restricted access The Zombie Zone
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The Zombie Zone
Zone One. Colson Whitehead. Doubleday. 336 pages; cloth, $25.95, paper, $15.00.

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With hordes of the undead shambling across a blighted media landscape, zombie apocalypses are a dime a dozen these days, but when a major literary novelist turns his attention to the form, it’s an indication that this cultural meme has reached either maturity or senescence. Whitehead, author of five previous novels including The Intuitionist (1999) and Sag Harbor (2009), is one of the finest prose craftsmen currently practicing, and something about the topic here brings out the full measure of his extraordinary lyricism. Gorgeous sentences are devoted to gruesome scenes of flesh eating and brain splattering—as well as to brooding meditations on cultural inertia and social collapse. Whitehead is obviously a fan of the zombie genre; in an interview with The Atlantic, he acknowledged that, as a teenager, he was “demonically attached… to the first George Romero trilogy,” and Zone One features a series of studied homages to those movies: the famous line of dialogue from Night of the Living Dead (1968) about the zombies being “all messed up” is quoted twice, while that film’s scenario of a clutch of survivors besieged in a rural farmhouse is briefly reenacted. Yet it is clear that his true touchstone is Romero’s second zombie movie, Dawn of the Dead (1978), where the farmhouse is converted into a suburban shopping center and the apocalypse into an allegory of mindless consumerism. As one of that film’s characters comments when asked why the creatures are thronging to the mall, “this was an important place in their lives,” a judgment Whitehead echoes in his caustic depiction of New York as a “dead city continu[ing] its business in mirthless parody.”

His satirical target is broader than Romero’s, however, amounting to nothing less than an indictment of corporate capitalism and the political regime that coddles it. On the one hand, even before the plague that has converted most of the global population into the walking dead (“skels” in the novel’s jargon), there was something zombified about human culture, especially in its Westernized mass-media incarnation. Several references are made to a popular pre-plague sitcom, probably a version of Friends (1993–2004) that was influential in luring young outsiders to the metropolis, “powerless before the seduction of the impossible apartment that the gang inexplicably afforded on their shit-job salaries, unable to resist the scalpel-carved and well-abraded faces.” As the protagonist—nicknamed Mark Spitz thanks to a daring aquatic escape—grimly observes, their “underdeveloped cultural immune systems” left them susceptible to being “infected by reruns.” This infection lingers in the form of a subset of zombies called “stragglers” who remain trapped in inertial cycles of routine, usually centering on work or leisure activities, and who seem untroubled by the cannibal hunger that drives the skels: “They didn’t know you were there. They kept watching their movies.” Before the cataclysm, Mark Spitz had been centrally involved in the consumer industries himself, haunting social media sites on behalf of a “coffee multinational” in order “to sow product mindshare and nurture feelings of brand intimacy.” Small wonder he continues to have nightmares of the pre-plague world as one in which “all the supporting characters were dead…the panoply of citizens in the throes of their slow decay.”

On the other hand, the survivor culture that is patiently attempting to re-establish itself—by mounting paramilitary expeditions to eradicate the skels, such as the eponymous Zone One in lower Manhattan—seems impelled by a desire simply to reinstate neoliberal capitalism. The provisional government, based in Buffalo, has been jumpstarting the stalled economy by awarding defense contracts, subsidizing new growth industries (e.g., portable kerosene canisters), selling official sponsorships, and designing plucky logos in a vigorous PR campaign to rebuild the public trust. “The new era of reconstruction was forward-looking, prudent, attentive to the small details that will dividend in the years to come.” It was, Mark Spitz reflects, “almost as if the culture was picking up where it left off” in a vast project of temporal gentrification: