Dead on Arrival: Whitehead Gives Zombies a Shot

The point seems to be one about language and nostalgia. “There’s some idiot right now in Bubbling Brooks thinking up

The point seems to be one about language and nostalgia. “There’s some idiot right now in Bubbling Brooks thinking up a plague sitcom,” Mr. Whitehead writes. As the screenwriters cling to the formulas of the gutted culture, so some of the zombies appear to have been paralyzed by a yearning for routine. Infected by plague, they have returned to a scene of the former world, possibly of their former lives—an office building, a field; in one case, the vats of a deep fryer—where they freeze in a parody of normalcy. “The stragglers posed for a picture and never moved again, trapped in a snapshot of their lives.” Some survivors abuse the stragglers, Abu Ghraib-style. Sensitive Mark Spitz alternates between shooting them dead, per his mission, and an impulse to let them be. “What if we let him stay?” he asks of a straggler called Ned the Copy Boy. Ned the Copy Boy is not allowed to stay.

But the survivors are a kind of straggler, too. The provisional government in Buffalo, which destabilizes as the novel progresses, has mawkishly fixated on a return to the old templates of existence. Already, they foresee the resettlement of Manhattan: “If you got in at the right time it didn’t matter that the building next door was writhing with skels. Eventually they’ll be displaced three subway stops away by rising rents and you’ll never see them again.” The cynicism is also a form of homesickness, a sentimental revival of a landlord cliché of the preapocalypse. The real lords of Manhattan are not interested in rent.

Zone One entertainingly appeases the obligations of its genre—there is much “red mist” and mayhem, including a terrifying sortie into the intestines of the city subway—but its real spectacle is linguistic. “Soldiers terminated targets on fire escapes, where they slumped like moths caught in wrought-iron cobwebs.” The mind of Mark Spitz beautifully convulses with the strain of seeing the new for what it is, the old for what it was. As Mr. Whitehead writes, “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.”

Sight without recognition is a kind of definition of the opportunity for poetry. The apocalypse has provided, among other things, a remission from the regime of the trite; the post-apocalyptic world has not yet hardened its own clichés. “The new vocabulary of the disaster,” “their last-ditch armor plate” is incomplete, so it must be patched up surreally by the smithereens of the dead world. In his Last Night story, Mark Spitz walks in on his mom hunched over his dad. She is chewing his entrails, but the tableau reminds Mark Spitz of the time when, as a child, he walked in on her giving him a blow job: “There she was, gobbling up his father.” It is a wonderfully delicate piece of writing, borrowing from the pornographic to illustrate the grisly, yet evoking the innocence of childhood. As Mr. Whitehead describes one of Mark Spitz’s nightmares, “It was a neurotic curveball his subconscious came up with to freak him out, employing the exotic cant of bona fide grown-ups.” It might also serve as a description of the book. The apocalypse turns us all to children again, without words for what lies beyond the door.

editorial@observer.com

 

Dead on Arrival: Whitehead Gives Zombies a Shot