Earlier this summer, I read Colson Whitehead’s Zone One, an apocalyptic novel where the end of the world comes in the form of a plague which turns people into zombies. In some ways, it’s less a novel than an elegy for all we’ve lost, even though we haven’t lost it yet.
The novel takes place some time after the plague, when the worst appears to be over, when the survivors are trying to clean up New York City. The heavy-duty work has been done, but there are still stragglers, zombies who seem stuck in some moment in their old lives: the man fixing the copy machine, the vitamin store stocker of shelves, the psychiatrist waiting for her next patient who is very late.
Along the way there’s some meditation about what makes these “people” return to a certain moment in their lives. Why spend eternity tending the fry basket? Is it some moment that spoke to them in a certain way, a seminal moment or a moment of sameness? Who can say?
The non-infected are also haunted by the past, by tokens of pre-plague life that they find and discuss. They’re haunted by the future, too. Will it be just like the past? Even now, is there someone writing a TV show that will take place in plague times, turn the zombies into comic foils?
In the end, it’s all illusion, of course, illusion of all different sorts, and the novel talks about all the ways we delude ourselves, during zombie invasions and during normal times. The zombies are a fitting metaphor for all the ways that life consumes us: there are lots of ways to be chewed up and spat out, and the book returns again and again to this metaphor of consumption.
I’ve talked before about the zombie invasion we seem to be seeing in popular culture. What does it signify?
I love the title of Nina Auerbach’s book Our Vampires, Ourselves, and its central premise that we can tell much about our culture by the vampires that we create. For decades we didn’t see many zombies, and now we do.
Are pop culture creators pondering the pace of modern life which makes so many of us feel like zombies? Do we feel consumed by some plague which turns us into shaky monstrosities of our former selves? Are we so haunted by Alzheimer’s disease that we create zombies so that we can talk about what it means to be not-human while still inhabiting a human body?
During the age of AIDS, before protease inhibitors bought so many people so much more time, we saw lots of pop culture vampires. In this information, high-tech age, we see low tech zombies. Hmm.
Tomorrow: Apocalypse in Pairs: Part 1--the short stories (including one with zombies!)
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