodern clutter. And so on.

So the most jarring thing about Colson Whitehead's novel Zone One might be how purposefully Whitehead goes about tearing these fantasies apart. Zone One is about the only thing worse than living through the apocalypse - taking part in a heroic effort to rebuild civilization afterwards. Spoilers ahead...

Top image: Manhattan Zombies, via DNAInfo

Colson Whitehead's Zone One shatters your post-apocalyptic fantasiesS

In Zone One, it's quite some time after the zombie outbreak, and the survivors are starting to regroup, somewhat. Zone One is the new name of Manhattan, which has already been scoured of most of its zombie hordes by platoons of Marines. And now, the novel's protagonist, Mark Spitz, is on sweeper duty, clearing out the city block by block of its lingering dead along with two comrades.

The horrible thing about Zone One is that it shows the dullness of hope. Refuges inevitably fall apart, but in the meantime they grind you down with the endless waiting for the inevitable. Mark Spitz, the novel's hero, is often described as the most mediocre person on the planet, but he's found his element as a kind of cockroach, surviving in the debris. The only thing that can vanquish Mark Spitz is the communal attempt to return to normality after the undead plague. In Spitz's flashbacks, and in the present-day sequences, you see hope rise and get crushed, over and over again, like waves.

I'm reasonably sure that this is one zombie story that nobody's ever told before — there's a provisional government in Buffalo, NY, and order is being restored along the Eastern Seaboard. The zombie problem appears to be under control, more or less. There's even a new theme song for the Phoenix Project, the restoration of humanity.

And somehow, the fact that the human race is apparently picking itself up and recreating its institutions, including both governments and pop culture, just makes everything more dismal. Like, instead of being able to take whatever they find in the streets and abandoned buildings, Spitz and his comrades have to subsist on goods from corporate sponsors. There are strict anti-looting regulations, so they have to keep Manhattan pristine, even as they realize they'll never get to live there - after they finish restoring order, Manhattan will be for the rich and powerful, once again. "Politicians and pro athletes." Even after the end of the world, there are sponsors and products and endless rules. The bureaucracy becomes more and more crushing, despite how meaningless it all seems. The price of safety.

As Whitehead writes, "tentative bureaucracy rose from the amino acid pools of madness, per its custom."

Zone One isn't really a satire, but there are these little sardonic touches throughout - like the persistent government propaganda and Newspeak, in which everybody is supposed to pretend the world is getting better and better.

And meanwhile, Zone One shows how life after the zombie apocalypse turns everybody into a kind of zombie - one of Whitehead's innovations is that he divides his zombies into two types: skels and stragglers. Skels are your typical flesh-eating, roving undead monsters. Stragglers, meanwhile, are a minority who just find a place that meant something to them in life and then stay there, frozen in place until they're put out of their misery.

The surviving humans in the book often refer to each other as falling into the "straggler mindset" — if you cling too hard to what you used to have, or the world you used to know, then you're akin to one of those mindless, frozen zombies. Meanwhile, though, the survivors are haunted by Post-Apocalyptic Survivor Dysfunction, or PASD, which often sounds just like "past." Memories of the horrors that everybody's lived through keep dragging them down and making them act in irrational, unpredictable ways - as Whitehead remarks, everybody's fucked up in a different way, just like before.

The whole thing is tinged with nostalgia, from the disturbing flashbacks to Mark Spitz's childhood to the endlessly recounted harrowing scenes from the apocalypse.

And like many near-future stories - especially apocalyptic ones - this is really a story about cities, and urban planning. There are just tons of little observations about the geography and character of New York - clearing the place of zombies turns out to be remarkably similar to planning any kind of major urban project.

Whitehead writes: "The city bragged of an endless unraveling, a grid without limits; of course it was bound and stymied by rivers, curtailed by geographic circumstance. It could be subdued and understood." The subway, the ferries, the rivers, the major arteries... they all become part of the logistics of monster-fighting as well as the bones of the story.

And in the end, the city becomes a literal "melting pot," as the dead are homogenized and turned into huddled masses, yearning to devour your flesh:

They had been young and old, natives and newcomers. No matter the hue of their skins, dark or light, no matter the names of their gods or the absences they countenanced, they had all strived, struggled, and loved in their small, human fashion. Now they were mostly mouths and fingers, fingers for extracting entrails from soft cavities, and mouths to rend and devour in pieces the distinct human faces they captured, that these faces might become less distinct, de-individualized flaps of masticated flesh, rendered anonymous like them, the dead. Their mouths could no longer manage speech, yet they spoke nonetheless, saying what the city had always told its citizens, from the first settlers hundreds of years ago, to the shattered survivors of the garrison. What the plague had always told its hosts, from the first human being to have its blood invaded to the latest victim out in the wasteland: I am going to eat you up.

As slow as the book gets — and it gets very, very slow — the beautiful writing carries you along. Whether he's writing about a zombie attack or one of Mark Spitz's childhood memories, Whitehead has an amazing gift for the jarring phrase. Like this zombie attack early in the book:

Two of them got the old man down and then all of them were on him like ants who received a chemical telegraph about a lollipop on the sidewalk. There was no way the old man could get up. It was quick. They each grabbed a limb or convenient point of purchase while he screamed.

I love "point of purchase" in reference to zombies consuming the living.

And yet, the book is definitely a frustrating read — you get the sense, after a while, that Whitehead is deliberately trying to deny the reader any feeling of narrative satisfaction, through denseness and obfuscation. Flashbacks start and end without any warning - sometimes in the middle of a paragraph, or as part of a random observation - and major plot twists are both telegraphed and buried in other random pieces of information.

And sometimes, Whitehead's urge to describe and explore and dissect everything becomes actually neurotic. For example, he'll say that there were no pets in a building — and then he'll pause to describe the types of pets that might have been there, and what types of collars the pets would have been wearing had they been there. Or he'll say there were no passersby on the street, and then pause to wonder what types of passersby there might have been.

But if you keep forging ahead and pay attention to the tricky time-jumping and narrative digressions, the book pays off marvelously. It's a book for anyone who loves cities as well as people who want a very different, discomfiting look at an apocalyptic worst-case scenario we've never seen before. And the book has a knife-gouging, horrifying ending that makes the whole thing absolutely worthwhile.