- Living with PASD
Colson Whitehead's Zone One is the greatest American novel of the twenty-first century. I have some large reasons for making this claim, which I'll get to later, but it says something about Whitehead's book that a reader can praise it simply by recounting any of a number of particularly brilliant scenes. Here's the one I told everyone about when I was first reading it: Almost exactly a quarter of a way into the novel, the narrator breaks from the book's present action, in a New York City slowly being cleared of the undead, and relates the "Last Night story" (71) of protagonist Mark Spitz (his two-part nickname). It begins with him hurriedly fleeing his parents' house, then flashes back to a trip to Atlantic City on the last weekend before a plague turns much of the human race into flesh-eating zombies. The narration, in third-person limited mode, ruminates on the self-contained environment of the casino that Mark Spitz and his friend Kyle visit: "After thirty-six hours they realized, according to custom, that they hadn't yet left the premises, and submitted happily to the artificial habitat that is the modern casino. They did not want. It was all inside. Their brains fogged over as possibility and failure enthralled them in a perpetual and tantalizing loop" (66). Not having watched the news, they chalk up the smaller number of customers and the absence of a favorite dealer to a new competitor luring away [End Page 406] business. On their Sunday drive home, bad omens mount. Traffic is unusually bad, and emergency vehicles and other cars periodically speed past them on the shoulder. When Kyle drops him off, Mark Spitz sees what he thinks is a group of neighborhood boys playing basketball: "There was a small round shape on the pavement and they bent into a huddle" (68). After the two friends say goodbye "for the last time," Mark Spitz enters his childhood home, where he is living in the basement. The narration has taken three pages to arrive here, and it spends another five paragraphs (four long, one short) getting Mark Spitz to the threshold of his parents' bedroom. Then comes another flashback, to a time in his childhood when, frightened by a nature program about hyenas, he had tried to slip into his parents' bed and surprised his mother giving his father fellatio. Finally:
[H]e opened the door of his parents' bedroom and witnessed his mother's grisly ministrations to his father. She was hunched over him, gnawing away with ecstatic fervor on a flap of his intestine, which, in the crepuscular flicker of the television, adopted a phallic aspect. He thought immediately of when he was six, not only because of the similar tableau before him but because of that tendency of the human mind, in periods of duress, to seek refuge in more peaceful times, such as a childhood experience, as a barricade against horror.(70-71)
"That was the start of his Last Night story," the flashback concludes. "Everybody had one" (71).
This scene epitomizes a lot of what is both typical of, and remarkable about, Whitehead's novel. First, there is the elaborately nested structure. The novel as a whole takes place over three days (the sections are labeled "Friday," "Saturday," and "Sunday") during which Mark Spitz and his fellow sweepers Kaitlyn and Gary pursue their current occupation of clearing out the remaining zombies, block by block, from Zone One of Lower Manhattan, but numerous flashbacks recount his life both before and after Last Night.
Then, too, the way in which Mark Spitz and Kyle continually misrecognize signs of the coming collapse echoes one of the novel's running themes, the resemblance between the world before and the world after Last Night. As Mark McGurl noted [End Page 407] over a year before the publication of Zone One, the zombies populating such works as Max Brooks'sWorld War Z (2006) and Seth Grahame-Smith's Jane Austen mash-up...