Already gone

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 they 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? It certainly seems related to Camus’ indictment of bureaucratic modernity. You might also be interested in this essay on Defoe and zombie films.

The Whitehead/Defoe/zombie connection also pops up in this piece from Lapham’s Quarterly, which 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?


 Add your comment
  1. Hi Professor!

    I enjoyed how Whitehead took the saturated, current overuse of the zombie genre and made it a unique social commentary on the remaking of a post-apocalyptic society.

    While Whitehead touches on many issues in his novel, I really liked seeing how he managed to show that the current life we live now is just as zombiefied as real zombies in the novel. Mark Spitz talks about the “cow-eyed vacancy” of tourist faces pre-zombie invasion and the “pock-faced assistant manager of the shoe store crouched before the foot-measuing instrument, frozen, sans customers” of the post-zombie invasion. They both are stuck in a repetitive nature, both of the living dead. The tourist imagery really stuck with me, similar to the picture you showed at the end of your post. For example, when watching Old Faithful erupt in Yellowstone with family, I always notice swarming masses of tourist with their phones, video-cameras, Canons and Nikons snapping away like moths drawn towards light. As I grew older and visited other famous sites around the world, these photo-taking masses bred a sense of sadness towards me, we look kind of pathetic doing that. We look controlled and more focused on the picture rather than enjoying the view with our own eyes. I really believe that Whitehead is really criticizing the consumer culture and how it while we are the one consuming the goods, we are actually the ones being consumed.

    Unlike other books’ protagonists that we read such as Animal and Bucky, Spitz is the most average, normal person we have encountered. Animal is severely deformed but is the only one of his kind in the novel and he turns out to have matured at the end of the novel. With Bucky, we have a tragic hero whose sense of responsibility ultimately consumes him. Yet with Spitz, he kind of is just there. He survives by being normal, by not being the hero nor the anti-hero. He does not call attention to himself, yet he is not devoid of human contact. It is hard to like or dislike him. And the ending of the novel doesn’t fulfill any sort of conclusion, but it seems completely understandable for the kind of person Spitz is.

    Thanks for an awesome semester guys! Thank you Professor Waterman for waddling through our first messy explications and teaching us how to write more sophisticated and challenging us to create new writing styles. Loved learning how disease makes people crazy and how society is so vicious. Where’s the empathy? Maybe we can change that.

    All the best,

    • Hi Class,

      While reading this book that criticizes the masses with mundane jobs and shared consumption behaviors, I keep asking myself an essential question that I perennially have no clue to answer it: what is zombie? What is the definition of zombie? According to the online dictionary, a zombie is “the body of a dead person given the semblance of life, but mute and will-less, by a supernatural force, usually for some evil purpose.” However, since this definition does not really fit into the context of this book, Whitehead may indicate a zombie as “a person whose behavior or responses are wooden, listless, or seemingly rote; automaton”. That is, a person whose behaviors are predictable and strictly follow certain rules can be called “zombie” according to Whitehead. However, this statement seems to be too harsh at least for me.

      While Whitehead write normal citizens who follow certain life routines as “zombies”, he seems to encourage his readers to judge these citizens as pathetic, sad, and clown-like figures. However, instead of laughing at these people, I would rather question that why they behave in these so-called zombie ways? Why they decide to live in their repetitive daily routines and follow their mundane life styles? Why they don’t want to do something more “interesting” and be “cool”? Why they prefer similar choices of consumption? Why they line up in front of Walmart for necessities? Why they thrust into the crowded downtown Manhattan with their Nikon or Cannon? Because they are born as mindless zombies? Because they are not reasonable enough to escape the trap of the contemporary consumer culture?

      Rather than sympathizing the masses and scarily realizing that we also share many similarities with them, I think the force behind the scene is more dangerous than our “human nature”. In my opinion, this force may be SOCIAL EXPECTATION. We not only all live under specific social expectations, we commonly internalize this external force and call it our ” goals, roles, and responsibilities”. As a result, we work hard to fulfill our responsibilities to reach these social expectations though they may initially contradictory to our own wills. The scariest and most irrational decision that we make is to automatically follow these social expectations without questioning them. From this perspective, who give social expectations this overwhelming force to control us? While we are suffering and exhausted under the social expectations, why we are still forcing social expectations to the others? Here is a little example that may not be very appropriate in this context. As Girl A says to herself that “I am not curvy enough”, she also talks to Girl B that “you can look better by exercising more”. While Girl B agrees with Girl A, they decide to go to gym together. (Please don’t feel offended by this example because it’s clearly imperfect. To be honest, I go to gym everyday and always ask my friends to go with me…) I make up this scenario just to illustrate that sometimes we can be both carriers and victims of certain social expectations.

      Well, I don’t mean to be super critical… (maybe just in a sassy mood… LOL)

      Thanks for a great semester, my lovely zombie classmates!

      Regards (from the underground),

      • Well, just found out that I cannot edit the typos in my own comment… Sorry my lovely zombie classmates… In the comment above, I meant “criticizes the masses as zombies” “personally” “Whitehead writes”…

        Actually, why we are following these restricted grammars anyways? Aren’t they also rules that control our writings and limit our freedom?

  2. Mahra Al Suwaidi

    Hi Professor,

    I agree that some of the zombies are depicted as mundane and ordinary, especially since there were little action scenes in the novel. Although, I think it is significant for us to also think about the relationship of the uninfected, the living, to the infected, the living dead. It is as though Mark Spitz is just like the zombies in the sense that he is bored by his job as a zombie hunter; it becomes routinized and boring after a while. Moreover, when it comes to the zombies that work at Human Resources, for instance, they are doing ordinary things, such as printing papers, that is also not out of the ordinary which become routinized. Therefore, both these ‘species’ are not so different from each other after all. It is also fruitful for us to think about race in this novel, the African Americans to be specific, as the author, Colson Whitehead, could be sending us a message about how both sides are similar in some sense. This comparison that I am making of the living and the living dead is because all do the exact same things and are angry at the same things etc. In other words, repetition, rituals and habits are all part of both sides’ lives and so, it is as if the living are also zombies.

    With that being said, we can also look at other ways the living resemble the living dead, such as looking at how Mark Spitz’ parents are not up to date as it is as if they are stuck in the past because they are not plugged into the digital world. In addition, we can also see that when routines are made, people become zombie-like because they do not have to think about what they are doing anymore: “His parents’ hands dead on his shoulders, year after year” (4). Thus, we can compare the living to the zombies because they are stuck in the same age that they were before they died and are doing the same old things. It is as if time stopped for them: “They did not move when you happened on them. They didn’t know you were there. They kept watching their movies” (61). When thinking about the tensions that may arise between the old and the modern, both consume us in different ways. Ideal consumers, just like those who aren’t (i.e. Mark Spitz’s parents), can also be zombie-like because of consumer patterns, such as the uncle having different girlfriends. Thus, the consumer culture could be a zombie (and it is as though the buildings shown in the novel are also zombies that then become gutted) that consumes people because one works for hours doing the same old predictable things, is mad and moody just like one would think zombies are, and where relationships become professional as opposed to familial. It is as though consumption becomes addictive just like how one would think zombies would be. This consumption almost becomes a duty where everyone is commercial and consumer oriented, forever. Thus, one question we can ask is if Mark Spitz was able to make it through because he resembles the zombies – the fact that he is an average human being which, as mentioned above, zombies also seem to be?

    Happy reading!

    Thanks & Regards

    Mahra Al Suwaidi

  3. Hello Professor!

    Unlike most of our previous readings where those who survive the epidemic feel thankful and blessed, although survivor’s guilt carries some away, Whitehead’s Zone One presents an unusual reaction after the apocalypse is defeated. Zone One is about trying to fix or resolve a place after it has been suddenly destroyed which places a great deal of responsibility and pressure on those witnessing the post-apocalyptic society they have been left with. Somewhat similar to what Bucky has felt and carried throughout the novel Nemesis and forcing himself to take part in a heroic effort to conquer the polio epidemic but in Zone One, Mark Spitz and his group are taking action only after the decline of the destruction and not during.

    It is interesting how race plays a part in this novel. As Mahra points out, it is important to think about this aspect and what the author is trying to communicate. The similarity between the living and the dead is one way to compare the Americans and African-Americans in the book and it might have been the way the author wanted us to see the differences and similarities. We have established that Zone One shows how life after the apocalypse remains organized in a routine kind of living with people carrying repetitive actions making the living seem like zombies because of their continuous daily work life. This reminds me of the people of Oran that are always consumed by following the same boring habitual routine, which consists of work, cinema, dining and love affairs. However, what is different here is that Whitehead divides the zombies in this novel into two types: skels and stragglers. Skels are the aggressive flesh-eating monsters that resemble the stereotypical view of zombies in popular culture. Stragglers, however, make up a group smaller in size than that of skels and they are depicted as a calmer group that strives to find a place that fits them well so that they can reside there in peace. In a way, I saw this division of the two types of zombies corresponding to the division between white Americans and African-Americans at the time.

    The “malfunctioning” stragglers are the ones who have to be driven out by volunteering civilians after the dangerous ones have been dealt with. The comparison might not resemble what happens to each group accurately but it is interesting to think about the separation of the two groups in this way. Why does Whitehead choose to divide his zombies anyway? One obvious answer to this question is that Whitehead could have wanted to challenge our typical views of zombies and rethink the whole idea of how zombies came about and how they actually mirror us in a way. By always being focused on a single cycle of actions each day and being surrounded and controlled by technology, it is like we are not using our minds anymore; we are programmed just like our devices.


  4. Hello Everyone,
    We talked about Mark’s job in the class. I wanted to talk about it here too.
    Mark criticizes the corporate organizations that to some extent dictate our consumption. He tells us about his job in a coffee company. This coffee company has grown in a short period of time and Mark was there to help advertise the coffee to the people through the use of social media. This coffee company had gained so much popularity that people were so used to having it. The coffee is a contagion here. Big companies like the coffee company encourages people to use their product thereby spreading the contagion. They are spreading this contagion that using their product is a way of being cool and having good social status. They are manipulating people feelings to get what they want-money and to make profit. Their contagion as harmful as the one from the zombies. Now, they have a way of saving themselves from zombies but big companies are and still will be spreading their contagion to make more money.


    • Dear Krishna,

      I agree with you on how the coffee company was described as a contagion. Yet, in the novel we also see how the idea “consumerism” has already spread through the society. People wore the same things, did the same activities. Why is that? New York, is a capitalist city, it remains the same even after the apocalypse. Which is one of the reasons why Spitz gets the job in the first. A capitalist economy will always be balanced through profit and cooperation between the consumers and producers. The regrouping and reestablishment of society influenced the people to go back to their old habits. It also creates a sense of community, that all familiar with.

      However, I am interested in why and how the ideas of people have changed after the apocalypse. The author explained that everyone was corrupt (weird) in their own ways to express their individuality, but this was not the case after the event. People’s genuine personality slowly fades away as they lost the people they loved. They are left scarred with memories, that really differentiate them from one another a they try to regroup.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.