Teaching Notes: Zone One

Colson Whitehead‘s post-zombie-apocalypse novel Zone One follows “Mark Spitz” (a 1319144720-zone_20one_20coverpicnickname, but we’re never given his real name) over the course of three days. Exceptional only for his extreme mediocrity, Mark works as part of a civilian team dispatched by the provisional government to sweep lower Manhattan for zombie stragglers. This area, Zone One, has been barricaded off and is supposed to be the first part of the United States to be rebuilt and resettled. By the end of the novel’s three days, however, it is clear that the government’s reconstruction efforts are futile: new hordes of zombies seem to multiply exponentially and the barricades are eventually breached, leaving the survivors with little chance for escape.

Thoughts and ideas for teaching:

  • One of Whitehead’s twists on the zombie plot is his creation of two kinds of zombies: most infected people become standard flesh-eating monsters, but a small percentage become “stragglers,” who travel to a place that was somehow meaningful during their lives and stay there, catatonic, withering away but seemingly needing no food and threatening no one. The “straggler” makes it easy for Whitehead to emphasize the similarities between literal zombies and metaphorical zombies stuck in their routines. To what extent is the zombie a dead metaphor (ha!) for an unfulfilled person or a mindless consumer, and is Whitehead successful in giving this metaphor new life?
  • In many books, films, and video games, zombies are easy targets: people can kill them without thought, specific motive, or moral repercussions. Whitehead draws our attention to this feature of the typical zombie narrative by telling us that every member of Mark’s team sees something different when they kill stragglers, projecting their own worst enemies onto their targets—Mark sees himself (213-4). Can we read this aspect of the text as a meta-commentary on other zombie texts, and readers’/viewers’/gamers’ participation in those texts?
  • The erasure of boundaries between the survivors and the infected in this book troubles the genre’s convention of easy murder, but only slightly. The zombies of Zone One are not humanized; rather, the living are dehumanized. Whitehead repeatedly discusses the ways the plague and its aftermath change the living, not only in their behaviors and emotions but in their physical bodies as well. The soldiers dispatched to act as bait and then kill waves of skels “[know] they [are] being fundamentally altered, in their very cells” not by the disease but by the trauma they experience (77). Survivors suffering from “post-apocalypse stress disorder”—that is, all survivors—are said to “carr[y] themselves differently,” to “[walk] around with a psychological limp” (92). If the plague has fundamentally physically altered every human being, can it really be said to have any survivors? And if no one is spared, is shooting people simply another manifestation of the disease’s symptoms on par with eating people?