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.”

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Crusoe-craft

There are a lot of things about Robinson Crusoe that bother me—which is why I keep coming back to it, like a dog to its vomit—and one of those things is Crusoe’s lackadaisical attitude toward making a survey of his island. And he does consider it his island, declaring himself “King and Lord” after a mere ten months—incidentally, on his first survey of the island, which doesn’t get him very far. It’s another year before he walks to the other side of the island, and it’s not until his sixth year that he attempts to sail around the island—and even then, he only makes it about halfway. By the time he leaves the island—twenty-eight years after being shipwrecked!—he still hasn’t seen it all. And it’s not that big an island.

[Digression: there’s no way of telling how big the island actually is, at least to the best of my memory. When he walks across it, he goes about two miles a day, but not in anything like a straight line, and he doesn’t indicate how long it takes him to get to the other side, or the shape of the island, or how he’s bisected it, &c. Even if we call it 20 square miles (roughly the size of Manhattan), that’s half the size of the town I live in, and it wouldn’t take me 28 years to cover it all on foot.]

More to the point: Crusoe is worried, from day one, that he’s going to be attacked and eaten by either wild beasts or cannibals. So sure, it makes sense that his first priority is establishing a fortification of some sort—and raiding the ship he was on (which conveniently survives intact) for anything and everything he can carry. Fine. But, that done, it seems like it would be prudent to do a moderately thorough survey of the island to ascertain if beasts and/or cannibals are actually, you know, an imminent threat.

Because cannibals do visit the island periodically, to kill, cook, and eat their captives, and Crusoe does eventually find their feasting grounds—a “Shore spread with Skulls, Hands, Feet, and other Bones of humane Bodies”—but he doesn’t make this discovery until he’s been on the island for twenty years.

What the fuck.

Maybe it doesn’t bother you; it’s always bothered me. The shore where the cannibals land is on the west side of the island, an “End of the Island, where indeed,” Crusoe says, “I had never been before.” A whole side of the island, and he’s never been there! Crusoe is both king and colonist, and both of those roles would seem to demand a more-than-cursory—not to say intimate—knowledge of the land one’s claimed. And, in fairness, Crusoe’s knowledge of (parts of) the island is indeed intimate—the growing seasons, the goats, the (useful) flora—but the wide blank swaths on his (metaphorical/mental) map of the island are a glaring omission.

I am writing about this because of Minecraft.

the view from my front porch

Minecraft first appeared on my radar late in 2011 (via a Geekdad post on LEGO Minecraft—now a real thing), but I didn’t start playing it until about six nine or ten weeks ago, when my daughter convinced me to buy the Pocket Edition for the family iPad. It wasn’t long before I was hooked.

Minecraft, if you’re unfamiliar with it, is a sandbox game: there are no objectives, no goals, no levels—just a chunk of world, rocks and trees and dirt and water, &c, which one ‘mines’ and then ‘crafts’ into tools and building materials. There are animals—chickens, sheep, cows, pigs—and, if one wants antagonists, zombies of various sorts and giant spiders, which come out at night. It’s awesome.

In the full version (which I haven’t played), the world is infinite; but in the Pocket Edition, there are limits: it’s 256 x 256 blocks (according to the Minecraft wiki—I haven’t actually counted, and I would’ve guessed a bit higher than that—and there is also a limit to its depth). The player-avatar is two blocks tall, and since I’m roughly six feet tall, let’s say that each block is a 3′ cube. A Minecraft PE world, then, is 768 feet x 768 feet (not much more than an 1/8th of a mile)—which makes the surface area 589,824 square feet (the average Super-Walmart is about 197,000 square feet)——589,824 square feet, which is roughly 13.5 acres. (If the worlds are 512 blocks to a side, the surface area would be 54 acres—still far short of the 640 that are in a square mile.)

Thirteen and a half acres. Three Walmarts. And, of the half-dozen or so worlds I’ve generated and spent at least a few game-days (well, game-weeks) in, I have done a full and careful survey of none of them. Like Crusoe, I know some parts quite well, but I’ve also ignored whole sections—probably the very shores where the cannibals are landing.

So, like Crusoe, I’ve prioritized a full and careful—even a full and half-assed—survey of my island below a continual improvement of the habitation I pitched in the first semi-decent spot I came upon and a concomitant accumulation of material goods. (I also have a tendency to get bored with one world and start a new one before I ever get around to doing such a survey.) I would justify myself with “because that’s how the game is played,” but that isn’t a thing—it’s just how I play the game. Sure, the monsters start coming out once it’s night, which is about ten minutes after one starts playing—but there are responses to that occurrence beyond deciding on one’s place of permanent habitation in that first ten minutes.

So I understand Crusoe’s initial course of action, at least to the extent that I recognize that I have the same reaction in a similar (artificial, non-life-threatening) situation. I’m still baffled by his failure to ever get around to surveying his island, but I’m also less confident than I used to be that I, in Crusoe’s place—because that’s a thing I think about sometimes—wouldn’t do exactly the same thing.

kate beaton's crusoe!

Well, so what? Why is surveying one’s island kingdom so damn important?

There is the non-trivial matter of material resources: almost every time Crusoe sets out exploring, he finds something cool—a fertile vale, an abundance of turtles to eat, a cave that becomes a storeroom/fortress of last resort, even a stocked-but-abandoned Spanish vessel aground on a sandbar. (I finally did a full survey of my current Minecraft world in the middle of writing this, and found a shit-ton of clay, which I can use to make bricks, which are fucking classy.) Careful exploration, then, leads to (or can lead to) an improvement in quality of life—something Crusoe is quite invested in, trying as he is to replicate an English way of life on an island off the coast of Brazil.

Beyond that, though, Crusoe’s failure to survey his island strikes me as a failure of curiosity, a lack of desire to discover things merely for the sake of knowing them. I really shouldn’t expect Crusoe to display intellectual curiosity, of course, even if I let his lack of it annoy me anyway. What’s more troubling is that Robinson Crusoe is, in a variety of ways, the urtext of contemporary post-apocalyptic narratives—and when was the last time you saw someone reading Moby Dick while on the run from zombies, or trying to survive an outbreak of crazy swine flu, or trudging across a postnuclear hellscape? Exactly.

I’m not exactly sure what my end-game is—I thought I wanted to make some sort of point about survivalism in popular culture (also seasteading) and a related lack of intellectual curiosity, but I don’t know anymore. Maybe the point is this: preppers don’t stockpile books; zombie fortresses don’t include libraries. And while the percentage of Americans actively prepping for the collapse of society and/or constructing hypothetical zombie fortresses (there’s probably some significant overlap) might be small, shows like Doomsday Preppers and The Walking Dead draw substantial audiences (but at least the new Red Dawn tanked at the box office). That is: thinking about the collapse of civilization is something that lots of us do at least some of the time, and, in every survival narrative I can think of, life becomes—is reduced to—a Hobbesian state of nature, a war of all against all, and any semblance of civilization that persists does so only because a strong-willed leader forces it to. So this is what we expect, or what we’re being prepared to accept: when the shit hits the fan, might will make right—and maybe it already does.


You are (not) what you eat.

In which I continue this post.

“You are what you eat”—a common enough phrase, and one to which every nine-year-old ever has snarkily responded, “Oh yeah? So I’m a(n) [whatever junk food is to hand]?”

A digression: Michael Pollan (apparently) amended it: “You are what you eat eats.” And as my father says: “It is the fate of all living organisms to become food for other living organisms.”

A further digression: I can’t find any information on the origin of this phrase—none of the dictionaries of phrases/idioms/clichés in the campus library had an entry for it. The internet at large wants to attribute it to Brillat-Savarin, who, in his 1825 The Physiology of Taste, wrote (in French): “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.” That’s not the same thing at all, though it’s possible this aphorism is behind the cliché under consideration. This website cites one Dr. Victor Lindlahr as the person responsible for the stubbornly literal version of the phrase.¹

“You are what you eat.” Except, of course, we’re not: we are human, and humans are the one thing we don’t eat.

This is going to be a post full of digressions: other humans aren’t the only thing we don’t eat, of course. Even if we limit ourselves to “living organisms,” there are plenty of things we don’t eat—depending on who that “we” includes, of course. There are plenty of things white middle-class Americans don’t eat that are edible elsewhere—bugs, various organs, rodents, probably some plants too but those aren’t as gross, you get the idea.

And, of course, cannibalism happens: as a cultural practice, in extreme situations, and as—for want of a better word—an aberration.

What I’m after is this: if I ate a bowl of live cockroaches, most people who are culturally similar to me would find it—the act of eating the roaches—disgusting, and—depending on why I ate the roaches—some portion of that disgustingness would attach itself to me. The dude who eats roaches is a gross dude. However: a person who eats roaches is still human. A person who eats other humans ceases, I’m arguing, to be human.

I don’t know why that’s the case. I feel pretty certain that it is the case: see, for example, the word “subhuman” in the first sentence of the above-linked HuffPo article. Also: google “recent cannibal attacks” and scroll through a half-dozen pages of results: along with words like “horrific” and “terrifying” and “flesh eater,” you will probably notice how often the word “zombie” occurs (you may also notice that the CDC weighed in on the question).

Zombies are, of course, not human.² And the contemporary conflation of cannibals and zombies strongly suggests that cannibals—at least, those cannibals of the “aberrant” type—have, in the act of eating human flesh—lost or given up their humanity. Whether that loss is temporary or permanent, I don’t know. I do know that at least one (fictional) cannibal—Crusoe’s man Friday—was rehabilitated and “humanized” (and it’s probably significant that, in the second novel of the trilogy, Friday was killed during a sea battle with a host of cannibals).

But if zombies and cannibals are not human, they’re also not not human—which is a subject for another post.

_____________
1 This website seems legit enough, though I remain somewhat skeptical—I’d really like to see the 1923 ad, for instance. I’m also a bit disappointed by the scant attention paid to this phrase: it was in none of the dead-tree phrase dictionaries in the campus library (and I looked in at least a dozen).
2 That “of course” should bother you—because I haven’t actually demonstrated yet that zombies aren’t human. And I might not—maybe I’ll just assert it, and hope it sticks.


Zombies and cannibals.

Let’s begin this post with an exercise. Take a moment, and try to bite a chunk out of your forearm. I’ll wait.

I’m going to guess that you couldn’t do it—if you actually tried, that is. I certainly couldn’t (and, for the record, I’ve tried on more than one occasion). But it’s a certain kind of couldn’t: what we might loosely call a psychological or instinctive couldn’t—our lizard brains prevent us.

I’m after a different kind of couldn’t: I’m curious whether or not it is physically, physiologically possible for a human being—say, a thirty-year-old male with reasonably well-preserved teeth—to bite into and tear a chunk off of another living human being’s limbs or torso. The biting-my-own-arm experiment is really unhelpful in answering this question: sure, I coud bite my arm harder than I’m willing to bite it, but I have no way of judging if that extra force would be sufficient to puncture and tear human skin and muscle.

Why am I interested in this question, you might be wondering? Zombies, that’s why.

I’m currently working on a paper—and by “working on” I mean “I wrote and submitted an abstract to a conference and I’m not writing anything else until I hear if it was accepted”—…a paper about the connection between zombies and late-early-modern (1650-1800) European representations of cannibals. One of the things I’m interested in is tracing a genealogical path between the two—someday maybe I’ll write a post about that. Right now, I’m interested in teeth:

Gnarly-ass zombie teeth. They don’t look capable of chewing on a raw steak, which I’m guessing—but only guessing—is easier than chewing on tasty (again: guessing) human flesh. The point is that her teeth are prominent—like, say, this dude’s teeth:

Pointy damn teeth, and the defining feature of the photograph. Without the filed teeth, the photograph is something else, something less memorable: the teeth make the man.

I’m not sure I have a point yet, except to point out that teeth are perhaps the defining feature of both cannibals and zombies. The defining action of both is, of course, that they eat people; and, certainly, other physical features are more prominent—zombies are more or less decayed, cannibals are “black” (in the sense that they aren’t “white”). Both of those markers are external, on the skin, difficult if not impossible to conceal—but the teeth can be hidden until the moment of biting.

There’s something to that: think of the scene in The Fellowship of the Ring (the film) when Bilbo, old and decrepit, sees the Ring in Frodo’s possession and suddenly lunges at him—no, don’t think about it, watch it: scary teeth! I’m sure I could find examples in, I don’t know, Alien or any adaptation of Dracula ever made. The teeth are revealed at the moment when the threat is revealed as a threat: or, rather, the revelation of scary (read “pointy”) teeth is what reveals the bearer of the pointy teeth as a threat—one that is about to attempt to eat whoever it is that’s just seen those scary teeth.

Hopefully my abstract will be accepted, and I’ll have an excuse to keeping fleshing this out—and we can all ponder together whether or not human teeth are capable of what zombie teeth do, and why that might be important.


Day 215: Welcome a new life.

I’ve linked to the Census Bureau’s population clock before: you have to reload the page to get new numbers, but this one updates as you watch, which is cool, but also a bit disturbing.

If I wanted to go into it, this would be the time to discuss the unsustainability of our current population growth curve, and the ever-increasing likelihood of some sort of catastrophic collapse in which most of the population dies, and what this has to do with late-20th and early-21st century apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fictions … I don’t really want to, though, because it’s depressing to think about. Also it’s late, and I’ve had a few bourbons, and I have to get up early and dig post-holes and put posts in them and put concrete around the posts in the morning.

So.

I’m going to take the easy way out, and offer someone else’s advice: “wear sunscreen,” &c.

I’ll make a few additions, also borrowed, but from other sources:

Life is hard, and then you die. It is the fate of all living organisms to become food for other living organisms. Death and destruction. Smoke if you’ve got ’em. Alcohol doesn’t make life worth living, but it helps sometimes. All you need is love. Shit flows downhill, and payday’s on Friday. The Dude abides.

When the zombies happen, stay the fuck out of the cities.

Rock over London; rock on, Chicago.


Day 213: Surveillance special!

“Stage a crime in front of a back-alley security camera and see if anyone comes to the rescue.”

There must be a few back alleys somewhere in this town, but I don’t think any of them have security cameras. Even if they did, they would be useless: cameras in public places aren’t about making us safer, they’re about making us think we’re safer — about the illusion of safety.

Nobody is watching the feed from those cameras. It’s probably recorded and stored, so that it can be accessed and watched in the event that something prosecutable happens — but that watching happens after the fact, not in real-time. Go into a large retail establishment, though — the kind with far more overhead cameras than helpful employees — and you can be pretty damn sure someone is watching the camera feeds, at least most of the time. And why? Because there’s money involved, money to be lost if someone isn’t watching.

Surveilling an entire city — or even just the “high risk” parts of a city — in order to prevent crime simply isn’t cost-effective; not even fucking close. Making people think the whole city is being surveilled — turning the city into a Panopticon — might make some people feel safer, but it probably actually makes them less safe.

Let’s say I mug somebody in an alley that has a security camera. A week goes by, I don’t get arrested. I mug someone else, in another alley with a camera. I don’t get arrested. I talk to my colleagues, at the monthly meeting of muggers and malcontents, and it turns out that lots of muggings happen in front of cameras — and only, I don’t know, 2 muggings out of 100 that occur in front of a camera result in an arrest. I don’t have to know who Jeremy Bentham was to figure out that the cameras are bullshit.

Now let’s say I’m an oblivious middle class bougie who had a few too many $2 PBRs at the local dive, and I’m wandering home, drunk, and decide to take a shortcut down the sort of alley that people get mugged in — but there are cameras, and I know how Jeremy Bentham was, alright, because I read about him in college — and so I feel safe, because there are cameras, and the feeling of safety (and the beer) make me complacent and unobservant — and I get the shit beaten out of me, and my wallet and iPhone stolen.

Here’s my point: even if I could find a back alley surveillance camera in this town, and I went to stage a crime in front of it to see if the police would show up — I already know that the police wouldn’t show up, and I’d probably get attacked and robbed by actual criminals while I was pretending to be one. That didn’t sound like fun, which is why I stayed home, drank vermouth (I’m out of bourbon), and watched The Walking Dead.

Cameras don’t help in a zombie apocalypse either.


Day 146: Famous last words: prepare yours ahead of time.

I am going to be eaten by zombies.

It’s the year 2047, and I’m not as young as I used to be. Shit, I’ll be 65 for most of 2047 – the part I survive, that is – and 65 is fucking old during a zombie apocalypse.

Anyway. This zombies-walking-the-earth thing has been going on for a few years, and we’re surviving pretty well: we’ve got a fortress-commune going, out in a rural area, with good walls and hedges and ha-has and whatnot. We grow our own food, we raise some livestock, and we all get along pretty well, which is pretty good, considering that there are fifty-odd of us. We keep our heads down, and the zombies – and the roving motorcycle gangs – leave us alone.

That changes, though. A wandering pack – drove? horde? herd? what do you call a group of zombies? – a wandering whatever of zombies finds our commune. They can’t get in, but the incessant wailing attracts other zombies, and soon we’ve got a veritable army of the undead at our gates, and it just keeps getting bigger.

We discuss ways to kill them. Nuking them from orbit isn’t an option. Fire’s a possibility, except we’re likely to torch ourselves, too. Blow them up? Feed them poisoned livestock? Hope they go away? None of these sound like good plans.

We could lure them away. There’s a crater a few miles away – long story – and if we can get them into it, we can burn them before they can get back out. It’s a good idea, with one significant flaw: it’s a suicide mission.

I volunteer. I’m the oldest one in the commune, and I’m going to be a burden on everyone else sooner rather than later. This is a good way to go, a valiant and honorable way. Some people protest, but just for show: nobody else wants to do it, and nobody can think of a better plan.

We manage to get an old jeep running; it probably won’t run for long, and it doesn’t want to go much above 20 mph, but that’s enough. We kill a goat, strap it to the back, and slit its throat: to leave a trail for the zombies. They’ll follow me, down into the crater. I’ll have a flamethrower and a half-dozen grenades, and none of them will get out alive (not that they’re really alive to begin with).

As I’m leaving, someone says to me: “What if it doesn’t work? We’ve heard rumors that the zeds are developing intelligence.”

“Don’t worry,” I say, patting my flamethrower. “I’ll give them something to chew on.”