Thursday, March 28, 2013

Zone One

by Colson Whitehead

Zone One


mark monday got up at his usual hour, in his usual bed, and after leisurely winding his way through his various morning routines, made his way to work, to perform his usual functions. it was a friday, a day where most of his colleagues found reasons to be elsewhere - appointments and such - and so this was mark's favorite work day to be in the office. the lack of potential irritation meant more work could be accomplished. on some level, he realized that this was perhaps a rather uncharitable perspective, and so he actively tried to create positive, supportive relationships with his colleagues to balance out these misanthropic tendencies. mark accomplished his various pre-set work goals to varying degrees of satisfaction. when faced with an annoying email or an unpleasant task, he would sometimes pause to remind himself that he "liked" his job, it was surely an important one, one that could be seen to help many needy people, one that was mandated by the government, one that afforded him a certain level of both personal self-esteem and public influence. it was an administrative position.

after work, mark went with his boss to a community forum at city hall on federal health care reform (scheduled, unpleasantly enough, on a friday evening). he used this forum as a reason to avoid attendance at both a going-away party for a co-worker (he was never too partial to that colleague's whininess) and a night out of dinner & drinks with a former best friend from san diego (too many buried resentments that could now, happily, go unearthed). the individuals on the forum's panel said their various rote statements and everyone performed their necessary functions in their role that evening. afterwards, mark monday went home and started reading Zone One by Colson Whitehead.

the novel takes place after a zombie apocalypse, as the world attempts to rebuild itself. the protagonist, Mark Spitz, is a member of Omega Unit, which is one of many civilian units charged with the clean-up of nyc, moving street by street and building by building to find and dispose of any remaining stragglers not wiped out by prior military incursions. zombies come in two forms: 99% are "skels", your basic ravening zombie, hungry for flesh; 1% are "stragglers", a revenant that is usually harmless, found hovering aimlessly in places that once held meaning for them. their office; their usual restaurant; the elevator where they spontaneously proposed marriage; the field where they flew their first kite. stragglers cling to their old lives, their old roles, they remain somehow connected to what once personally defined them. Mark Spitz finds this haunting of old places to be both sad and predictable. he muses constantly on the roles that people give themselves, the way that they define themselves, the places they give value and the meaning of that value. mark monday found these ruminations to be interesting but rather missed the excitement of an old fashioned tale of zombies running amuck. he wasn't sure that this was the book that he wanted to read at 1:30 in the morning on a friday night. still, he stuck with it. as Mark Spitz pondered the meaning behind humanity's self-built mouse mazes and humankind's need to adopt roles that give them purpose, mark monday idly reflected on the rather ineffable sadness of those roles - as if they could somehow give a person genuinely deep satisfaction, as if mankind wasn't actually composed of players in a play that has been long written, as if that play won't simply be played again and again, with different players, an updated script.

at the end of the novel's first part (entitled "Friday"), Mark Spitz bunks down with his Omega Unit partners, broods on his empty and mediocre pre-zombie apocalypse existence, and goes to sleep. mark monday finished the chapter, desultorily jacked off to a random fantasy template, and went to sleep.


mark slept in, per usual on a Saturday, had his usual food and put on his usual attire, and went to the park. it was a reasonably nice day for san francisco and the park was full of people doing their usual thing. enjoying the weather, talking, laughing, reading, sleeping, working on their laptops and talking on their cell phones. mark did the same. he made a few phone calls and so enacted his various roles as son, brother, friend, former lover, and/or support system. he read Zone One from time to time, where Mark walked down his memory's corridors: an unfulfilling life of mediocrity, his parents already turned zombie pre-zombie apocalypse, then running from the onslaught of the undead, surviving, finding other survivors and yet never connecting with them, always erecting barriers to hide himself, never feeling, rarely loving, a life on the run much like his former life standing in place, in safety. mark found himself growing bored and then frustrated with Mark's navel-gazing. it was perhaps the wrong book to bring to the park, too mordant, too contemplative, too jaded about the guises that humans adopt to comfort themselves, to make themselves feel whole. mark started feeling contempt towards Mark. he began to grow bored with his company. he began to wonder why literary author Colson Whitehead would bother writing a genre novel if all he was going to do was put his various tedious digressions to page, if he wasn't going to bother with an exciting narrative, if all he thought about humanity could be summarized in two words: eternal emptiness. such a person could be convicted on pretentiousness alone, thought mark. it is as if he is holding himself hostage to his own inner void.

back at home, mark monday contemplated what he would do for the evening. there was a dinner party that his old high school friends were having, but the idea of yet again being the life of the party, the person who made salty comments and saucy innuendos, their funny strange idiosyncratic friend...well, the idea of that role fatigued him. he could call up his "real friends" (that was the role in which he had cast them), try to do something fun he supposed, some drinking, some talking about the various challenges of being a teacher/ lawyer/ carpenter/ social worker/ mother/ father/ husband/ wife, some gossip about who said what to whom and why... but in the end, that felt rather like work. there was also a benefit that a sister agency was having, it would be good to be seen there, to hobnob amongst his peers, to blather some bullshit with politicians and stakeholders, to talk about his job and the importance of this or that piece of legislation... but he quickly rejected that off-hand: he'd play that role on monday, this was his weekend. so instead he chose to do what he often preferred to do in general these days: he stayed at home and read, free of troublesome engagement, free of the need to perform certain functions in the usual way, with the usual people.

in Zone One, Mark Spitz and his colleagues holed up in various locations and discussed their different paths in life, how those paths led them to where they were now. Mark contemplated the connection he had to his unit and the inevitability of that connection coming to a close. he did not feel sadness. he did not feel happiness. he did not feel anger. he did not feel regret. was he some form of "straggler"? mark monday felt a flash of sympathy, empathy even, at the idea of Mark Spitz's feelings of hollowness, of self-designation as a person of mediocrity. Mark was a kind of zombie himself, mark supposed. perhaps everyone was a kind of zombie. perhaps lack of affect, constant anomie, a relentless repetition of meaningless form and ritual were hallmarks of all kinds of humanity, both living and undead. mark wondered, is that a deep thought? deep thoughts annoyed him, and he quickly dismissed it. Colson Whitehead was proving to be a somewhat aggravating author and mark dismissed him as well. just a few more pages and then to bed, i'll finish this crap tomorrow, thought mark.

in the last few pages of the second part of the novel (entitled "Saturday"), Mark Spitz drinks both in the present time and in flashback, as he enjoys some R&R and contemplates his now-dead former supervisor. what role did that lieutenant fill in his own life; what lack of satisfaction drove him to his final actions? Mark shed no tears. mark had a beer himself ('Here's To You, Mark!'), shed no tears, went to bed, and remembered none of his dreams.


mark woke up unusually early and read the final part of Zone One (entitled "Sunday"). destruction, death, and dangerous disarray riddled the final pages, and yet it was not a travelogue of horror but rather a guide to the hazards of connection and the importance of exit plans that can extract a person from unhealthy human and inhuman attachments. Mark Spitz realizes that as a mediocre person, he is ideally suited to surviving the zombie apocalypse. he 'does his best' for his colleagues, but there is little to do. he reflects on the transitory nature of all relationships as he thinks of the people in his life who have disappeared, of a makeshift family in which he was briefly a part, before it was torn asunder. he remembers that last person he loved, now gone from him forever, and was that really even love? Mark then runs.

mark closed the book and thought about how he would write that book's review. then he dressed in his usual clothes, went for his usual walk, stopped at his usual bookstore, and shopped at his usual grocery store. he went home and made some phone calls, enacting his usual roles, this time as friend to one and support system to another. he answered a text message notifying him of an acquaintance's accident with the rotely sympathetic language of a typical 'sensitive human male'. he watched an episode of Breaking Bad, and wondered at how Mr. White got himself into such a situation, contemplated the chain of events that had led the character to his new role in life. he watched the premiere of Dexter, gained some pleasure at watching Dex enact his role as bloody avenger, and grew annoyed at the character's insistence that he was a person without affect. oh please, mark thought, that's bullshit. i have as much affect as Dexter, and i'm no serial killer. mark reviewed his work calendar in advance of tomorrow's work role and wrote a navel-gazing review, per usual. mark brushed his teeth and then went to sleep.

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