Glen Duncan, author of the genre novel The Last Werewolf, opened his New York Times review of Colson Whitehead’s Zone One with this controversial line: “A literary novelist writing a genre novel is like an intellectual dating a porn star”. Understandably, this led to some uproar. Now he’s doubling down on his stance.
The world stubbornly failed to end on Friday – again. This must have come as a disappointment to the followers of Rev. Harold Camping, who have spent the last five months waiting for God to whisk them off to Heaven, leaving the rest of us to endure earthquakes, fires, and the eventual violent destruction of the planet. Camping, a 90-year-old radio preacher, first predicted this “rapture” would occur on May 21, but when May 22 dawned and he and the rest of his morally radiant flock were still among us, he said he’d miscalculated and that the rapture would take place on October 21, the same day that God destroyed the world. And, well, here we all are.
If Camping wants to revise his end-times prediction again, he’ll have to get in line. Last month, Tom Perrotta, usually a purveyor of relatively cheery tales of suburban angst, published The Leftovers, set in the gloomy aftermath of a rapture-like event. At the cineplex, moviegoers have been subjected to Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, starring Matt Damon and Gwyneth Paltrow, which tracks the spread of a global pandemic that threatens the human race. And now, Colson Whitehead, hipster laureate of Brooklyn, has come out with Zone One, a post-apocalyptic horror tale about a mysterious plague that has turned billions of people into mindless zombies programmed to eat the flesh of the few uninfected survivors.
You can tell a lot about a society from its doomsday scenarios. Fifty or sixty years ago, at the height of the Cold War, popular culture was awash in paranoid thrillers like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, in which evil aliens from outer space (read: Commie bastards) infiltrate the hearts and minds of good Americans. Some decades later, after the fall of the Red Menace, we began to fear our own power over the natural world and we got such Icarus tales as Waterworld, the Kevin Costner kitschfest in which global warming has sunk all the world’s land mass, and Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, in which an amusement park full of cloned dinosaurs threatens to get out of control.
Today, in the wake of humbling military stalemates in Iraq and Afghanistan and the even more humbling 2008 financial crisis, one might expect to see more parables on the destructiveness of our overweening ambitions, but that would require a societal sense of ambition. Instead, as people so often do when their own ambitions get the best of them, we feel victimized. In Zuccotti Park, the unemployed blame the bankers. On Wall Street, the bankers blame the government. In Washington, politicians blame other politicians. Everyone is running around pointing fingers, claiming the other guy got us into this fix, but deep down, beneath the slick lobbying campaigns and handmade cardboard signs, I think we all have the disheartening sense that we have been judged and found wanting.
That’s the common thread of these contemporary doomsday scenarios. In the case of Rev. Camping’s predicted rapture, the Judgment Day comes straight from the Book of Revelations, which Camping claimed, citing his own wacky mathematical calculations, predicted the Second Coming of Christ on May 21, 2011. But Americans, despite what they may tell pollsters, are skeptical of an overly literal reading of the Bible and prefer their morality tales to take a secular form. Thus, Perrotta’s The Leftovers simply removes God from the story, positing a mysterious, possibly “random harvest” that has culled hundreds of millions of people from the earth, among them “Hindus and Buddhists and Muslims and Jews and atheists and animists and homosexuals and Eskimos and Mormons and Zoroastrians.”
Contagion and Zone One, on the other hand, rely on the metaphor of the plague. The makers of Contagion went to great lengths to make their plague “realistic,” consulting epidemiologists to get the “facts” of the highly infectious virus at the center of the film right, while Whitehead appears to have restricted his research for Zone One to obsessive viewings of zombie flicks like Night of the Living Dead. But whether your guiding authorities are prominent scientists or directors of schlocko cult classics, a metaphor is a metaphor, and in these stories, as in the original Vietnam-era Living Dead movies, the underlying message seems to be that there is something very destructive in our culture…and it’s spreading.
Whitehead goes to some trouble to disabuse his reader of the notion that there might be any greater meaning to his macabre tale. Midway through, the hero, who goes by the nickname Mark Spitz, sarcastically recounts the ravings of “the divine-retribution folks” he’s met during his time on the run:
The human race deserved the plague, we brought it on ourselves for poisoning the planet, for the Death of God, the calculated brutalities of the global economic system, for driving primordial species to extinction: the entire collapse of values as evidenced by everything from nuclear fission to reality television to alternate side of the street parking. Mark Spitz could only endure these harangues for a minute or two before he split. It was boring. The plague was the plague. You were wearing galoshes, or you weren’t.
The author doth protest too much, methinks. How else are we supposed to read a tale set in a warzone-like sliver of the Southern tip of Manhattan, minutes from the fallen Twin Towers, in which mindless zombies, infected by a virus that turns ordinary people into flesh-eating monsters, attack one of the last bastions of civilized society?
Still, if we ignore Whitehead’s diffident demurrals and assume the book is a parable, the question remains: a parable of what? The post-apocalyptic Manhattan Whitehead describes is indeed a fallen world. In the flashback-style digressions that fill much of the book, we learn that one night, while Mark Spitz was gambling in Atlantic City with a buddy, the world was engulfed by an as-yet unexplained plague that causes its sufferers to take bites out of the uninfected, thus spreading the virus. When the book begins, the spread of the plague has stalled, and a rump government of the uninfected, based in Buffalo, New York, has launched a campaign to retake Manhattan, starting at the bottom of the island in the so-called Zone One. To accomplish the mission, Mark Spitz and his fellow survivors must eliminate the remaining zombies, who are broken into two camps: the “skels,” who wander the earth in search of human flesh, and the mysterious “stragglers,” who are infected but harmless and seem to haunt places that have emotional meaning for them.
Just as political philosophers dating back to Plato have created utopian worlds ruled by people just like themselves, creators of post-apocalyptic worlds always seem to spare those who are most like them. So, who then is Mark Spitz? He is a black man, though as is the case for Whitehead himself, this fact doesn’t define him (or even get mentioned) for most of the novel. Before the plague struck, he was an ordinary twenty-something living with his parents in the Long Island suburbs and commuting into Manhattan to work “in Customer Relationship Management, New Media Department,” for a large coffee-making conglomerate:
He dispatched bots into the electronic ether, where they mingled among the various global sites and individual feeds, and when the bots returned with a hit or blip, he sent a message: “Thanks for coming, glad you liked the joe!” or “Next time try the Mocha Burst, you’ll thank me later.”
Mark Spitz, then, is a specialist in the ersatz, a technician of corporate-sponsored caring. This expertise, if that’s the word for it, seems of a piece with his personality, which is marked by a gift for the half-hearted effort. “He staked out the B or the B chose him: it was his native land,” Whitehead writes of his hero early on, adding: “His aptitude lay in the well-executed muddle, never shining, never flunking, but gathering himself for what it took to progress past life’s next random obstacle.”
Thus, in a world filled with miserable “stragglers” haunting their most emotionally resonant corners of the earth, Mark Spitz is the last slacker, saved from death by an unerring talent for never really giving a shit. Indeed, when read this way, the book can be seen as a series of incidents in which Mark Spitz tries to work up a genuine emotion about someone or something and is thwarted either by flesh-hungry zombies or his own tepid emotional temperature.
I wish, then, that Whitehead’s book had made me care about something, whether it was solitary, loveless Mark Spitz, or the lost world of pre-apocalypse Manhattan, or even zombies. But the truth is it didn’t. Colson Whitehead is gifted with one of the surest prose styles in American letters, but he is, like his hero in this book, a bit too cool for his own damn good. His last book, Sag Harbor, set in the world of wealthy “black boys with beach houses,” touched for a single chapter upon the bitter rage that can come with being black and successful in this country, and then, as if it had veered too close to a consuming flame, retreated into good-natured tales of summertime high-jinks among Long Island’s moneyed resort dwellers.
The last fifty pages of Zone One all but turn themselves, but the rest of the novel – which is to say its first 200 pages – are one long slog through endless digressions and flashbacks within flashbacks. If there were a PowerPoint presentation called “Do’s and Don’ts of Writing Novels,” this rule, “The Story Must Always Move Forward,” would appear on the second slide, right after “Show, Don’t Tell.” Whitehead is too talented and too experienced a writer not to grasp this basic idea, so I’m left with the troubling sense that, as with his last book, Whitehead, the walking embodiment of Brooklyn literary cool, smelled the danger in his premise and pulled back.
In an interview with The Atlantic, Zone One author Colson Whitehead says the distinction between “literary” and “fantasy” genres “have no use for me in my day-to-day work experience.” Whitehead is just one of the recent high-profile authors to foray into genre fiction, however, as Kim Wright explored in a piece for us last month.