May 13, 2012
I’m a sucker for zombies. The first movie I can ever remember seeing is Tom Savini’s color remake of George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead”. Maybe this has indelibly imprinted my tastes, but whatever the reason zombies pique my interest. Now, I’m not the only one. Zombies are something of a fad at the moment. This piece is from 2010, but I think it still holds as “The Walking Dead” marches on accompanied by a horde of movies and books.
Initially my love of zombies grew into a love for all things horror. I watched far too many horror movies as a kid. I remember being terrified by Chucky, Puppet Master, Jason, and Freddy. However, my tastes have matured. I now prize characters above extraneous action. So that meant when I read a review of Colson Whitehead’s “Zone One” that said it would disappoint zombie fans due to its focus on thoughts and life rather than braining corpses, I knew I had to read it.
This post will contain “spoilers”, but if a work of art can be spoiled it isn’t very good now is it? Anyway, I will be discussing matters that are not revealed until the end of the book, so caveat lector!
While this is indeed a zombie book, it is a zombie book in the vein of the comic series “The Walking Dead” in that the zombie apocalypse is a backdrop allowing the protagonist to examine life more clearly. The lens for our examination is Mark Spitz, who is self-admittedly mediocre. Mark Spitz is on a team of sweepers who have been assigned to Zone One in what was New York City. The marines have already cleared out the active zombies, and all that remain are stragglers. These stragglers are harmlessly catatonic skels. The sweepers simply drop ’em, bag ’em, and drag ’em outside for disposal to take care of. This is the day-to-day grind for Mark Spitz and his team, and as they go about their work Mark Spitz thinks about his life and the stragglers.
There are so many things I would love to talk about. The recurring image of the Uncle’s building, why the lieutenant opted out, the ruminations on the stragglers, corporate-sponsorship for the recovery, PR branding of recovery (the American Phoenix), the beautiful imagery of the ash, the pacing, etc. This goes to show how excellent the book is. I’ll limit myself to the themes of mediocrity and race.
The strongest theme in the book is how Mark Spitz’s resilient mediocrity makes him an ideal survivalist in this zombie-infested world. This taps into what zombie-ism is all about. Zombies are all equal. No matter their former station in life, every zombie is just as weak, stupid, and ravenous as every other zombie. This point is hammered home when we see the ocean of skels pressing against the wall. We see people from all walks of life, and they are now indistinguishable drops of water in this undead ocean. Interestingly, all of the survivors independently start referring to the undead in terms of weather. This shows how the undead are a backdrop, allowing the story to focus on the living and life.
In a world that is now dominated by the zombie natural force of mediocrity, Mark Spitz has the strongest advantage as he is and has always been hopelessly mediocre. Mediocre grades (straight B’s), mediocre job (online PR for Starbucks), mediocre life (no girlfriend and still living with his parents). So despite his lack of survival talents, Mark Spitz makes it through Last Night and outlasts many companions.
In listening to survivors’ tales, what you hear the most about is what they were thinking and feeling. How they kept things together. So while Mark Spitz does not possess an edge in survival skills or physical ability, his mediocre mentality keeps him alive. Whereas the brave and daring risk too much, whereas the cowardly and meek risk too little, Mark Spitz risks just enough. Furthermore, as he has always been mediocre, he is actually comfortable among the dead, unlike some of his companions who snap or commit suicide.
The idea that mediocrity is a benefit in this undead world is unique. It makes you wonder how mediocrity pervades modern life. Mark Spitz does a totally worthless job. He meets someone who has a similarly worthless job, scripting the cut scenes for video games. Most of the character’s former jobs are worthless. The world could easily be rid of them without a problem. How many people waste their time on a worthless job today?
The other interesting theme I want to talk about is race. When you are nearly done with the book, you find out that Mark Spitz is black. This stopped me. And then made me ask myself why I stopped. Why does it make such a difference? I can easily point to how it changes the dynamic of the sweeper team he is on, as Mark Spitz is paired with a presumably racist redneck. I can also say how it shifts other survivors’ views of him and affects their decision to welcome or to avoid him. No matter what I say, I still cannot put my finger on how it permeates the novel. It’s something I will continue to think about.
In a larger context, our society is still very racially divided. In the apocalyptic world of “Zone One”, people from all different socioeconomic and racial backgrounds work together against a common enemy. I hope that the author doesn’t think we need such a drastic measure to unite. Although, given the recent issues of Trayvon Martin and Rue in “The Hunger Games” we may need something so earth shaking.
While I highlighted the two themes that resonated most with me, the novel is multifaceted. I think it portrays a depressingly realistic view of what the undead world would be like. To lighten the mood, I want to leave you with a humorous quote from it. Mark Spitz is ruminating about his old job, where he haunted social media for any chance to hawk Starbucks. When people posted things like “I’m exhuasted,” he would reply back, “Sounds like you need a hearty cup of Iced Number Seven!” He thinks how that job would be in this new world. “Nothing cures the Just Got Exsanguinated Blues like a foam mustache, IMHO.”