Unschlocking the Undead

Colson Whitehead's 'Zone One'

Unschlocking the Undead
Photo courtesy of Erin Patrice O'Brien

"Two of them got the old man down and then all of them were on him like ants who received a chemical telegram about a lollipop on the sidewalk."

That grim scene in the first section of Colson Whitehead's Zone One (which, I confess, made me laugh out loud) plays out rather poetically, as does much of the New York City writer's fifth novel. He's got quite a knack for describing the ballet of the undead in gory, graceful spurts; interesting given his past books' more classic themes, and convenient given the new zombie movement. However, Whitehead outruns the mob by making Zone One a very personal vision of post-something city-dwelling hell. He pulls the same satirical thread as Don DeLillo does in White Noise, that subtle way of switching out masks of terror and humor, as when describing a disco ball from a roller rink, which Zone One soldiers encounter at empty intersections, a tumbleweed in the pop culture wasteland. Anxiety seeps out of every paragraph.

"I wasn't out in the woods, but I was getting divorced, and I have a child, so there was that feel of being overwhelmed and trying to get to the other side of a catastrophe," Whitehead relates of the writing process. "I didn't show anyone a word of the book while I was writing. I was always in the bunker of Zone One."

In his apocalyptic vision, an unnamed plague has devastated parts of the U.S., and now "skels" shamble through the streets and countrysides, looking to chomp on the living. It's up to protagonist Mark Spitz, a survivor (part of the "American Phoenix," as they're called in a patriotic post-9/11 nod), to put them "down" with his three-person Omega Unit, sweeping Manhattan buildings, restaurants, and subways for shadows. Over the course of the novel, Whitehead confirms our fear: Hell is still other people. The late-1970s/early-1980s horror cult no doubt informed his view.

"The movies I watched and rewound on the Betamax were John Carpenter, Alien, The Return of the Living Dead. There's humor in those films, and they were counterculture folks making their art in an anti-authoritarian way, using humor to describe social structure or social collapse." His mix of wit, nostalgia, and menace in the "after" life – one in which postapocalyptic stress disorder has been diagnosed and survivor camps have names like Happy Acres – gives Zone One its grisly, surreal grace. As Spitz relates in Hestonian tones: "The plague didn't let you in on its rules; they weren't printed on the inside of the box. You had to learn them one by one."

"Most of my skills would be useless in the apocalypse," Whitehead laughs. "I can't make a fire; I don't know how to hunt small game. I would be the one hoarding packets of beef jerky."

Sunday, Oct. 23, 12:15-1pm, Senate Chamber

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