Zone One: A Novel by Colson Whitehead (New York: Doubleday, 2011. 272 pp)

Colson Whitehead was born in 1969 and raised in Manhattan. He attended Harvard College and afterward he began working as a reviewer for The Village Voice. Out of the gate, Whitehead’s fiction gained acclaim when his first novel, The Intuitionist, won the Quality Paperback Book Club’s New Voices Award. His work has earned him the Young Lions Fiction Award, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, the PEN/Oakland Award, and a Whiting Writers Award. Also, Whitehead has received a MacArthur Fellowship and a fellowship at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers.

Knives and Reason

Aristotle, when expanding on his defense of virtue ethics, contends that humans act ethically when they maximize the function for which they were created. Just like a knife acts “virtuously” when it is sharp enough to cut, Aristotle suggests that humans act virtuous when they engage in reasoning. The ability to use the complex human brain for social ends allows humans to act ethically in comparison to other animals.

Supposing Aristotle is correct in his assertions, do we, then, act immorally when we refuse to use our reasoning faculties? Or do we act amorally? What happens when external forces cause humans to act strictly on instinct? While reading Colson Whitehead’s post-apocalyptic zombie novel, Zone One, I couldn’t help but consider ethics in dystopia.

What Happens After a Zombie Outbreak?

Zone One‘s Gary from The Composites

Set in Manhattan, “Zone One” signifies a section of the city zoned for rehabilitation. The book’s protagonist, Mark Spitz—not the Olympic swimmer, this Mark Spitz earned his nickname fighting zombies—works on a three-person sweeper team with Gary, an ADD and trigger-happy individual, and Kaitlyn, the team leader and rule abider. The sweeper team searches every nook and cranny of building after building searching for zombie stragglers.

Before the book’s narrative began, an army of marines choppered into Manhattan on a mission to retake the city. During this time, wave after wave of zombies perished under heavy machine-gun fire. While Uptown remains infested with the undead, “Zone One” holds a minimal number of stragglers. While most malicious zombies instinctively ran into the teeth of the machine gun fire, a select few “malfunction” serenely remaining in places of supposed importance in their former lives. These stragglers are the zombies that the trio is charged to kill.

If You Look Back, You’re a Pillar of Salt

Throughout the novel, Mark Spitz pauses to recollect the carnage that has occurred after “Last Night”—the name for the day that the zombie infliction took hold. We learn of the standard zombie narrative through his clouded memory. A disease breaks out; panic ensues; and everyone learns to fight for themselves. Often times, Mark Spitz cannot fathom how he has made it thus far:

“He was a thorough, inveterate B. It was his road. He studied for hours and there it waited for him, circled in red ink, oddly welcoming, silently forgiving. Or he refused to open his books and gorged instead on a prime-time platter of sitcoms: he’d still get a B. It was a little play he performed each week and he hit his marks instinctively, stalking the boards of mediocrity. He was not unintelligent; in fact, his instructors agreed that he was often quite perceptive and canny in his contributions to discussion, a ‘true pleasure to have in the classroom.’ The adjectives in his report cards, drawn from a special teachers’ collection of mild yet approving modifiers, described an individual of broader gifts than implied by the grades delivered at the end of each term. All the parts were there. Extra screws, even. There was just something wrong in the execution” (56).

A Phoenix Rising from the Ashes

Years after Last Night, organized reconstruction begins. Somewhat comically, the headquarters of the “American Phoenix” buds in Buffalo.

“He’d never been to Buffalo, and now it was the exalted foundry of the future. The Nile, the Cradle of Reconstruction. All the best and brightest (and, most important, still breathing) had been flown up to Buffalo, where they got the best grub, reveled in 24-7 generators and uncurtailed hot showers on command. In turn, they had to rewind catastrophe. Rumor was they had two of the last Nobel laureates working on things up there—useful ones, none of the Peace Prize or Literature stuff—chowing down on hearty brain-fortifying grub, scavenged fish oil and whatnot. If they could reboot Manhattan, why not the entire country? These were the contours of the new optimism” (35).

Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder 

Photo by Andrew C. Mace

However, the characters in this rebuilding state live in a daily stupor. Having learned to survive by instinct, the people—Mark Spitz included—in a certain sense have lost a part of their humanity. Whitehead introduces a term early in the novel called PASD.

“One canny psychotherapist—Dr. Neil Herkimer, who’d made a fortune in the days before the flood with a line of self-help books imparting ‘The Herkimer Solution to Human Unhappiness’—delivered the big buzzword of the moment: PASD, or Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder… Everyone suffered from PASD. Herkimer put it at seventy-five percent of the surviving population, with the other twenty-five percent under the sway of preexisting mental conditions that were, of course, exacerbated by the great calamity. In the new reckoning, a hundred percent of the world was mad. Seemed about right” (54).

With the entire world living in PASD, has humanity lost the defining quality of humanness? At one point, Mark Spitz proclaims,

“He missed shame and guilt and a time when something higher than dumb instinct directed his actions” (161).

Would Aristotle conclude that humanity has lost its ability to act virtuously? I would think so. Without the guiding conscience of reason, the basic survival instinct has altered what it means to be human in Zone One. Humanity, as always, reveals itself to be a persevering bunch, but PASD makes reconstruction all the much harder.

Difficult to Remember

On the whole, Zone One left me entertained. But I felt that it was weak in a few places. Most glaringly, when Whitehead directs the reader into the past dissecting the events around the apocalypse, the narrative becomes confusing. Many seemingly insignificant characters receive detailed passages while the stories of some seemingly significant characters fizzle without resolution. Perhaps Whitehead intended to display the corroded nature of human reasoning in these flashbacks. If you encountered multiple years of hell where each day could realistically be your last, would you remember specifics from the past? Even if this motif was Whitehead’s intention, the confusion of the flashbacks hinders the overarching narrative.

But despite my reservations, I enjoyed this book. If you love the zombie genre, speculative fiction, or a literary master jumping into genre fiction, Zone One is an excellent choice for your to-be-read pile.

Verdict: 4 out of 5

Posted by: Donovan Richards
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