Start spreading the news. I’m leaving today
There is a lot to sink your teeth into in the latest book from MacArthur Genius grantee Colson Whitehead. The nation has pretty much collapsed, with the implication that things are no better elsewhere in the world. But there is still some hope. A provisional government has been set up in Buffalo, and some organization is returning. The government wants to clear Manhattan of undesirables, in order to repopulate, in order to show that there is a future, that there is hope.
Mark Spitz, a nom de guerre, is a sweeper. There are zombies and mindless survivors still hanging out and Omega Unit is charged with clearing out a specific geographic area inside Zone One, the real estate below Manhattan’s Canal Street, where a wall has been built to keep out the deadbeats. I suppose one might call the area R/EbeCa. Manderley had nothing on this place.
Over three days we get Spitz’s story and that of some others as well. Do you remember where you were on 9/11? Do you recall what was happening when shots were fired that took out JFK, RFK, MLK? Maybe you have been around long enough to remember a day which will live in infamy? For the characters in Colson Whitehead’s latest novel, Zone One, the event is called “Last Night.” It was the moment it became clear that a zombie apocalypse plague had run amok. Fight or flight. Time to wonder if your loved ones had succumbed and decision time re whether you would risk your life to try saving or finding them. One of the major elements in this book is the characters’ recollections of that fateful night.
The largest element is the city itself, well, Manhattan, and even more focused, Manhattan below Canal Street. Whitehead loves New York. He is the author of The Colossus of New York, a love song to the city, and one of my all time favorite books.
I grew up in New York in the ’70s and so I took films like The Warriors and Escape from New York as documentaries. Other kids did sports; I liked to hang around watching The Twilight Zone and various movies about the end of the world, whether it was Planet of the Apes, or Damnation Alley. And so that’s part of the city I carry with me from my childhood. … In doing this book, I was trying to pay homage to certain cinematic depictions of a ruined New York.
(From NPR interview)
CW did not have a lot of trouble imagining NYC as a wasteland, noting that in the wee hours parts of the city that never sleeps are remarkably unoccupied, desolate. ”Wall Street is completely empty. All the buildings are closed and no one’s on the street. It’s as empty as it’s described in the book.” He also remembers growing up in the 1970s, a pretty tough time for the city, with the boom in drug use, the loss of revenue as a result of white flight, and the federal government telling us to go to hell. That’s a pretty good start for building an apocalyptic landscape. He sees the accretion of the new atop the old, the replacement of the current with the new, then the replacement of the new with the newer.
“I’m walking around with my idea of what New York was 30 years ago, 20 years ago. So is everybody else. And we superimpose that ruined city over what’s here now. So it’s cleaned up, but we’re still seeing that old shoe store, dry cleaners, that old apartment where we used to live. So, any street you walk down in New York is a heap of rubble because that’s sort of how we see it if we’ve been here a while.”
I can relate. I moved from the Bronx to Manhattan in 1972, shared an apartment on the Upper West Side before it became an unaffordable yuppie apocalypse zone. I was on 81st Street between Columbus and Amsterdam. On one end of the block was a notorious SRO, and the other featured Davey’s Tavern, notable for the lineup of pimp-mobiles up the street. One night some pals and I decided to follow a trail of blood that led from Davey’s a few blocks east into Central Park, before re-attaching our brains and desisting. It was widely assumed that landlords were having their properties torched to evict the current residents and get insurance money with which to re-build, renovate and return to business with rentals several multiples of what they had been. So it is quite understandable how one could take the reality of that era and build on it to flesh out a flesh-eating landscape.
Whitehead is also well aware of the city’s life sucking potential.
Was this skel a native New Yorker, or had it been lured here by the high jinks of [a TV personality] and her colorful roommates. One of those seekers powerless before the seduction of the impossible apartment that the gang inexplicably afforded on their shit-job salaries, unable to resist the scalpel-carved and well-abraded faces of the guest stars the characters smooched in one-shot appearances or across multi-episode arcs. Struck dumb by the dazzling stock footage of the city avenues at teeming evening. Did it work, the hairdo, the bleached teeth, the calculated injections, did it transform the country rube into the cosmopolitan? Mold their faces to the prevailing grimace?
There are plenty of folks who might pass for undead in the city, even now:
the city had long carried its own plague. Its infection had converted this creature into a member of its bygone loser cadre, into another one of the broke and the deluded, the mis-fitting, the inveterate unlucky. They tottered out of single-room-occupancies or peeled themselves off the depleted relative’s pullout couch and stumbled into the sunlight for miserable adventures. He had seen them slowly make their way up the sidewalks in their woe, nurse an over-creamed cup of coffee at the corner greasy spoon in between health department crackdowns. This creature before them was the man on the bus no one sat next to, the haggard mystic screeching verdicts on the crowded subway car, the thing the new arrivals swore they’d never become but of course some of them did. It was a matter of percentages.
It cannot be a coincidence that in CW’s future Manhattan the powerless are being driven out of prime real estate by force, so the lucky can take their places. It’s called gentrification, and has been going on, under that name anyway, since the 70s. There are plenty of landlords who would like nothing more than to have armed groups evict anyone not paying market rates, so they could bring in new prey to gouge. No zombie apocalypse needed for that. It is extant reality here.
CW does not expect that, whatever disaster may arrive, those at the extremes of the human bell curve will be the likely remnants:
In the apocalypse, I think those average, mediocre folks are the ones who are going to live,” he says. “I think the A-pluses will probably snuff themselves. The C-minus personalities will probably be killed off very quickly. But it’s the mediocre folks that will become the heroes. … Anyone who survives will be a hero.”
From an NPR interview
Thus Mark Spitz is, by design, the ultimate average guy.
There is particular poignance for this native in scenes of a zombie crematorium creating mass quantities of gray ash that fall like snow on the city. I know CW’s city very well. I worked and have played in the area called Zone One for many years. To see it brought to life in these pages is a remarkable experience for me. As if someone had written a biography of your child and got all the facts and feel right, even about the aspects you do not admire. Whitehead has a remarkable gift, his writing rich with insight and observational acuity.
We have seen our share of death in New York, physical and spiritual, from the horror of 9/11 to the siren call of the city, tuned to the young and hopeful, luring so many onto the rocks of not good-looking/talented/smart/connected/special-enough, to the middle-aged newly unemployed dazedly going through the motions, even after there is no destination for the trains and their feet to take them to. The magic of power, lights, glitter and energy has its dark side, when the lights go out, the sparkle fades and security is no longer up to the task of keeping that which menaces at bay.
This is not a story where this happens and then that happens. It offers a novel format as a structure within which Whitehead can relate what he has seen and felt about his beloved city. (And to seriously bitch about Connecticut. Dude, did Connecticut shoot your dog?) If a few characters become fodder for roving people-eaters, like so many large hot dogs on the hoof, then so be it. If you can’t make it there, well, buh-bye.
There are elements of Zone One that reminded me of Gary Shteyngart, (and Max Headroom) a twenty-minutes-into-the-future feel to his social satire. Survivors of Last Night are often afflicted with PASD, or Post Apocalyptic Stress Disorder, pronounced “PAST.” So folks suffering with PASD are said to have a problem with their past, snicker, snicker. A remnant coven of lawyers who are looking for actual pounds of flesh. Corporate sponsorship is alive and well in the world of the zombie apocalypse with wonderfully cute corporate armadillo logos finding their ways onto a wide range of official items. The new national Anthem is “Stop! Can You Hear the Eagle Roar? (Theme From Reconstruction).” Trebly delicious for the Ashcroft ref, the intentional malaprop and the parenthetical ref to far too many contemporary songs
The creature feature is a means to an end for Whitehead. “I’ve had the same publisher for six books, and they know it’s not just about elevator inspectors, it’s not just about zombies—it’s about people, it’s about culture.” Yeah, it is. And as a portrait of New York, it is dead on.
A wonderful interview with the author in The Atlantic, Colson Whitehead on Zombies, ‘Zone One,’ and His Love of the VCR by Joe Fassler
Terry Gross’s interview with the author on Fresh Air, A ‘Zone’ Full Of Zombies In Lower Manhattan, the transcript
The audio can be heard here