Maybe it was just a matter of the timing of my read because the tenth anniversary was last week, but I feel like this book was a 9/11 novel. I don’t mean to be reductive – there’s certainly other stuff here – but there’s this thinly morose elegy for New York going on, cut with something less combative than sarcasm and more emotional than irony. I spent the fortnight leading up to 9/11/11 – a stutter of a date – narrowly avoiding public commentary, while committing a series of glancing asides with friends. Where were you? 9/11 in public has been rendered cinematic, that famous long-shot of the towers burning is maybe too restrained for Michael Bay, but it certainly lacks the ashy situated experience of the day, all phone calls and slowly dawning horror. One thing that kept popping up in my conversations of rememory was the almost whispered question – do you remember the people jumping, falling from the towers? Do you remember the reports of the smack of their bodies hitting the ground? Do you remember the footage? It’s gotta be out there somewhere, not that I want to see it again, but it’s been collectively wiped from our retinas, an eye rub that seeks to dislodge the sleep-ash of the nightmare. But it’s been ten years. We’ve stuttered into our new normal, the uneasy and easy everyday of a world walking on.
Zone One by Colson Whitehead follows with an intimate third person a character called Mark Spitz. He’s not the Olympian Mark Spitz, his name instead a post-armageddon macabre joke about his relentless averageness. Whitehead tosses off a lot of incisive, tending towards over-wrought descriptions of other characters and places, but his lead is so blank, so lacking in affect that you feel the chill of loss despite the semicoloned literary style. The action of the book takes place over three tight days, but the true incidents are lappingly recounting in flashback, the scum of the blood-tide peeled back layer by dried layer. Much of the supporting cast could dissolve into quirk-fests if it weren’t for constant reminders of the sources of these quirks, the almost laughingly named disorder PASD – Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder. PASD when spoken aloud sounds like “past”, a sometimes funny, always awful double entendre.
Mark Spitz – and this name is never familiarized to Mark, nor do we ever learn his given name – begins the book cleaning out “stragglers” from the titular Zone One, which is a section of Manhattan barricaded from the rest of the island by the reforming government of the US and cleared of the more active skels. (This set-up is not dissimilar to the set-up for 28 Weeks Later, though the colonial and family psychodrama aspects are much more understated.) The zombies are Romerian (Romeroian? Both of these are ugly adjectives; I apologize) – shambling, biting, unintelligent and relentless – but for a small percentage of stragglers – the undead frozen in tableau, unmoving, unblinking. Mark Spitz and his sweeper team work through the grids of this zone building by building, opening the closets, shooting the active skels and casually trying to divine the mysteries of the stragglers. Why here, bent over a copy machine? Why in a field flying a downed kite? Are these the actions that defined their lives, or just a burp of a recording set to pause at a random frame?
The social rules of survivors recounting the trauma of Last Night are meticulously cataloged by Mark Spitz. There’s the Silhouette, for those to whom no connection was felt; the Anecdote, suitable for large groups and the more long-term of the short-term traveling companions; then there is the Obituary, told only to the intimate, though not without rehearsal. This declension of the narratives of trauma reminded of my fortnight of 9/11 recountings this year. I was getting ready for work when I got a call from my sister in Midtown after the first plane but before the second, and then a gush of extraneous details; a friend tells of the ash beginning to fall on Brooklyn; another relating only the tersest of details. I don’t know if I’m allowed to quote from the bound galley I have, so please know that this may not be in the final draft, but, “At their core, Last Night stories were all the same: They came, we died, I started running.” The towers were hit, and then they fell, and where we were at the time is both intimate and immaterial.
Then there is the New Yorkiness of this book, a resident recounting his mixed irritation and affection for the cityest of American cities, carefully prodding nostalgia that at any moment might stir and bite. And when it does, put it down with a bullet. There’s a lot of that insular provincialism found in any person writing about their hometown – a running gag where Mark Spitz refers to Connecticut, where he spent a bad part of the interregnum, always with a damning adjective: damned Connecticut, hated Connecticut, abhorrent Connecticut; or a one-line dismissal of the Midwest which had me both laughing and bridling. Critically elegiac, the love/hate of the before that did not prepare for the after. Sometimes this doesn’t work, and I found myself boring through a description of the family eatery, its essayish tone slipping to droning, too many meanings, too much memory. But I see your point.
There’s the stink of the inevitable all over this story, and if you’re paying attention at all, you will know how this three days in Zone One is going to end. This is not a spoiler, but a statistic: 100% of people have died, except for the living, who will likely succumb to statistics just like the rest of history eventually. Despite the zombies, this is not a genre exercise, not really. There are no hat-tips to conventions of the zombie narrative, no attempt to science up the zombies or ruminate on causes. Ten years later, it’s just a done deal, something to recount while picking through the mess, the carrion body of historical fact. Even then, zombies carry with them certain inexorable truths in their rotten bones into this literary landscape. Reflection is a sad, useless business, self-serving in the abstract and distracting in the specific. But reflection is also compulsive and necessary in our human states: silhouette, anecdote or obituary. What does it matter where I was? It simply matters that I was. We pick up and shamble on.
(An ARC of this book was provided to me free of charge by the publisher, but no conditions were put on my review. Fyi.)