- Against the Post-Apocalyptic:Narrative Closure in Colson Whitehead’s Zone One
Colson Whitehead’s narrative of the zombie apocalypse, Zone One, is a metafictional reflection on apocalyptic narrative conventions, particularly the question of ending. The problem of ending is especially fraught in contemporary American literature because the present moment is characterized by historiographical uncertainty. This uncertainty stems from the tension between the pervasiveness of futurism in political and economic discourses and a heightened sense of the precariousness of human existence. Samuel Cohen has noted that the U.S. is currently in an era in which “what will come next seems increasingly unimaginable” (186). More broadly, the precarious nature of contemporary human existence has led Eugene Thacker to assert that many thinkers and artists have been drawn to the tropes of horror and the apocalyptic because “[t]he world is increasingly unthinkable” (1). Nevertheless, the desire to imagine and model the future persists. Considering this unsettled context might help us to understand why Whitehead, a MacArthur fellow and a celebrated literary stylist, would write a zombie novel. Furthermore, situating Zone One in a moment in which the nature and possibility of futurity are in question offers insight into Whitehead’s use of the zombie [End Page 559] narrative to explore the unthinkable possibility of a crisis so severe that it might not have a future at all.1
Uncertainty regarding the future permeated the cultural and political context in which Zone One appeared, in 2011. Political, economic, and cultural commentators were finding portents of doom or a better tomorrow in circumstances such as the collapse of the global financial markets, the protracted violence of the global war on terrorism, the events of the Arab Spring, and the election of Barack Obama. Whitehead’s novel captures the tension between a widespread sense of crisis and the equally pervasive influence of futurism, which figures crises as moments of possibility. Futurist assumptions are at the core of most contemporary narratives of crisis, which range from economic models predicated on cycles of creative destruction to the popular post-apocalyptic narratives that have proliferated in print, television, film, and video games. Zone One embraces radical narrative closure as an alternative to futurist narratives of crisis. This essay situates Zone One within this context of historiographical uncertainty to show how its characters’ attempts to account for the rupture brought on by the zombie apocalypse offer an implicit commentary on the possible future of racial relations, capitalism, the nation, and humanity.
Zone One’s characters share the historiographical uncertainty that the U.S. was experiencing in fall 2011. For the first two sections of Whitehead’s three-part novel, the primary tension arises from the reader’s and the characters’ shared uncertainty as to which kind of post-apocalyptic scenario they are negotiating. That is, the question at the forefront of the narrative is, Can the survivors succeed in their efforts to banish the zombie plague and clear the ground for a return to normalcy, or is coexistence with the zombie plague the new normal? The return to normalcy is the promise of the American Phoenix, the quasi-governmental organization that has arisen in the aftermath of the zompocalypse to impose order and meaning on the crisis. The fear that normalcy has been utterly lost emerges from the [End Page 560] protagonist’s sardonic resistance to the American Phoenix’s optimistic decrees. This resistance is motivated by the protagonist’s conviction that his survival is contingent on his ability to adapt to the new world that began with the outbreak of the zombie plague and eschew any hope of a return to the previous order. The protagonist, who is known only by his nickname, Mark Spitz, assumes that all refuges are necessarily temporary and all hope is illusory. Whereas other post-apocalyptic stories tend to validate one of these narratives, Whitehead’s novel opts for a third possibility. The third and final section of Zone One, in which the zombie plague intensifies and the final barriers fall, makes it clear that both parties are tragically mistaken. The engine driving the text is neither the American Phoenix’s narrative of rebirth, nor the protagonist’s...