ZONE ONE by Colson Whitehead

I finally read Zone One last week—that is, during my first week with a broken collarbone, while I was regularly ingesting hydrocodone and chasing it with effect-enhancing bourbon. So that may have affected my reading experience a bit (ditto the writing of this post).

[Spoilers follow.]

It’s a bit of a slow burn, Zone One—it opens with the protagonist, Mark Spitz, reminiscing (or the narrator reminiscing for him): “He always wanted to live in New York. His Uncle Lloyd lived downtown on Lafayette, and in the long stretches between visits he daydreamed about living in his apartment.” And Uncle Lloyd’s (always “Uncle Lloyd,” just like it’s always “Mark Spitz”—a nickname, and the only name we’re given)—Uncle Lloyd’s apartment is a recurring motif, an anchor or beacon of sorts for Mark Spitz, though it never quite worked for me (maybe because I have no desire to live in NYC).

The apartment is outside Zone One, the section of lower Manhattan that’s been walled off and cleared of “skels”—the active zombies of the novel. Mark Spitz is part of a three-person civilian sweeper team, tasked with clearing the buildings inside the zone of “stragglers”—zombies who don’t move and don’t respond to external stimuli (until, at the novel’s climax, one does, and the sudden surge in skels suggests that the stragglers have all stopped straggling). It’s a boring job, as there aren’t that many stragglers, and they don’t present a threat—and the rapidity with which the return of “normal civilization” produces monotony and complacency (which prove to be disastrously fatal) is one of the novel’s primary themes.

And so the novel itself is, occasionally, boring—or so I found it.

The action, such as it is, covers three days, but the mostly mundane events of the weekend in question are interwoven with, or supplemented by, or the occasion for, forays into Mark Spitz’s memories, his past (there’s a bit-too-clever recurrent pun on “past”—the survivors all suffer from “post-apocalyptic stress disorder,” PASD, “past”). Whitehead does this well: bits of Mark Spitz’s past surface according to the logic of trauma, which is compelling but inscrutable.

It’s also disorienting: shifts in time are not always clearly marked, and there are several times when returns to the present involve the reader (and sometimes Mark Spitz) missing something important—the narrative equivalent of a pronoun with no antecedent, or an antecedent that’s supplied a dozen pages later. The Lieutenant’s suicide is the most egregious example (although, again, the effect is a good one) (also, again: some of this might have been the chemicals in my system).

Whitehead writes some wonderful sentences—if I’d had the use of both hands, I would’ve tweeted a dozen of them—but there are moments when the narrative as a whole seems less important than the individual sentences that it’s composed of, moments when Whitehead seems to be self-consciously drawing attention to the artistry/artifice of a particular turn of phrase (something I’m also guilty of, of course). These moments of rococo prose are, thankfully, few, and it is of course a matter of taste.

I really enjoyed the novel—it was both fun (mostly) and thought-provoking. It’s one of the very few zombie narratives that I’d call “realistic” (well, as realistic as zombies can be); 28 Days Later is the only other I can think of at the moment, and their realisms are of different sorts. Part of what makes Zone One realistic are the mechanics of the “plague”—the dead don’t rise, one only becomes a skel when bitten, and skels seem to wither (“winnow” is a word Whitehead frequently uses) and even ‘die’ with prolonged lack of food (although they still have unnaturally powerful hands and jaws, though we only see them in action a few times).

Most of the novel’s realism, though, comes from the aforementioned “monotony and complacency” which are concomitant with the return of bureaucracy (a wartime government established in Buffalo) and that bureaucracy’s attempts to restore “normalcy”—an attempt which, at the novel’s end, fails spectacularly, because the world is a fundamentally different place after Last Night:

Why they’d tried to fix this island in the first place he did not see now. Best to let the broken glass be broken glass, let it splinter into smaller and smaller pieces and dust and scatter. Let the cracks between things widen until they are no longer cracks but new places for things. This was where they were now. The world wasn’t ending: it had ended and now they were in the new place. They could not recognize it because they had never seen it before.

The survivors—or all of them except Mark Spitz—have deluded themselves into thinking that “things can go back to how the used to be” (as they do in World War Z), and therefore they all die—or they might as well all die, because Mark Spitz is alone at the novel’s end. The (un)dead have reclaimed Zone One, they’ve overrun the various outposts of the new civilization, Buffalo itself has probably fallen—and Mark Spitz, alone in a fortune-teller’s shop on Gold Street, not only recognizes the new world, but is perfectly adapted to it.

The ending is of the sort that used to irk me—to really piss me off—but that I have come to appreciate more and more: an ending that stops, but does not resolve:

“Fuck it, he thought. You have to learn how to swim sometime. He opened the door and walked into the sea of the dead.”


The Three Laws of Politics

I had a revelation during my commute this morning—and, lucky you, I’m going to share it with you. But first, I’m going to give you a brief and reductive history of my personal politics.

I grew up with liberal Democrats for parents—which meant that, as a rebellious teenager, I decided to become a conservative Republican, which lasted until the Bush administration’s response to 9/11 made being a conservative Republican distasteful to me. Which meant, of course, that I had to be an adult and decide on my own politics.

In my early-to-mid twenties, things like social democracy and distributism and Utah Phillips appealed to me, I suppose primarily for their idealism, which appeals to people in their early twenties, I guess. For a while I flirted with libertarianism, but eventually decided (or realized) that it was based on a fantasy about the Founding Fathers, who were slave-owning oligarchs, and maybe not the best guys. I realized at roughly the same time that I was too much of a radical leftist to be libertarian, and so started flirting with anarchism (though there was probably a long period where I was both a libertarian and an anarchist—what kept me attracted to libertarianism was its (conservative) anarchism).

The problem with anarchism, though, is that it doesn’t really work on a massive scale—because, you know, the state of nature, the world before/without government, it’s not a nice place, whatever Rousseau may have said——and, also, in my later twenties, idealism seemed both naïve and impractical. I got around (or tried to get around) this by calling myself an “anarcho-pragmatist”—working toward the goal of a stateless, non-coercive society, but aware that it was an unreachable goal. I still use that label to identify myself politically when such a label is necessary, although I’m not sure how useful (or applicable) it is.

So, the revelation: What I want is a government constrained by Asimov’s Three (Four) Laws of Robotics:

  1. A robot [government] may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot [government] must obey the orders given to it by human beings [constituents], except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot [government] must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws. [Maybe this one is less necessary.]

Also, the zeroth law: A robot [government] may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.

I have no idea how workable this is as a politics: it only just occurred to me this morning. Certainly there are ambiguities waiting to become serious problems in the definitions of, say, “injure” and “harm”—and, as Asimov himself notes (or has R. Daneel Olivaw note in Foundation and Earth), how do you decide what is “harmful” to “humanity”? Also, a robot is a singular entity—an individual, a “person”—and a government is a system, an organization, a structure: is it meaningful or possible to apply the three laws to such a thing?

Maybe it’s just idealism masquerading as science fiction masquerading as political theory, or something—another way of saying “do unto others as you would have done unto you” or “be excellent to each other,” except with the government as one of the others. Maybe it’s just another way of writing/defining democracy: government for, of, and by the people (which is maybe itself an idealistic fantasy).

Maybe I just read the Foundation series too many times as a kid.


Day 203: Book pyramid scheme!

I bought a box of nanobots from an exceptionally foul-smelling drunk in a back alley; he claimed to have been a triple-agent for the US, the Soviet Union, and Andorra during the height of the Cold War. He had no teeth, which made his story more believable.

I took the nanobots home, programmed them, and turned them loose. They started cutting up the remaindered copies of The Book that I’d acquired for this task, making little blocks out of the pages—too small for me to see.

When I woke up the next morning, enough of the foundation was complete for me to see it: a four inch square, perhaps an eighth of an inch tall, slightly tapered. Two days later, the bulk of the pyramid was done, and the nanobots started putting the glossy outer layer down.

The capstone was set early on the morning of the fourth day, before I’d stumbled out of bed. By the time I awoke, the nanobots had sealed up the entrance to the crypt, interring themselves inside, hibernating, waiting to be woken. I put the pyramid inside a plastic box—I put that plastic box inside a bigger plastic box—I put that plastic box into a metal fifty-five-gallon drum, which I then filled with concrete. Once the concrete cured, I rolled the drum into a deep hole, covered it with dirt, and planted an apple tree above it.

I went to bed satisfied, my life’s work complete.

Some books I’ve read recently…

I miss writing full-length blog posts for each book I read—and, maybe, I’ll get back in the habit when I start reading for my qualifying exams, since I need to take some sort of notes on those books anyway——but I have a huge backlog of books that will never get full posts. Here, then, are short (and pithy?) post-lets on the books I read in my “Race as Text” seminar (led by the inimitable Steve Weisenberger).

William Faulkner, Light in August (1932): Dude named Joe Christmas (seriously) rolls into a Mississippi town in the 1930s, takes a job shoveling sawdust at a mill. That shit job is cover for his lucrative bootlegging operation. Nobody—not even him, because he’s an orphan—knows if he’s black or white. Lots of flashbacks: turns out his dad was a carnie, and either black or Mexican, which makes Joe black, at least in the South, especially in the 1930s. He kills a white woman (they’d been having lots of sex, by the way, and everyone hated her because she was a Yankee), and then he gets shot—but he deserved it, because he was black. (Just to be clear: the novel and its characters are racist, but I’m not. Really.)

William Shakespeare, The Tempest (1610): An exiled duke (Prospero), his marriageable daughter (Miranda), and their not-exactly-human servant (Caliban): they live on an island. The duke, who’s also a magician, shipwrecks his brother (who betrayed him) and some other folks (who were also involved in said betrayal) on the island with them. Some stuff happens. The villains eventually repent, Prospero forgives them, Miranda marries the son of the King of Naples, and everybody goes home to Italy—except Caliban, who stays on the island, because nobody wants him. Nobody dies, which is disappointing.

Henry Neville, The Isle of Pines (1668): One white (English) dude, three white women, one black woman: shipwrecked on an Edenic island in the Indian Ocean. They don’t have to work for their food, so they have lots of sex. Their kids have sex. They get divided into clans. Eventually there’s clan-on-clan violence, because the descendants of the black woman just can’t behave in a civilized manner. A Dutch merchant ship happens across the island, helps the three nice clans put down a revolt by the “bad” clan, and then leaves, taking the story (scandal! sex! incest!) back to Europe. Also: “pines” and “penis” are anagrams. Because, you know, penises.

Aphra Behn, Oroonoko (1688): An African prince and his true love are separated—as all true loves are—sold, separately, into slavery in Surinam, where they’re reunited—as all true loves are. The prince (Oroonoko, who gets renamed “Caesar”) eventually leads a slave rebellion, but the rest of the slaves decide they’d rather not. Oroonoko beheads his very pregnant wife, and is going to then go on a killing spree, but instead spends several days on the ground, in the woods, next to the body of his dead wife. He’s eventually captured, at which point he disembowels himself—which is pretty awesome—and the colonial governor has him sewn back up and nursed back to health so that he can be executed properly (castrated, dis-armed, burned).

Mary Hassal, Secret History, or the Horrors of St. Domingo (1808): Letters from an American woman in Haiti to Aaron Burr—written during the brief period (1802-1803) in which the French attempted to retake control of the island following the 1791 revolution. Mostly the letters are about the narrator’s sister’s unhappy marriage to some French dude (the letters are vaguely fictional, but not far removed from “what really happened”: the author, whose real name was Leonora Sansay, was married to an unpleasant Frenchman, and was probably having an affair with Burr, who was—and I’m quoting Weisenberger here—”a notorious womanizer”). Not nearly enough horrors: somewhat disappointing.

Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia (1787): Lots of stuff about forests and rivers and ports and census data and blah blah blah—I skimmed a lot of this book—with some fairly vitriolic anti-black rhetoric in the middle of a chapter on “Laws.” An example: black people smell bad, because their kidneys don’t work as well as white folk’s kidneys, and so they secrete from the skin what white people piss out. Seriously. In his defense, I guess, he wanted to abolish slavery—but he also wanted to send all freed slaves back to Africa, because he thought whites and blacks couldn’t coexist without killing each other in a war of total extermination. Our third president, ladies and gentlemen!

David Walker, Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World (1829): “Fuck you, white people. God is going to punish you for making us slaves, and—in His great mercy and justice—he’s going to punish you by letting us kill you all. Get yourselves ready.” (This is an eloquent and passionate pamphlet, despite the fact that it’s also fairly violent in places—lots of “God’s going to let you fill your cups to the brim with wickedness and then pour out His fiery wrath on you.” Good stuff.)

Charles Brockden Brown, Edgar Huntly (1799): A tale of two sleepwalkers: the Irish Clithero (such an unfortunate name) and the American Edgar. Things get really interesting when Edgar wakes up in a cave, with no memory of how he got there. He proceeds to kill a panther with his “tom-hawk,” eat it (or part of it) raw—in the dark—and then he kills a bunch of Indians on his way home. Spoiler: Clithero drowns at the end (he is, after all, Irish, and therefore unfit to survive).

Herman Melville, Benito Cereno (1856): Impossibly, stubbornly unperceptive American (merchant) ship captain encounters Spanish ship at a watering-hole in the South Pacific. Spends almost the entire novella thinking that the Spanish captain is both rude and mentally unstable—finally realizes that the slaves have taken over the ship and killed the real captain, and are planning to murder him and his crew, and take their ship, too. Lots of killing, at the end—and based on a true story!

George Schuyler, Black No More (1931): A satire: A black doctor (Dr Crookman) invents a cheap, quick, painless process to turn blacks white (by giving them accelerated vitiligo): no blacks means no racism, right? No, not really. Follows the exploits of Matthew Fisher, a whitened black, who goes to work for the Knights of Nordica (the new Ku Klux Klan), stoking white fears of blacks who don’t look black anymore but are still really black underneath—making lots of money in the process. In the end, white is the new black, and everybody’s still racist.

Comic books!

I didn’t really read comic books as a kid. I read some, of course—an issue here and there—I remember one, an issue of Legends of the Dark Knight, which featured a Viking Batman——but I never really latched onto a title or a character and read issues regularly, as they were released.

Part of the reason—and I may be projecting backwards here, at least a little bit—is that the (perpetually) serial nature of (most) comics felt like work. I like my narratives to be contained and finite, and serial comics are exactly the opposite. Every issue of every comic I read as a kid was the middle of some story arc, which was itself part of some larger collection of story arcs, and I fucking hated it. (Serial comic titles are like soap operas, basically.) I had no idea what was going on, no idea where I would’ve had to start, no idea when the story would end—and, because I’ve never liked interacting with strangers, and this was before the internet, I had no resources for figuring out the answers to those questions——so I just didn’t read comics. I read books. On the playground, during recess, in grade school.

(Another reason I never got into comics, which developed later, and also applies to things like the Star Wars Extended Universe—there’s an obsession with continuity and canonicity that I find ridiculous. I can explain why to you sometime, if you’re interested, and you buy me a beer. For now, here’s an example.)

A few years ago, though, I started to get cautiously interested in comics, largely because a blogger that I read regularly (or read [past tense] regularly, until he stopped posting regularly—which sounds vaguely familiar) kept blogging about Watchmen. I eventually read it, and I was hooked—cautiously. I started slowly picking things up as I found them at Half-Price Books, but I had other things to read, and my reintroduction to comics stalled. Then I read Fun Home in a seminar last fall, and was blown away: that was text that made me realize how much the medium was capable of (a lot). And then I read Asterios Polyp over the break after that semester, and I was hooked in a not-cautious way.

I read Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke. I read Frank Miller’s classic The Dark Knight Returns, and its companion Batman: Year One (I’m still trying to get through The Dark Knight Strikes Again). I read Warren Ellis’s Planetary series—and even taught his Planetary/Batman crossover/one-shot, “Night on Earth,” in my first-year writing course this semester. (If it’s not obvious, I’m a fan of Batman.) I read Mark Waid and Alex Ross’s Kingdom Come.

I started to feel confident: with the power of the internet, I could identify (mostly) self-contained story arcs (and read them, too, in an ethical grey area). I solicited advice from more knowledgeable friends and colleagues, and tried to figure out where to start——with Grant Morrison’s (really recent—July to December, 2010) “Return of Bruce Wayne” run in Batman. It was good, if a little odd, and it might actually be better the second time through. It was great! Comic books!

…and then I read Morrison’s All-Star Superman.

It was often, as the above image (pages two and three of the first issue) shows, gorgeously illustrated—but it made no fucking sense. Well, it made sense occasionally, but when it did, it was either inane, or derivative, or boring. To sum the plot up: Superman gets too close to the sun, which overcharges his cells (which are like little solar batteries, I guess?—that’s one of those things that makes me hate comic books)—which means he’s dying, slowly, for the whole twelve-issue run, and he has to complete twelve labors before he dies (except he doesn’t die, exactly, but goes into the sun to keep it running after it turns blue, like a super-hamster on a fusion wheel, or something).

Okay: a hero, twelve labors, a final sacrifice: those are the elements of a good plot. But the labors are never enumerated in the series, and the list Morrison later provided includes some that seem less-than-heroic (and aren’t really presented as “labors” in the text)—and the doing of the labors is surrounded by lots (and lots) of narrative clutter: things that happen for no particular reason except to happen. Some people like that, I guess—but life is full of things that happen for no particular reason, and I like my narratives more carefully constructed than that.

I could continue complaining about All-Star Superman, but you don’t want to read it, and I don’t want to write it. The point is that my newfound enthusiasm for comic books, while intact, has become more cautious again—and it will be a while before I read Morrison or Superman (whom I’ve never really liked) again.

Some thoughts on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, part two.

I went to see Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part Two on Sunday evening. I came out feeling … underwhelmed.

I almost said “disappointed,” but I wasn’t, exactly. Just underwhelmed.

I would like to say that this underwhelm-ment has nothing to do with the fact that the movie was different than the book — and I think I mostly can say that, because the myriad changes to Order of the Phoenix, Half-Blood Prince, and Deathly Hallows, Part One didn’t bother me that much. Films are different than books: each can do things the other can’t, and there isn’t much (or maybe any) real overlap.

And yet: it’s hard not to compare the two, especially because the final battle as Rowling wrote it is so cinematic. It’s full of exposition, but not in a boring, didactic way: it’s exciting exposition. But in the movie, there’s not anyone there to exposit to as Harry and Voldemort square off for the last time. That bothered me, a bit; it felt anti-climactic. Also, Voldemort’s death made no sense in the movie: he loses the wand, and then disintegrates? No. Bullshit. He’s not Sauron; he didn’t forge carve the Elder Wand; his power is not bound up with it. Even if we assume that, in the movie, Voldemort has cast a Killing Curse and Harry has cast Expelliarmus — as happens in the book — what happens in the movie is not a rebounding of Voldemort’s Killing Curse onto himself. I’m not sure if that made sense, but it certainly doesn’t make sense in the movie.

That’s a relatively minor quibble, but it’s also a moment in which the movie misses a chance to be really spectacular, and settles instead for … mediocrity is the wrong word; smallness? Yes, that’s closer: this final film feels like the first few — and they’re fine, in their own way, but they have a certain small-screen quality to them that the “epic conclusion” ought not to have. An epic conclusion should have exactly the opposite quality: there ought to have been so much going on — so many curses and countercurses and rubble and swearing and howling flying through the air — that one would have to watch the movie twice or thrice before one felt even close to comfortable with what was going on.

There are other moments like that: Fred’s death (and Remus’s and Tonks’s, also); Molly Weasley’s duel with Bellatrix; Neville’s decapitation of Nagini; basically all of the dueling that doesn’t involve Harry or Voldemort. The break-in at Gringotts and the destruction of the Room of Requirement are, I think, the only moments that really feel big enough, and they could have been better.

I’m sure I will see this movie many, many more times — I have children, after all — and it will probably grow on me, but I think I will always prefer the novel. Unlike Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films — which are not better than the novels, but which can stand on their own — Deathly Hallows Part Two will always remind me of how good it could have been, and wasn’t.

Not that I could have done a better job, of course.

Day 172: No sleep day.

I love sleep. It’s not my Most Favorite Thing, but it’s certainly in my top ten of Favorite Things.

There was a brief, glorious period of time, when Elanor was very small and still slept a lot, during which I would come home from working the opening shift at Starbucks and nap from 2:30 or so until 6:00, and then get up, have some dinner, spend some time with my wife, and go to bed around midnight (and then get up at four the next morning and do it all again). It seems glorious in retrospect, anyway.

I don’t get to sleep as much as I’d like to, but that comes with being a parent. And I’m not a morning person, but that doesn’t mean I’m not up earlier than I want to be most days. Frustratingly, at least for me, all those years working the early shift at Starbucks — getting up at 4:00 or 4:15, getting to work at 4:45 or 5:00 — trained me to think that I ought to have a fair amount done by 8:00, and by 11:00 the workday was close to being over. These days, I’m usually still on my first espresso at 8:00, and not really running at full capacity until 10:00 or so — which works out alright, but it also means I always feel like I’ve gotten far less done on a given day than I ought to have gotten done, and so I always feel behind schedule. I usually am behind schedule, in an objective sense, which doesn’t help with feeling behind schedule…

Where am I going with this? I’m not sure. Maybe I’m just trying to say that I’m no stranger to no sleep.

I have a fair amount of reading to do over the summer, and I haven’t done much of it thus far: it’s time for me to get serious, though, now that I’ve frittered away a month, and so today’s task is conveniently placed for me. I’m going to stay up — probably not all night, but later than is good for me — and get some reading done.

I will probably fall asleep on the couch at some point, wake up some time later, attempt to continue reading, give up, and go to bed: that is, at least, the pattern I established last semester. I’m not as young as I used to be, and my body often reminds me of that fact.

I’ll post a running commentary on twitter, though it probably won’t get rolling until after eleven, and it’ll be after midnight before I start posting ridiculous, delirium-induced nonsense, so it might make sense to just check it tomorrow morning. Until then, I leave you with this: