It was the stereotype of fast-talking, fast-walking, eagerly lacerating New York distilled into a potent half mile. You do not belong. You will be devoured by this monster.
Happy hour was impenetrable, as bedraggled drones convened on stools and soft, low-slung couches, whipping out the measuring tape to see who had the biggest complaint and trying to forget that the minute you bury the miserable day it rises from its coffin the next morning, this monster.
Now Mark Spitz understood plainly what they had meant by “What kind of person would bring a child into this world” …
The answer was, “Only a monster would bring a child into this world.”
He’d always seen himself in … the tentacled things that were, beneath their mottled, puckered membranes, more human than the murderous villagers who hunted them for their difference.
The townspeople, of course, were the real monsters.
We never see other people anyways, only the monsters we make of them. To Mark Spitz, the dead were his neighbors, the people he saw every day, as he might on a subway.
——— BY COLSON WHITEHEAD ———
(fiction, unless otherwise noted)
The Intuitionist (1999)
John Henry Days (2001)
The Colossus of New York (non-fiction, 2003)
Apex Hides the Hurt (2006)
Sag Harbor (2009)
Zone One (2011)
Midway through Colson Whitehead’s latest novel, Mark Spitz (not his real name) is sweeping an office building with the other members of his unit, hunting the walking, plague-ridden dead. As he goes through the motions of clean-up — shooting “skels,” ID’ing, bagging, and leaving them in the street for the incinerator crews to pick up — his mind wanders, and he considers how his dreams have changed since “Last Night,” the eve when the pandemic at the heart of this literary horror reached its tipping point.
Much of Zone One is told this way, through flashbacks over the course of one disastrous weekend as the three-person Omega Unit (Mark Spitz, Gary, and Kaitlyn) travels through the “Zone” of the title: Manhattan south of Canal Street, an area that the provisional government in Buffalo has identified as the first to be reclaimed from the plague.
No longer does Mark Spitz have nightmares about missing exams, or forgetting on the taxi seat the materials for that big presentation. Instead he dreams about the everyday, the former normal:
His dreams unfurled in the theater of the mundane. There was no pulse-quickening escalation of events, no stakes to mention. He took the train to work. He waited for his pepperoni slice’s extraction from the pizza joint’s hectic oven. He jawed with his girlfriend. And all the supporting characters were dead. The dead said, “Let’s stay in and get a movie,” “You want fries with that?,” “Do you know what time it is?,” while flies skittered on their faces searching for a soft flap to bury eggs in, shreds of human meat wedged in their front teeth like fabled spinach, and their arms terminated at the elbow to showcase a white peach of bone fringed with dangling muscle and dripping tendons. He said, “Sure, let’s stay in and snuggle, it’s been a long day,” “I’ll take the side salad instead, thank you,” “It’s ten of five. Gets dark early this time of year.”
As the author explains in the interview below, his latest work was inspired by a particular dream that contained a similar mix of the mundane and the horrific. His unconscious made the connection: After the zombie apocalypse, the living dead stay on like unwelcome houseguests. (Whitehead admits he was in a bad mood at the time of the dream.) The novel would be about those that survived and how they would try to put the world back together again, if they could.
The challenge of reconstruction is more than the monumental task of disinfecting the zone. Build a wall, block the subways, strafe the avenues, bring in civilians to clean out the rest. Still there is the balancing act each survivor plays in the mind: remember too little from the former time and you will be overwhelmed by the futility of carrying on in this wasteland; remember too much and you are captured in the detritus of what you know is a lost world.
The latter danger is personified in the curious phenomenon of the “straggler.” This is the one percent of skels that does not behave like the other walking dead: Instead of going after the living’s entrails, these infected will travel to some place that had special meaning to the person that once was, or so the theory goes. What the place means to the straggler is not clear to the living. (Having reached its destination, the straggler remains immobile and mute.) Mark Spitz has a theory:
Maybe it wasn’t what had happened in a specific place — favorite room or stretch of beach or green and weedy pasture — but the association permanently fixed to that place. That’s where I decided to ask her to marry me, in this elevator, and now I exist in that moment of possibility again. … Relieved of care and worry, the stragglers lived eternally and undying in their personal heavens. Where the goblin world and its assaults were banished and there was nothing but possibility.
The living, too, can fall under the spell of their former lives. “The survivors are also tied to their past and try to bring who they were, what they were into this new ruined world,” Whitehead said at an International Festival of Authors event in October. “The stragglers are just ghosts who do it more literally, becoming human monuments to what they used to be. So there are different levels of being trapped by the dead world.”
The survivors are fascinated by the stragglers. It’s easy to see why. The stragglers are somewhere between the human and the zombie (as in Whitehead’s master text, George Romero’s Living Dead films, the word “zombie” is rarely used in Zone One, though it is often used to describe the novel). Because they remain incommunicative, the stragglers remain enigmatic, but more than that, each of the survivors is, to some degree, a straggler to his or her own past.
“My idea of the world in Zone One is that it’s pretty much exactly the same as it is today, except 95 percent of the population is dead, and people are bummed out,” Whitehead says. “So Gary is very much like Gary was before the disaster. Kaitlyn is very much still the grade-grubbing student council member. What makes them tragic or sad in my mind is that they haven’t changed, and that they’re stuck trying to bring their past selves or past lives into this new place where it can’t exist. So they’re as tied to the past as the stragglers, who are more obviously emotionally tethered to who they used to be. But the survivors are in the same boat.”
Mark Spitz carefully polices his mind, lest he think the “forbidden thought,” of suicide, or engage in the equally verboten “pheenie” mentality (“pheenie” from “phoenix,” the mythical bird reborn from its own ashes). The pheenies are kind of like the yuppies of the apocalypse. Unwarranted hope, Mark Spitz is convinced, will lead only to despair.
Both ways of thinking are forbidden by a stricture that is Mark Spitz’s own, no one else’s. Following these self-imposed rules has been key to his survival, but if they have helped him make it this far, they are also a mark of his trauma. Mark Spitz cannot bring himself to ID the skels he has cleanly immobilized. He cannot withstand the associations called forth by the flavoured gums and the just-in-case tampons to be found in purses, “The fossil evidence that there had once been other types of people besides survivors.” That task is left to the other members of his team. Yet despite his worries of sinking into personal history, the majority of the novel ruminates on exactly that.
One of his memories from the settlements where he lived before volunteering for the zone is of coming across a comm operator trying to help a teenage soldier suffering from PASD (Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder, common among those who have made it to relative safety).
“What happened,” Mark Spitz asked, “he get bit?”
“No, it’s his past,” he heard the comm operator say. The recruit moaned some more.
“His P-A-S-D, man, his P-A-S-D. Give me a hand.”
The world of Zone One is similar to ours — it is made from ours. Much of our current existence may have crumbled (and where are the writers? They are pouring kerosene on the dead bodies, “pitching in for a change”), but there are still buzzwords; there is still bureaucracy; the reconstruction has its sponsors and its theme song. The body bags are cheaply made and fall apart in your hands.
Human beings’ blood may turn, but Zone One suggests that people don’t change all that much. Mark Spitz tells us about our world by what he misses of it, often in streams of run-in lists. Each image brings forth further associations. At one point he misses the whole gamut of women he will never get to sleep with. His mind conjures them in their infinite variety: the beauty mark on the ass and the stubbled armpits; those of old money and the fiscally paranoid; some “carried slim vocabularies” while others “stooped to conquer in the wordsmith board games he never got the hang of.”
To imagine these characteristics in their particularity is to suggest that they are built from memory. We may not share in these recollections, but as we imagine with him the women in their detail we understand the resonance of the partner who will take no prisoners on the Scrabble board.
“He missed the dead he’d never lose himself in, be surprised by, disappointed in,” Whitehead writes. Zone One is about what we value in being human. When 95 percent of the population is dead, what Mark Spitz misses is the range of human interaction, the variety of human life, and the complexity of motives. “He missed shame and guilt and a time when something higher than dumb instinct directed his actions.”
It is a novel replete with monsters: the skels, but also normal people, New York City, and the day itself is described as a zombie. Just as the stragglers are some mix of the two, in retrospect Mark Spitz sees both the living and the dead containing something of the other:
It happened every so often that he recognized something in these monsters, they looked like someone he had known or loved. Eighth-grade lab partner or lanky cashier at the mini-mart, college girlfriend spring semester junior year. Uncle. He lost time as his brain buzzed on itself. He had learned to get on with the business at hand, but on occasion Mark Spitz fixed on eyes or a mouth that belonged to someone lost, actively seeking concordance.
It was the business of the plague to reveal our family members, friends, and neighbors as the creatures they had always been. … The plague touched them all, blood contact or no. The secret murderers, dormant rapists, and latent fascists were now free to express their ruthless natures.
When Mark Spitz wakes from his dreams, the ones where the dead want to cuddle or take your order or stop you on the sidewalk to ask the time, he finds he cannot call these nightmares. “The new vintage of dreamscape left him feeling curiously indifferent.” The plague reveals what his friends and loved ones always were: someone in whom he thought he recognized something shared; someone who was also capable of horrible things.
Mark Spitz remains ambivalent on where he fits into all of this, at least until the novel’s final scene. “He recalled a theory of dreams from the old days that declared them wish-fulfillment, and another declaring that you are every person in your dreams, and each theory seemed equally plausible and moot and in the end he didn’t spend too much time analyzing. He was a busy man these days.” These are his thoughts on the Saturday morning. He still has the whole weekend to go.
Colson Whitehead spoke to The Varsity in October.
“What are you watching?” the girlfriends asked as they padded in bearing boutique seltzer and chips, and he’d say “The buildings,” feeling weird about the pull the skyline had on him. He was a mote cycling in the wheels of a giant clock. Millions of people tended to this magnificent contraption, they lived and sweated and toiled in it, serving the mechanism of metropolis and making it bigger, better, story by glorious story and idea by unlikely idea. How small he was, tumbling between the teeth. But the girlfriends were talking about the monster movies on TV.
You are a New Yorker when what was there before is more real and solid than what is here now. … Maybe we become New Yorkers the day we realize that New York will go on without us.
The Colossus of New York
When did you first get the idea for this book? Sag Harbor was your last novel, which came out in 2009, but I found that this book, in a strange way, was maybe more connected to The Colossus of New York.
Did this idea come from before Sag Harbor? Or has it really just come about in the past two years?
There’s a few different answers to that question. Yes. Some of the ideas and sentiments about the city that are expressed in Colossus appear here filtered through the consciousness of Mark Spitz. So this is my first novel about New York, and my first attempt to have characters in the city who conceive of the city in the same way that the narrator of Colossus does. So this is my first New York novel. That’s straightforward.
Zombies? Eight years ago I thought I might do a non-fiction piece on what zombies mean to me. I never did that.
And then in terms of this actual novel, it came to me on the July 4 weekend of 2009. I’d always had zombie anxiety dreams ever since I saw Dawn of the Dead when I was in junior high. So for the past 30 years, when I’m stressed, I don’t have dreams where I’m late for an exam, I have dreams where I’m being chased by the living dead.
I had a dream that I wanted to go into my living room, but I was wondering if they — whoever “they” were — had cleared out the zombies yet. I woke up, and I was like, yeah, that seems like a good question.
So you’re actually being chased. It’s not like the strange dreams that Mark has, where he’s just going about day-to-day existence and he’s surrounded by the living dead.
No, they’re like movie scenarios, like I’m trying to find the army settlement, a band of survivors. I’m alone, either way. So it’s not weird for me to have a zombie dream.
So I had one on July 4. I was having houseguests in Long Island. I woke up and I heard them talking and laughing and making breakfast, and I was just like, “Can you guys leave?” I was in a bad mood. I didn’t say that, but that’s what I wanted to say! [laughs] So I just stayed in bed and hid, fell back to sleep. I had a dream that I was in New York, and I wanted to go into my living room, but I was wondering if they — whoever “they” were — had cleared out the zombies yet.
So then I woke up, and I was like, yeah, that seems like a good question: When the apocalypse is over, who’s going to clean up? The plague-stricken wretches hang around like houseguests. How to get rid of them?
Over the past two years there’s been almost a zombie renaissance, like there’s a lot of zombie stuff going on in various media. Somebody might think, “Oh, are you just tapping into that?” But a book takes a long time to write.
Yeah, I mean, obviously the book is out of sync. I’m not sure where the zombie trend is in Canada versus the States. When I saw the book Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was a big bestseller, I assumed [laughs], I assumed that was going to be the crest of the wave, because it couldn’t get more zombie than something like that. So I was operating on the assumption that when the book was finally done, people would be over zombies. And then the question is, like, do I care? No. You know, if you do a good job, people will read it. I wrote about elevator inspectors [The Intuitionist]; obviously, people are completely indifferent to elevator inspectors. Does that mean I’m not going to write the book? No, that was the thing I had to write then.
My conception of what makes a zombie horrible and terrifying is realizing the truth of the world, which you’ve always suspected.
My weird, neurotic fixation with that George Romero–type zombie has been going on for a long time. I felt that it was the right project, and trends come, trends go: I’d like the book to be read 10 years from now. I assume that the trend will be over.
One word that stood out to me that you use in a couple different ways in the book is the word “monster.” Obviously, the dead are described as monsters, but you also include a couple references to cinematic tropes from monster movies — wherein, for example, the villagers are shown to be monsters inside — and you describe Chinatown as being a monster; New York City, in its heyday, is monster-like. What does this word mean within the context of the book?
People ask me “Why are zombies big? Why are people scared of zombies?” I can’t really speak to what other people think of them. My conception of what makes a zombie horrible and terrifying is realizing the truth of the world, which you’ve always suspected, which is that your family, your friends, your principal, your boss can suddenly be revealed for the monster that they’ve always been. In your paranoid misanthropic worst, you’d imagine this about people — people you love, people you know, your neighbours. For me the zombie terror is that the world is turned on its side, and that’s the new reality. So whether it’s your city, it’s your spouse, the idea that the everyday can suddenly become horrible, lethal, out to get you, is what animates the zombie story for me.
I believe the novel is set sometime in the near future. Is that right?
That’s my idea. There aren’t too many indications of that, but that was my idea in my head while I was writing it.
You do get to somewhat create this world. Because of the zombie apocalypse, it is somewhat different from our own. Did you have to do any research?
No. I mean, in terms of the genre, it comes from my love for horror movies and post-apocalyptic science fiction movies. I watch Dawn of the Dead twice a year. I didn’t increase or decrease my frequency of watching that movie.
My idea of the world in Zone One is that it’s pretty much exactly the same as it is today, except 95 percent of the population is dead, and people are bummed out. So Gary is very much like Gary was before the disaster. Kaitlyn is very much still the grade-grubbing student council member. What makes them tragic or sad in my mind is that they haven’t changed, and that they’re stuck trying to bring their past selves or past lives into this new place where it can’t exist. So they’re as tied to the past as the stragglers, who are more obviously emotionally tethered to who they used to be. But the survivors are in the same boat.
It’s a book that’s largely told in flashbacks. It occurs over three days, although it jumps back and forth between those three days and Mark’s memories of the time before. How did the writing go about? Are you someone who will write just a mass of text and then weed it, edit it into its structure, or did you have a structure planned out in terms of how you were going to organize the book?
I’m a big outliner, so I know the beginning and the end before I start writing. That day I had the dream, I came up with the final scene, so I was writing towards that the whole time. I wrote it in a linear fashion, from the beginning towards the end, so that I didn’t move things around particularly. I write, revise, write, revise. If I write five pages, the next day I might revise page two and three. If I add three more pages, I might revise pages five and seven. So I’m always going forward and backward, forward and backward. For me the hard part of writing a book is the first third or the first 100 pages when you’re trying to figure out what the narrator sounds like. Are the sentences long here? What kind of humour, jokes are going to be in it? What kind of adjectives does he/she use? Once you have that, and your voice stabilizes, you know what the book sounds like, obviously you have to go back and change everything that’s gone before. So I’m always revising as I move forward.
On the subject of your protagonist, Mark Spitz: all the survivors in this world have this trauma that they’ve been through, and they have this new acronym for it, of PASD (post-apocalypse stress disorder). We see Mark go through a certain amount of self-policing in terms of how he deals with that.
He has what he refers to as the “forbidden thought” that he doesn’t allow himself to think, or doesn’t want to think. What is the forbidden thought for Mark, and what are the consequences of him thinking it?
It’s giving in. In the first scene it’s suicide by skel, but it’s some way of doing yourself in and giving up on moving into the new world. Offing yourself. I call him a mediocre man. It seemed that, in my idea of the apocalypse, if you’re actually high-functioning and understood the magnitude of what had happened to the world, you’d just jump off a building and kill yourself. That seemed [laughs], that seemed like a very rational thing to do.
What makes them tragic or sad in my mind is that they haven’t changed, and that they’re stuck trying to bring their past selves or past lives into this new place where it can’t exist.
If you’re a C or a D or an F personality, you’d be wiped out pretty quickly, because you can’t adapt and you’re stupid, frankly. I think the mediocre will survive. They’ve always muddled through — why not muddle through the end of the world? So Mark Spitz is adapted to the new conditions on the ground, but there is that — taking the easy way out — that I think everyone wrestles with in the book.
You mentioned that he is a mediocre man. I think the word that you often use is that he is “unexceptional.” To me, reading the descriptions of Mark, it seems that being the Unexceptional Man is different from being the Everyman in that I imagine Everyman as being somewhat heroic, whereas Mark is Unexceptional Man. I would think he would be more the character of a noir.
Mark Spitz’s high school had abolished the yearbook practice of nominating students the Most Likely to Do This or That, in the spirit of universal self-esteem following a host of acrimonious parent-teacher summits, but his most appropriate designation would have been Most Likely Not to Be Named the Most Likely Anything, and this was not a category.
Is there no room for heroes in this post-apocalypse?
Are there any heroes in the book? I’m trying to think.
I don’t know that there are.
I guess that’s more about me that I didn’t even realize that. That’s interesting. Yeah, you know, he’s just a survivor trying to make it to the next settlement, make it through the day without getting killed. Heroic characters? I mean, I guess the army’s come in and swept out — but you never really see them. They do rescue Mark Spitz from the farm. They’re not quite heroic, nor can I think of any heroic characters in the book! [laughs] So [laughs] I guess there’s no room for heroes in my idea of the apocalypse.
We’ll call that a commentary on the apocalypse and not a commentary on you.
Yes. They’re survivors, not necessarily heroes.
I found that there were several points that made mention of cinema, even cinematic moments within the book. In the very beginning there’s that scene where young Mark is looking out the window of his uncle’s apartment and there’s the monster movies playing in the background. The novelist Paul Murray has said that cinema is the dominant storytelling medium of our time. Do you agree with that?
No. Dominant in terms of number of eyeballs? The highest level of artistry?
I think his comment was that as a novelist he sometimes struggles to remember that he is writing a novel and not a prose film.
Right. I mean, I don’t think of it that way. I think that my exposure to the apocalypse came from film and not a lot of sci-fi novels. So whether I’m embracing or deconstructing some of the tropes of horror or post-apocalyptic films, it’s the film that is the origin of the critique or the commentary. I’ve always been a very visual writer. Is that because I grew up on TV and the VCR? I have no idea. My descriptions are usually very visual. That’s not exclusive to Zone One.
For me, the big tragedies — a terrorist attack, a tsunami — and the personal ones are of the same piece. If people can identify with a certain amount of Mark Spitz’s travails, it’s because they can superimpose their own trauma onto him.
Your novels frequently feature African-American characters and discussions of race. I noticed in this book, at least I think no mention is made of Mark’s race or what Mark looks like.
[Interviewer’s correction: There is at least one reference, on page 231, when Mark Spitz explains to Gary how he got his nickname:]
He told him about the wreckers, the Northeast Corridor, and the jokes when they got back to Fort Golden Gate from the viaduct. He’d laughed along with everyone else, but later he had to look up Mark Spitz, in a surreptitious mission for an old paper encyclopedia. … His nicknamesake had been an Olympic swimmer in the previous century, a real thoroughbred who’d held the world record for the most gold medals in one game: freestyle, butterfly. …
Mark Spitz explained the reference of his sobriquet to Gary, adding, “Plus the black-people-can’t-swim thing.”
“They can’t? You can’t?”
“I can. A lot of us can. Could. It’s a stereotype.”
“I hadn’t heard that. But you have to learn how to swim sometime.”
“I tread water perfectly.”
Was that deliberate?
Yeah. I mean, in some of my books race and ideas about race are a big part of the narrative; sometimes they’re not. Colossus is just about the city; it’s not about the Black city, it’s about the city. Sag Harbor, while having a 95 percent African-American cast, isn’t to me that much about race; it’s just about being a teenager and tapping into universal longings and themes of disquiet and universal ideas of invention, identity-making. In here, it didn’t have a place in my idea of the apocalypse. It seemed like if you’re in the basement of a pizza parlour and there’s 10 thousand living dead above, whether the person you’re trapped with is Black, a woman, Canadian, has a very funny southern accent, is not really what you’re concentrating on. You’re concentrating on is “How are we going to get out of here?”
There are two events that I was wondering if they had any influence on the writing of this book, and those are the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and the global economic collapse, the recession, and its effect on America. I ask about September 11 because the 10-year anniversary just happened, and when the Twin Towers fell, a common response was “There ever be another disaster movie set in New York”; the recession because it is a recent crisis that has happened within the time span of you writing the novel, and I think it has affected America in a very specific way. Are you conscious of those two events having infiltrated the writing of the book, or no?
For me, the book is about a survivor trying to adapt to the new world. There’s a before and an after, and his world has been changed, damaged. He’s traumatized, and he’s trying to find that new self that can adapt to this new world. My idea of how to survive trauma comes from 9/11 partially; it comes from people I know dying. For me, the big tragedies — a terrorist attack, a tsunami — and the personal ones that no one knows about, the ones that you carry around, are of the same piece. There are communal and private disasters, and if people can identify with a certain amount of Mark Spitz’s travails, it’s because they can superimpose their own trauma onto him.
[In the novel] In downtown New York there’s ash of human remains flying through the sky, so that [9/11] is part of it, but — and this will lead to the second part of your question — I grew up in a ’70s and ’80s New York that was totally run-down and messed up, dirty, a lot of abandoned lots, a hard place to live. So that’s part of my original idea of the city, and I walk around with that, even when I’m walking past luxury buildings and the cleaned up Manhattan of mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg. So I understand that whatever the consequences of this recent downturn, whatever form they take in the city, that’s part of the life of a city: you have booms and you have busts. Right now the city is not carrying the physical scars of a serious downturn. Will that be true a year from now or two years from now? I think if there was any kind of economic downturn I was thinking of, it was the one in the ’70s, because we can return to that state at any time. The boom years always end. It’s just part of the life of a city to expand and contract over the decades.