- Naturalist Compulsion, Racial Divides, and the Time-Loop Zombie
Colson Whitehead's Zone One (2012) popularized a new kind of zombie: neither the slow, lumbering, hungry zombies made famous in George Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968) nor the more recently introduced fast zombies of 28 Days Later (2002) and World War Z (2006), but the time-loop zombie compulsively repeating a habitual action. Whitehead's "stragglers"—a succession of imponderable tableaux frequently consisting of bodies going through the motions of their everyday labor—shift the zombie's instinctive drive from hunger to a blend of habit and nostalgia. At the same time, they introduce into the zombie narrative [End Page 23] forms of motivation and temporality that have long been central to naturalist and neonaturalist fiction: a life characterized not by individual will or teleological progression but by compulsive repetition.
This resonance between the time-loop zombie and the naturalist mode was anticipated by Georg Lukács, who lamented that readers of naturalist fiction "do not watch a man whom we have come to know and love being spiritually murdered by capitalism in the course of the novel, but follow a corpse in passage through still lives becoming increasingly aware of being dead" (1970, 146). Whereas Lukács suggests that such lifeless tableaux—in part because of their descriptive excess—contribute little to readers' under-standings of human character and social relations, Jennifer Fleissner offers a more generous interpretation of naturalism's repetitive tics in her influential study Women, Compulsion, Modernity (2004). Rather than writing off naturalist characters as dead, Fleissner finds in them a distinctive kind of motion: "naturalism's most characteristic plot, as in the case of the modern young woman, is marked by neither the steep arc of decline nor that of triumph, but rather by an ongoing, nonlinear, repetitive motion—back and forth, around and around, on and on—that has the distinctive effect of seeming also like a stuckness in place" (2004, 9). Fleissner's central innovation in reading naturalism as a mode concerned with the emergence of modern women involves a revaluation of naturalism's obsession with the nonlinear, stalled temporality—of not only description but domestic time, fads, sentimental drift, and the death drive—not as a deterministic tendency toward still life but as a dynamic, compulsive motion. As opposed to the determinism so often associated with naturalism, "compulsion would indicate more of a participation, even an investment, in one's own reduction from agent to automaton. … What is needed, clearly, is a construal of compulsive behavior, available within the period itself, in which it ceases to appear in its common guise—as merely the stagnant, repetitive opposite of the will to act—and becomes inextricable from creative potentiality" (2004, 39). Characterized by the psychologist Pierre Janet as a "feeling of incompleteness," compulsion underscores how naturalism's antinarrative tendencies evoke "possibilities left incomplete"—both for individual women and for our understanding of historical time (55). [End Page 24]
How might Fleissner's theorization of "compulsion" reshape our understanding of naturalism's aesthetic legacies? In her book's conclusion, Fleissner explores how African American women's fiction extended earlier naturalists' efforts to "[inhabit] the degraded position of embodied subject too deeply" (2004, 277). This essay extends Fleissner's discussion of the intersection between race and naturalist compulsion into twenty-first-century narratives. We consider how two dystopian novels that center the time-loop zombie—Whitehead's Zone One and Ling Ma's Severance (2018)—deploy naturalism's "ongoing, nonlinear, repetitive motion" to dramatize economic, environmental, epidemiological, and racial contradictions that simultaneously sustain and threaten global capitalism. Whitehead and Ma imagine dystopian scenarios wherein historical time itself is in the process of dissolution. In a historical moment when the sustainability of the capitalist economy seems deeply precarious, what does it mean to be "stuck" in motion? The strange, ambivalent affinities that Whitehead and Ma chart between their racialized protagonists and time-loop zombies point toward both the embodied appeal of capitalism's habits and the possibility of carving out modes of life and futurity after the end of capitalism.