Archive for May, 2014

This Is Water…

Today we were talking about how to live with the fact that we may be turning into Zombies.  In his speech “This Is Water”, David Foster Wallace might be hinting at an answer.


This Is Water

And remember: this is water.

Where they belong

Colson Whitehead, in the clip above, namechecks a useful list of zombie flicks and post-apocalyptic scenarios set in New York that hover in the margins of his novel Zone One. But his zombies have more mundane counterparts in the contemporary city. “It’s not hard for New Yorkers to picture zombies,” Whitehead is quoted in the Time post that accompanies the video. “You take the subway, you go to Whole Foods, and you’ve got a series of stock characters to draw from.”

The novel opens with a 21-page sequence that toggles between Mark Spitz’s memories of just such a pre-apocalypse Manhattan, flashbacks to “Last Night” and the early days of “the ruin,” and a present-day scenario in which Spitz and his crew battle four zombies inhabiting the Human Resources department of what had been a law firm in lower Manhattan. The action sequence at this stage is a little hum-drum for a zombie novel and only crops up intermittently between Spitz’s lyrical longing for a bygone era that, somewhat paradoxically, he seems to have loathed. (Maybe this is why the novel begins with an even earlier memory of an innocent childhood longing to live in Manhattan; in any case, Spitz’s thoughts seem to drift regularly. “The man gets distracted,” his co-worker Gary comments [26].) We learn early in this opening sequence that post-apocalyptic “reconstruction,” with a government centered in Buffalo, has already “progressed so far that clock-watching ha[s] returned,” and Spitz, who works as a zombie “sweeper” reclaiming city blocks one by one, finds the work a little boring. The pun on zombies working in Human Resources is only half the joke; Spitz — now a janitor of the undead — was destined to be a lawyer, and here he is, practically punching the clock.

Whitehead’s zombies are a special sort. Sure, there are some fierce ones — the skels — who’ll gladly pin you down and suck your brains out. But the more common kind, the “stragglers,” are the ones who resemble the folks in the Whole Foods lines, or maybe their country cousins at Walmart. These are the ones who just keep going to work, stuck in daily rituals of workplace productivity: “The former shrink, plague-blind, sat in her requisite lounge chair, feet up on the ottoman, blank attentive face waiting for the patient who was late, ever late, and unpacking the reasons for this would consume a large portion of a session that would never occur” (49).

As Gary also points out, the line between those “killed in the disaster” and “those who had been turned into vehicles of the plague” is thin at best. Either way the went, “they had been honed and trained so thoroughly by that extinguished world that they were doomed in this new one” (25). They were already zombies, in other words.

I’m reminded whenever I think about Zone One of an op-ed, written by Amy Wilentz, a UC-Irvine journalism prof, that ran in the New York Times around Halloween a few years ago. It had to do with the origins of zombies in the context of New World slavery — a different, but related, kind of zombie economy. Some highlights:

Most people think of [zombies] as the walking dead, a being without a soul or someone with no free will. This is true. But the zombie is not an alien enemy who’s been CGI-ed by Hollywood. He is a New World phenomenon that arose from the mixture of old African religious beliefs and the pain of slavery, especially the notoriously merciless and coldblooded slavery of French-run, pre-independence Haiti. In Africa, a dying person’s soul might be stolen and stoppered up in a ritual bottle for later use. But the full-blown zombie was a very logical offspring of New World slavery.

Wilentz asks, near the end of her piece, why we see such a resurgence of zombies in popular culture in recent years (at least in Europe and the US) and offers this explanation:

Of course, the zombie is scary in a primordial way, but in a modern way, too. He’s the living dead, but he’s also the inanimate animated, the robot of industrial dystopias. He’s great for fascism: one recent zombie movie (and there have been many) was called “The Fourth Reich.” The zombie is devoid of consciousness and therefore unable to critique the system that has entrapped him. He’s labor without grievance. He works free and never goes on strike. You don’t have to feed him much. He’s a Foxconn worker in China; a maquiladora seamstress in Guatemala; a citizen of North Korea; he’s the man, surely in the throes of psychosis and under the thrall of extreme poverty, who, years ago, during an interview, told me he believed he had once been a zombie himself.

It would be interesting to put Wilentz’s argument in conversation with the sense we get from Whitehead’s novel that corporate capitalism — the legacy and perpetuator, in many ways, of the slave trade that fueled the first global economy — can’t help but be a zombie-making machine.

How does Zone One‘s social satire of our own post-Fordist economy stack up against earlier plague narratives we’ve read? In certainly seems related to Camus’ indictment of bureaucracy. You might also be interested in this essay on Defoe and zombie films.

I also posted a link to this piece from Lapham’s Quarterly earlier in the semester that should be newly meaningful to you this week; it argues that Zone One‘s version of zombie apocalypse owes as much to Defoe as it does to Dawn of the Dead:

What A Journal of the Plague Year doesn’t have is zombies—at least not explicitly. Still, the numberless, suppurating victims are apt to behave like the undead at every turn, crowding the novel with “walking putrefied carcasses, whose breath was infectious and sweat poison.” These abject and degenerating bodies, disfigured by the “tokens” of disease that look like “small Knobs…of callous or Horn,” can turn on others, even running through the streets actively seeking to infect people impressed “with a kind of Rage, and a hatred against their own Kind,” as if the sickness itself were filled with an “evil Will” determined “to communicate it self.” Thus babies kill their mothers, and men tackle women in the street hoping to infect them with a deadly kiss. Others manage to dodge the disease, only to be disfigured by the weight of madness or grief.

Granted, there is none of the urgent panic attendant on hacking one’s way through a shambling horde only to turn around and see the second wave. This lends the novel a kind of studious detachment as H.F. traverses the city in an effort to comprehend the scope of the visitation through a process of quantification and statistical computation—tallying the bills of mortality, measuring the size of the municipal grave pits, and delineating the necrotic geography of ravaged neighborhoods. …

Ultimately, as with all these narratives, the real plague is modern life. Physicians trace the disease to a package of silks imported from Holland that originated in the Levant, spreading the infection through the ports, mills, marketplaces and manufactories that form the early-modern economy. Quarantines and barricades prove useless against the commodity’s voyage; but while the products themselves may be infectious, it’s the appetite to possess them that truly kills. In this, A Journal of the Plague Year presages the lurching mallrats of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, who continue the puppetry of consumption into the undead afterlife, a theme that is similarly taken up in … Zone One, where the post-apocalyptic reconstruction of New York provides opportunities for branding and product placement, and where the “Ambassadors of nil” evoke nothing so hellish as Times Square tourists, boring girlfriends, and the hollow communications of sitcoms and social media.

What’s left out of this analysis? You might be interested in this longish review of Zone One, which places the novel indirectly in the kind of context Wilentz invokes by addressing what the novel does — and doesn’t — say about the history of race in America. But we shouldn’t overlook the novel’s commentary on nostalgia as a driver of capitalist consumption. Spitz had “always wanted to live in New York” because of romantic attachments borne of movies and other media, and when one character asks him his post-plague plans are, he answers: “Move to the city.” How different is he from the hordes he’s hired to clean up?


The topic of young teenagers who contract abnormal diseases through unprotected sexual interaction became more and more popular in the modern cinematography. The movie Contracted (2013) is one of them; it tells about the terrible viral disease that plagues a young woman Samantha after she spends a night with a random stranger after a wild party. When at first the symptoms seem to be a usual sexual infection, eventually they turn out into a nightmare… Samantha’s story in Contracted parallels the story of Keith in Black Hole: both characters experience the seclusion from society due to the severity of their mutations.

“Contracted is the one that will make them think twice before having sex” James Shotwell, Under the gun review

Here is the trailer of the movie, enjoy: Contracted!

In the news

I’m thinking that next time around I may add a course role or assign one person a week to do a little news roundup on contagion topics. I keep seeing things I mean to post here. This, for example, from the Times on the WHO recent designation of Polio as a global health crisis.

Or this, also from the Times this weekend, on the relationship between HIV/AIDS rates in Africa and another disease nicknamed snail fever.

I also kept seeing references this weekend to dengue fever risks at the World Cup in Brazil.

And, closer to home.

All this makes me wonder if our semester’s reading has made us better consumers of news reports like these. What patterns or narratives or tropes are we now more apt to notice than we might have been a few months ago?

David Bowie’s Young Americans

From the Kools to the Jimmy Hendrix poster, I was amazed by how many references I understood in Black Hole. But I have no idea who David Bowie is. So, upon some research of his songs, I found one that might have some shared ideas with the relationship between Chris and Rob.To quote David Bowie in his song, “Heaven forbid, she’ll take anything but the freak, and his type, all for nothing”.

Or just enjoy David Bowie, since he is referenced in the book. Enjoy!

Here you go

A short live adaptation of Black Hole

*Warning explicit content:

I find the short film’s presentation of Keith, Chris, and Eliza very interesting. By making Keith the narrator of the film, the audience get the glimpse of the mind of the troubled teen. While the different reaction of Chris and Eliza on their mutation, demonstrates the how the disease affects different individuals. Eliza seems to be comfortable with her mutation while Chris does not.

“AAAAHH!” (Black Hole)

Black Hole is a graphic novel by Charles Burns, which explores contagious disease in a radically different way, using uncomfortable and disturbing imagery to emphasize relationships between disease, alcohol & drugs, and teen culture. All characters in the graphic novel are teenagers and even the parental figures are marginalized. It is reminiscent of the 1960s subcultures with its allusions to David Bowie, hallucinogenic drugs, rampant sex, and an unknown sexually transmitted disease, which – after close analysis – seems to be a metonym for the HIV virus.

“The bug” that causes the disease has a different manifestation in each character. For example, Eliza grows a tail (which keeps growing back even after broken) and seems to keep transforming and desire solitude, therefore she gets dubbed the “Lizard Queen.” Chris starts shedding her skin and always being near, almost needing, water, which makes her represent a snake. Rob grows a lesion on his neck that looks like a second mouth with a second tongue and a second mind – or an alter-ego speaking his inner thoughts. These mutations are mostly animalistic, not unlike the deformities encountered in Animal’s World, and not unlike that same novel, the characters stricken by the disease start shifting out of the identity of “human.” Even though the manifestation of the disease seems to be contingent upon the individuals’ characteristics (personalities?), the people develop a new sense of identity as the diseased. Chris becomes a snake that sheds its skin since she is uncomfortable with her own identity, while Eliza’s bodily transformations and changes in attitude turn her into a chameleon-like being. A lot like many other books we’ve read, disease forms another layer of identity and creates community: people start hanging out in the forest (#chilling). They live in seclusion because they are ashamed of who they are and sometimes compensate for/avenge their condition by infecting others, because of jealousy or as a punishment, like Dave spitting on a bully in the fast-food store: “See how easy that was? That’s all it takes… A little spit. Some saliva… And now you’re one of us.” Morality comes into question in similar ways as it does in Journal of the Plague Year.

However, unlike our previous books, the teen plague does not seem to be a catalyst for the narrative: it does not have a known cause, no one is grappling with its consequences or even questioning its symptoms; the disease plays a different role. One of its functions influences the visual representations: the black and white scenes could be related to the infection. Feeding from the conventional color symbolism, the dark scenes are the ones that include sex and the bug and death, while the light ones are disease-free. Another structural thing to notice are the two types of frames that divide the panels: the straight lines of the frames indicate that the narrative inside it is the dominant plot line, while the wavy frame represents ambiguous fantasies and crazy dream sequences.

(Image via)

Like in the image above, these dream states often foreshadow the future (some of the recurring symbols are the tail, the cave construction, Chris floating in water, the cigarette exiting the mouth-wound etc.) These déjà vus enable the very confusing organizing structure of the novel, which skips through different stories in place and time with retrospective fragments completing the cyclical form.

Also, what is the significance of the sandwiches?

Captain America’s Nemesis

I stumbled upon a review of Nemesis that makes a brief connection to Captain America, as we had done in class last week.

Bucky’s nickname, intentionally or not, alludes to the costumed sidekick of Captain America who appeared in the super-patriot’s 1941 debut as a teenage boy wonder fighting Nazis. Like his adventurer namesake, whose parents were also absent, Bucky Cantor lives in the shadow of greater men but has an important role to play in keeping the children of Weequahic calm and hopeful. He may seem doomed to a life of playing second-fiddle, but he can live with that, relying on what the narrator of the novel—not Bucky—describes as “an exacerbated sense of duty” though he is “endowed with little force of mind” (Loss, 1).

While this may or may not help us wrap up our discussion, I thought that some of you may like to give it a quick read.

Old Familiar Places

In the scene where Bucky and Marcia make their way back the cabin “hugging and kissing like lovesick teenagers” (200), I couldn’t help but think about how much the song Marcia sings, “I’ll Be Seeing You”, foreshadows Bucky’s terrible fate at the end of the novel.

The song itself was published in 1938 by Sammy Fain and Irving Kahal, and gained a lot of popularity during World War II. To many people during 1944, the song evoked feelings of nostalgia. Families and lovers longed for the soldiers’ return from the war, and everyone yearned for the world to revert back to simpler times. The song was hence often sung in memoriam of those serving in the war.

It was later covered by numerous artists, including Bing Cosby, who released his version in 1944. 

Check out his cover:

The fact that the very song Marcia sings to Bucky was the “anthem” for the American soldiers during World War II is ironic in itself, but it is the lyrics of the song that, in my opinion, really justifies its presence in the novel.

“‘I’ll be seeing you,'” Marcia sang to him softly, “in all the old familiar places -‘” (198)

These “old familiar places” – I suppose it’s plain to see that Marcia’s singing does inherently encapsulate her longing for a simple, polio-free life with Bucky, but perhaps there’s an element of foreshadowing here.

What are Bucky’s old familiar places from boyhood? For Bucky, his past, or his “old familiar places”, is ridden with the burden of his parents’ unfortunate endings and weakness and helplessness that came with his stature and poor eyesight. Isn’t this hopeless state similar to what he reverts to in the end of the novel? The polio left him broken, and he had lost the people that had meant the most to him; this is pretty much analogous to the state he was in at the start of his struggle towards manhood. His failure to reinvent himself set him up for his downfall – the fall of the soldier that never was.

As we wrap up our discussion on Nemesis, it may be worth thinking about the connection between Bucky’s past and his eventual state.

And perhaps, enjoy a great song.

Be a MAN

During my reading of the Nemesis I found myself mostly interested by the relationship between Bucky and his Grandfather and how it transformed Bucky into the character that he is. I wonder how much of Bucky’s character is actually his, considering he is living during the war times. Thinking on these I remembered the war recruitment posters that was present during those times.

Poor Bucky, robbed of the opportunity to go and fight the war found himself trying to protect the children of the town from maybe be a even deadlier opponent.But how much of Bucky’s character is created by the posters he sees all around, the announcements he is subject to every waking moment. Maybe our stalwart Bucky wouldn’t have been a example good American boy without the constant effects of his surroundings and his grandfather.

Here is another read about the manliness and protection.

Cheers from Latvia,