When is a bandwagon no longer a bandwagon? How about when a genuine author comes along, takes his place and kicks the crap back into the street? The best I can tell from my own reading is that would leave three writers whose insight goes deeper than the mechanics of killing the undead. The third, of course, is zombie newcomer Colson Whitehead. The rest of the wannabes should grab a broom and start sweeping the street.
It takes some nerve to approach such a trendy subject, but Whitehead has penetrated to its heart and brought back a novel that resonates on many fronts. May I blushingly suggest that in the course of 259 pages he has found the true appeal of the zombie storyline, and it completely dovetails with my own? Of course, I’ve only stumbled through a few incoherent emails, while Whitehead has unerringly written a novel both graceful and frightening in its depths.
Mark Spitz is the main character of the narrative. A determinedly average person from an ordinary middle-class family, he has thus far survived the zombie apocalypse, and is now engaged in an overwhelming volunteer task. He and thousands of other civilians are assigned to clear New York, building by building, of the undead. The professional military has already conducted the massive operations that eliminated the majority of the zombie hordes, and it is now up to Mark Spitz and his two partners to join in the mopping up so that “Zone One” can begin rebuilding. Manhattan still attracts the ambitious and hungry (mostly hungry), but military barricades and crematoria work 24 hours a day to deal with that external threat.
Of course we learn more about Mark Spitz as the story progresses—his life before the plague, his initial discovery of the threat, his own flight from shelter to shelter, the source of his nom-de-guerre. He is such an ordinary person that we come to completely identify with him, but even there Colson manages to surprise us. One aspect of Mark Spitz’s personality we especially adopt for ourselves is his certainty that he is destined to survive. Who among us doesn’t think that we’ll be exempt from the pandemic, the asteroid crash, the accidental nuclear war? Death is always for other people.
Where Max Brooks assembled first-person narratives, Whitehead goes deeper into the psychology of a survivor whose internal life reveals far more than the spoken word ever could. We see how he divides other living humans into classes based on their chances, and treats them accordingly; we see what little remains of his survivor’s guilt, and we see the hope in others that he ruthlessly suppresses in himself.
But I read all of this as an extended metaphor. Mark Spitz withheld almost all of himself from others even before survival made that necessary. He had a distaste for people that didn’t quite rise to the level of misanthropy, tolerating a few for the company or opportunities they provided while he went about his self-centered life. Don’t we all do that? Don’t we all reveal only the portions of ourselves that we want others to see? Sure, the closer they are the more we reveal, but even our inmost thoughts are ours alone, dismal as that may sound. The zombie apocalypse gives perfect cover to anyone who doesn’t want to feel guilty about withholding themselves.
My own thoughts about the literary zombie trend? It’s about The Other. We live in a world that is so fractured by ethnic, linguistic, national, class, and political divisions that it would take a saint not to create groups of Us and Them. The zombie narrative cuts through that Gordian knot. We are alive. They are dead. No matter how viciously we the living may have treated each other before, now we represent possibly the best way to guarantee our own survival. And when it comes down to that, I’m going to sacrifice You for Me. So be it.
I’ve tried not to reveal much of the story because I want to leave the reading of this terrific novel to you. I would, however, appreciate hearing your thoughts on the last few paragraphs.
Check the WRL catalog for Zone One