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 Force is strong with this one.”

I grew up with Star Wars. That’s not saying much: a whole lot of white American dudes who are my age, ±10 years, also grew up with Star Wars. It’s a cultural touchstone.

There are degrees of “growing up with Star Wars,” though. For me, Star Wars was just the original trilogy. I was aware of the novelizations of the films—but I’ve never seen the point of reading a book based on a movie—and of the Expanded Universe. I played Shadows of the Empire on the N64—but I think we’d rented it, and it didn’t really make sense to me as Star Wars. I never read any of the novels or comic books, though—which is a bit odd, because I read at least a few Star Trek novels (Dark MirrorImzadiFederation, some others the titles of which escape me). Maybe it’s not that odd: Star Trek was episodic (even the original crew’s films are episodic), and so the standalone stories of the novels were just other ‘episodes’ in the narrative of the EnterpriseStar Wars—the original trilogy—was a self-contained narrative arc: it didn’t need extra stuff. More than that: the extra stuff detracted from the unity of the trilogy. (I’m writing in the past tense because I’m trying to recreate the reasoning of my 13-year-old self—I don’t know if it’s working.)

Jack is also growing up with Star Wars, but his experience is entirely different. The EU wasn’t really a thing until the late 1980s or early 1990s, when the original trilogy was already cemented in my mind as the totality of Star Wars. Jack’s first exposure to Star Wars—at not quite three years old—was a Youtube clip of Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi fighting Darth Maul at the end of The Phantom Menace. He wanted to watch sword fights, and the duel at the beginning of The Princess Bride didn’t hold his attention long (the banter was over his head, I guess). We moved from there to other lightsaber duels, in clip form, removed from context—and pretty soon, all he wanted to watch was the battle sequence from the end of Attack of the Clones. We finally let him watch the movies—and we started with the prequel trilogy, and if that’s a problem, fuck you—when he was sick with a stomach bug after Christmas 2010, when he was three years and a few months old (it’s possible I have this wrong—it might have been 2009). Then there were Star Wars LEGOs. For his fourth birthday, he got the first season of the Clone Wars series, and seasons two and three for Christmas, and that’s where we are.

I have a point, I think. Several points, maybe. The first is that, for Jack, the EU is a given, and the original trilogy is not a self-contained narratively-unified entity. He’s got a decent collection of Star Wars LEGOs (which I’ve written about before), and his play with them is pretty fluid: characters and events from the entirety of the Star Wars universe (or the parts of it he knows) are fair game, and he has no respect for canon or continuity (hell, sometimes Gandalf shows up). He’s writing fan-fiction, basically, and I hope he continues to do so as he gets older. That’s the first point.

The second point: I think a lot of dudes (of both sexes) of roughly my age try to recreate their own experience of Star Wars for their children, and—an much as I enjoyed reading this account of such a re-creation—maybe such a project is misguided. Our kids are not us, and they should have their own experience. We can guide, but that guidance should be minimal and unobtrusive: and not just with Star Wars, but with life in general. Let kids explore, experiment, &c. I’m sure there’s a name (or several names) for this parenting philosophy. Montessori parenting: that’s a thing, right? Close enough.


Day 236: Test the butterfly effect.

Originally scheduled for August 24.

“Chase a butterfly away from its flight pattern to disrupt meteorological systems worldwide.”

I saw no butterflies today. If I had, and I’d chased them from their flight patterns, would it have actually changed anything, or was I always going to have chased them, and so the real change would have been to not chase them away, except that path wasn’t and never was open to me?

…no, nevermind, I’m not going there this evening.

This is why we have narratives, right? To make sense of all the impossibly small and unknowable factors that make up big, complex, world- or life-changing events? I and my two of my friends and colleagues read Clarissa over the summer — and I promise I’ll write at least one last post about it at some point — and at least one of the things going on in that novel is an attempt (or parallel attempts) to figure out what happened, what thing or things propelled the paragon of virtue into the power of a libertine who eventually raped her, and how those things (and which of the things?) lead to her death. (And thus I reduce 1,500 pages of densely-printed text to one long and cumbersome sentence.)

We need narratives: nothing makes sense without them. At the same time, narratives make sense of things by ruthlessly trimming away all sorts of things that might or might not be important, and by loading down the things that are left with all the scraps and shavings of importance that the ruthless trimming left behind.

Anybody remember Day 43? (I didn’t, really.) An exercise in trimming, which is what this post needs, despite being barely 300 words long — all of it a digression, digressing from nothing in particular. My thoughts are the butterflies, and I’m chasing them around, fueled by bleary-eyed tiredness and bourbon, and it would defeat the point of this day’s task to edit, to revise — choosing one word instead of another, over and over, is what got me here instead of wherever it was I thought I was going when I started out.

Well, there you go. Time for bed.


Day 235: Stare at this stranger; memorize her features…

Originally scheduled for August 23.

“…should you ever meet her, call her Aubrey and she will tell you a secret.”

A woman sat down next to me on the train. I glanced at her, reflexively, quickly, and went back to the novel I was reading: Faulkner’s Light in August. She settled into the seat, opened a magazine, started reading.

Two stops later, as the train pulled away from the station, I said — neither loudly nor quietly, and without looking up from my reading — “Tell me a secret, Aubrey.”

I waited a beat, and then another, and then turned to look at her. She was staring at me, a look of puzzlement and something that was not quite, or not quite yet, anger — and something else flitting around behind her eyes that I could not identify.

We looked at each other for a moment, and then another, and then she said: “What did you say?”

I said: “I said: ‘Tell me a secret, Aubrey.’ ”

She said: “My name isn’t Aubrey.”

“I’m not sure that matters,” I replied.

She paused, and looked away, and then looked back.

“There are no secrets left,” she said, “no secrets that can be told, anyway, because the telling makes the secret public. It used to be that you could tell a secret to someone, and it would go no further, or go further so slowly that by the time it became what we might public knowledge it didn’t matter anymore, the reasons for keeping it secret had passed or no longer obtained. Now, though, there is no grey area between secret and something everyone knows — once told, the secret takes on a life of its own, contagious, viral, an incorporeal zombie that bites and infects and spreads so fast that one wakes up the morning after telling to find oneself in a wasteland, a world wrecked and forever ruined. And so what secrets I have I will keep to myself, and anyway my name isn’t Aubrey.”

After some amount of time had passed, or maybe as soon as she stopped, I said: “I’m sorry; I’ve had a few drinks too many today.”

“…but it’s 9:30 in the morning,” she said blankly.

“I know,” I said, and went back to my reading.


Day 195: Make a snowball.

Originally scheduled for Thursday, July 14 — motherfucking Bastille Day, that was.

I went outside, holding the deck of cards. Once, we’d shuffled them together — before you were gone — and earth had fallen from our fingers, and clouds and thunder filled the sky.

It was hot, outside. It has been hot for a long time. The sun was not yet up, and the heat was already oppressive, stagnant and heavy and thick.

I held the cards in my hand, and thought of snow. I thought of you, and the time we held the cards, our fingers moving together, shuffling, the earth falling from our hands, the clouds and the thunder and the howling wind.

Before you were gone.

I held the cards, but I was afraid to make them move: it had been so long since I’d taken them out, so long since I’d tried their magic, so long since I’d felt there was any point in trying. I stood, in the rising heat, looking without looking at anything in particular, my mind wandering — it was too hot to think — wandering through memories of you, and memories of a time when it was cold, when the world was blanketed in snow.

The heat became tangible, reified, and I ceased to be myself.

 

When I came back to myself, I was lying in the garden, and the world was blanketed in snow. The cards were scattered all about me. Whether I — or the cards — had conjured the snow, or whether I had wandered out of myself, in a fugue state, until the heat broke and winter came on, I never knew. I suppose I could have asked, but whom would I have asked? Who was left?

I rolled onto my knees, and staggered to my feet. The sun was high and clear, but gave no warmth.

I bent down, took a handful of snow, formed it into a ball, and threw it at the place where you should have been standing — where once you stood, while we watched the storm we’d called forth, and were afraid.

Then I went inside, poured a glass of wine, and faded away.

(Apologies to Charles Williams.)


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 170: Sell something you have made.

My mother has been pestering encouraging me for years to write a novel, something in a genre that sells: romance, mystery, paranormal romance, mystery romance, paranormal mystery romance. I’ve mostly ignored her, because I don’t have much free time in which to write a novel, and the free time I do have I prefer to spend drinking and sitting around, instead of doing something productive.

A few days ago, she sent me a link to an NYT article about Amanda Hocking, who has self-published ten novels (and counting) as e-books on sites like Amazon, and who has made enough money at it that she can buy a replica of Han Solo in carbonite on a whim.

It’s just a coincidence, of course, but I’m going to run with it. I don’t have anything I’ve made for sale today, but I’m going to pledge to have a novel available for sale by the end of the year. Because why the fuck not?

Way the hell back on day six, I wrote this, as the opening sentence of my début novel:

One morning, Eusebius Jones woke up, brushed his teeth, had a piss, wandered into the kitchen, ate breakfast – two grapefruit and three cups of strong coffee – and then sat at his kitchen table, staring at nothing, trying to decide what he was going to do with the bodies in the trunk of his car.

That’s the opening sentence I’m going to run with. Who is this dude? Why does he have bodies — plural bodies! — in the trunk of his car? What is he going to do with them? What does he have for breakfast when grapefruit is not in season?

I have no idea. I hope the answers are interesting, and I hope I can get a novel out of answering them, either way, and I hope I sell enough copies that I can buy this with the proceeds (one of these would be nice, also).

I am totally serious about this, and I expect all of you who read this to shame me eternally if I don’t have a self-published paranormal-murder-mystery-bodice-ripping-trash-noir novel actually available for purchase by the end of the year.

I won’t, and I won’t be able to handle the shame, so I’ll drink myself to death in 2012. Should be a good year.