The Zombies, Ourselves

Integral to Colson Whitehead’s Zone One is the idea of the “American Phoenix”; the hope that the United States will emerge from the ashes of catastrophe and return to its former state of “glory”. The survivors’ attempts at rebuilding start with the transformation of Manhattan into an inhabitable area (Zone One; the first to come of a reclaimed country).

“Giving in to that pandemic of pheenie optimism that was inescapable nowadays and made it hard to breathe, a contagion in it’s own right.” (p. 16); thus the idea of rebuilding has become an anchor to sanity for the people of the USA. It is also important to note that the urge to rebuild is described as a contagion of its own.

The symbolism of the phoenix is particularly apt given that the neutralized living dead are incinerated and their ashes surround the living’s stronghold in Wonton; the living’s strife for reconstruction and return to normality takes place amidst the ashes of those who used to belong to their society.

Regarding the disposal of zombies and its relation with the American hope for reconstruction, it-s almost essential to analyze the following quote: “It was always disquieting to see empty pavement where you’d dumped some terminated skels. It was as if they’d just walked away.” (p. 93) This statement suggests that the dead keep standing up after getting killed, coming again and again in never-ending nightmare, and hinting at the unlikeliness of overcoming the dead and reestablishing the previous order.

Can the survivors actually build a society that is exactly the same as the one pre-apocalypse? Is it better to reinstate a central government or allow survivors to duel in anarchy, fending themselves against the dead and the thieving, more unpredictable living? Does the failure of governmental institutions and other sources of authority in our previous readings helps us answer this question?

Mark Spitz’s job is to “sweep” the area of “stragglers”: a minority of the living dead that are frozen in time doing a single action. Instead of the traditional brain-munching, limping human carcasses we, as readers, are more accustomed to, Whitehead plays with the idea of the zombie, instead depicting them as those who are destined to repeat the same action for eternity. The “stragglers” also come as a surprise to the characters in the book, who do not understand what causes some to become “skels” and others to become “stragglers”.

“Their lives had been an interminable loop of repeated gestures; now their existences were winnowed to this discrete and eternal moment.” (p. 62)

The comparison between zombies and humans is reinforced with the idea of these “stragglers”. It is seen in the novel that the stragglers are referred to as having gender:

“Mark Spitz had noticed on numerous occasions that while the regular skels got referred to as it, the stragglers were awarded male and female pronouns, and he wondered what that meant.”

By humanizing the stragglers, Whitehead is suggesting that the people of modern American society are nothing but zombies, caught in “interminable loop(s)”.

Is the straggler’s tendency to follow loops in behavior the result of capitalistic society or a comment on human nature and the necessity for routine and monotony? Is monotony related to the impression of having a purpose in life

The narrator introduces the concept of PASD (Post Apocalyptic Stress Disorder). PASD manifests itself in different ways for different people. The inconsistency of symptoms emphasizes the individuality of characters.

“Given the vast galaxy of survivor dysfunction – PASD in its sundry tics, fugues, existential fevers – the Wastelander’s particular corner of pathology was, Mark Spitz decided, unremarkable.” (p. 37)

The notion of individuality runs throughout the novel as a contrast to the idea that, prior to the outbreak, people were but zombies, entrapped in the machinery of capitalism, lacking individuality in the sense that they were all destined to go through monotonous lives.

“There were hours when every last person on Earth thought they were the last person on Earth, and it was precisely this thought of final, irrevocable isolation that united them all.” (p. 108)

In what way does this variation of symptoms between individuals resemble “the bug” in Black Hole? To what extent? Since the plague brought variation to an otherwise monotonous lifestyle, can we consider the disease as a blessing in disguise, as we had discussed for Dream of Ding Village?

Take care guys.

Rafa, Liam and Vlad


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  1. Your post refers to the rebuilding of society as a “contagion of its own”. I think it is interesting to describe the process in this sense. Overall, it is important to note how different this novel is from the different works we have already studied. Zone One does not necessarily attach a negative stigma to the disease; by assigning genders to the infected stragglers, like the post mentioned, they are humanized. In other novels we have looked at, victims of the disease are ostracized and segregated. Rather than individualizing them by giving them genders, they are often seen as a body of uniformly infected people. In Black Hole for instance, body parts are found around the jungle. There is no specific mention as to whom they belonged to, or whether the owner was a male or female. Considering zombies, we often to not pay particular attention to the gender.

    The mention of the straggler’s behavior mirroring a capitalistic society sheds light on the ‘bigger picture’ of the novel. Whitehead satirizes society through the use of the stragglers and their repetitive actions that parallel the human need for routine and monotony. The fact that Mark Spitz, the protagonist, is seen as being mediocre allows the readers to relate to him and better perceive the satire.

    • Hi Azmyra,
      Thanks for your post! I got to agree with, I think Whitehead’s description of the relationship between the living and the diseased/undead is quite different from what we have read so far. I find it especially interesting when discussing the importance of humanization of zombies in the context of Zone One to consider that sweepers are required to keep a record of all of their kills. I think this serves both a dehumanizing as well as humanizing function. It definitely sets the killed undead apart from the ‘general horde’ of the zombies, since now the living actually know their gender and age. On the other hand though, I think it becomes quite clear the identity of these undead is unimportant to Buffalo, they need this information to “deliver end dates and progress and the return to life before.” (p. 42) Thus, knowing something about the zombies above and beyond just simply killing them becomes essential for humanity, a unique phenomenon in this kind of genre. It also creates one more link between the not-so-living and not-really dead, blurring the lines between being an actual zombie and a metaphorical one.

      Overall, however, I think Whitehead does a really fascinating job at connecting several themes in his book, the parallel between the zombified capitalism of our era, our Stockholm Syndrom towards the less-than-ideal modernity, our desperate attempts to hang onto the American Dream even after an apocalypse. Instead of trying to create something new, Mark Spitz’s world is “rebuilding,” and this is where the true disease of society is hidden. The true issue is not that we are zombies; it is that we want to continue being them.

  2. In your post you mention the symbolism of the “American Phoenix” and claim that it is a reference to the US capability to reinstate itself into its former glory, and the obsession of the citizens of Zone One with rebuilding a world modelled on the lost one. I think that this is a right assumption, but at the same time I believe that the theme of the phoenix might carry many other implications as well. When analyzed parallel to the quote “the minute you bury the miserable day it rises from its coffin the next morning, this monster” (p.183) for example, the phrase “American Phoenix” might imply that in a human life cycle every day is like a battle with zombies, every day is a new ‘opportunity’ to fight for our survival in the never ending ‘game’ of evolution; a new day to rise from our ashes again and start anew. To me Zone One suggests the ‘obligation’ of humans to perform a never ending ritual of the phoenix, because every day we die a little bit inside then mend our wounds and attempt to start again.

  3. Hey Laura,
    Just read your comment, and your alternative explanation for the “American Phoenix” term caught my attention: man’s obligation of rising up every morning to continue fighting a battle that can’t be won seems as yet another comparison between everyday man and zombies, due to the former’s repetitive and irrational behaviour. In addition, the possibility that this attitude of endlessly struggling is actually part of our nature provides a grim interpretation that it’s inevitable for us to behave like zombies. The government’s support of this slogan and of a reconstruction that restores society exactly as it was before the plague wouldn’t necessarily lead to the revived society to be zombie-like again; it was almost inevitable to be like that.

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