Apocalypse on the Lower East Side: Zone One Zombies

zombie nurse on parade

I am sick of zombies.

Once upon a time, I had a Dawn of the Dead poster hanging on my apartment wall and would watch Shaun of the Dead a half-dozen times. Zombies had their own little corner in my pop-culture collective.  Not a big one, but enough real estate in my heart that if I stumbled upon a late night film featuring a shambling, half-rotted actor in search of “braaaainnns” and clunky social commentary, I might have settled in for the duration.

It’s amazing how fast we can ruin these things for ourselves.

This year’s zeitgeist has decided that zombies are the new thing for 2012, and they are everywhere.  In fact, it seems all the things I used to love are “cool” now; like an ex-cheerleader who wears horn-rimmed glasses and star wars shirts (yet mispronounces Boba Fett), the art of quirky cool has effectively made me sick of everything from The Big Lebowski to vampires (I cringe now when hearing the very word).  I’m dreading the day when the rest of the world figures out that Jackie Brown is Tarantino’s best movie. Don’t take Jackie Brown from me; I will cut you.

When a friend of mine recommended Zone One by Colson Whitehead, I was mildly interested.  Then I heard the words, “zombie apocalypse.”  No thank you. (Also, while we’re at it, no more classic pieces of the canon mixed with monsters.  If I walk into a bookstore and see The Grapes of Wrath of the Titans or Jason Voorhees and the Argonauts, I may burn that shit down.)  But my friend persisted; he has an amazing track record in knowing my particular brand of reading crack.  The last suggestion yielded World War Z and it’s hard to argue with that kind of logic.  So, I tried not to roll my eyes as I waded through the sea of the undead to find Whitehead on the library shelf.

I’m glad I did; Zone One is a quiet and powerfully contemplative book that left me moody and shaken for days.  It’s a dense and heart-breaking meditation about loss that’s on par with Cormac McCarthy’s The Crossing.  The plot doesn’t deal so much with the collapse of society as the tentative first steps in rebuilding what is left; the title refers to lower Manhattan, zone 1 in the clean up effort.  The marines have cleared out the “dangerous” zombies and it falls to the crews of “cleaners” to go from building to building, office to office, cleaning out the “stragglers,” or the infected souls who aren’t violent.  Stragglers are stuck in a ghostly time loop of their old life, mindlessly doing the same thing over and over, making copies or emptying the trash.  (And who doesn’t feel that their job might be just that- an endlessly repetitive loop that makes one more of a ghost bound to an 8-5 haunting?)  It’s tempting to write this off as more “we ARE the zombies social commentary” meta-territory that was so masterfully pioneered by Romero fifty years ago (and so mercifully beaten into the ground in the ensuing five decades), but that would be a disservice to the sheer power of Whitehead’s prose. Three days in the life of protagonist Mark Spitz and the reader might experience a certain wry amusement at the blurred line between the living and the undead; however, we also feel a devastating loss for the beautiful and vibrant past.  There is an unavoidable and ever-present thinking-person’s rage at the heart of the book.  Given the current ridiculous state of modern life (more than once I experience the “seriously, what the fuck is wrong with us” knee jerk reaction), it’s hard not to feel with Spitz.  Beneath the thin layer of snarky and post-post modern weariness is a much deeper love for what the reader may still have (i.e. life and all its comforts and possibilities) and what Spitz and his cohorts can never have again.  Like many “boy romantics,” Spitz used to dream of living in Manhattan and his despair of that reality (Manhattan is reduced to an ugly, empty, and oddly boring rubble) is palpable.

Keep calm and carry on

Zone One is far from boring.  Even as the shell-shocked survivors endeavor to impose order to their world (in a nice touch, cleaners are not allowed to cause property damage as they root out stragglers), the old maxim of Things Fall Apart rears its faithful head.  When things unravel, they do so in horrifying fashion.  Despite being a book about zombies, Zone One is not pop culture.  The prose is too well-crafted.  After I finished the haunting final pages, I didn’t set the book down and say “that was cool.”  I went for a walk in attempt to shake it off.  I felt it for days.

I am, however, still sick of zombies.

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