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  • Katherine Dahl

Zone One: A NYC Zombie Apocalypse in 3 Songs

Everyone loves a good zombie movie—one might argue that humans are obsessed with fantasizing about their own end. I at least know that I like to imagine what I would do in a zombie apocalypse, and I’ve probably had that conversation with my friends a hundred times. In Colson Whitehead’s Zone One, the protagonist Mark Spitz actually admits that we all watch monster movies, but it’s different when you’re actually living in one. In the novel, a form of ‘zombie’ virus has taken over the world, turning New York City into a living hell full of what the humans call ‘skels’ and ‘stragglers’. It’s Mark Spitz’ job to pick off those stragglers so a new community can be rebuilt out of a tiny corner of the city called Zone One. 

In this apocalyptic world, the military rules. Everyone still living has been conscripted, which turns all the ordinary people into “troopers” that have their own role to play. In this way, despite the larger world having fallen apart, hierarchy reins in the form of army rank. Generals and paper-pushers up top and grunts at the bottom. Mark Spitz is on the latter half of that totem pole, along with the rest of the ‘sweepers’ who clear out stragglers. They’re only worth their ability to kill—and, even then, how valuable is a killer? After all, the line between human and monster is very easily blurred. All stragglers were once—even are still—human. Mark Spitz struggles with this idea throughout the novel, along with the knowledge that all the protection in the world is only temporary. Many of his comrades “plunge into certain death,” and there’s nothing he can do besides keep on shooting.

This can only last so long: the walls around their camp fall, just as the walls in Mark Spitz’ mind fall. He quickly loses himself in day-to-day survival, letting his morality slip between the cracks. Stragglers, he eventually decides, are monsters who need to be put down. No questions asked. “When the world has gone mad”, what’s there to do but go mad with it? All he had left was his gun, his life, and his “sanity”, yet, by the end of the novel, all three of those things become threatened. The book has no happy ending, and rather argues that divisions between humans—between monsters and men, between races or classes— are always going to be transitory and useless. Mark Spitz realizes this early on, although the metaphor doesn’t become literal until the walls, previously the symbol of human reconstruction, are overrun by the dead. 

Besides condemning these walls, the novel also satirizes the lethargy of the middle class. When their “judgment day” finally came in the form of the zombie virus, many of them are left to ‘straggle’ along in their homes, lifeless and soulless until a sweeper puts a bullet in between their eyes. In the story, ‘stragglers’ are the dead who aren’t overtly aggressive, and instead stand mostly motionless in the place where they got infected. Those that were comfortable in their nice, suburban homes and 9-to-5 jobs are the ones that turn into lazy ‘stragglers’. They’re not dead, yet also not alive. Their “world went up in flames”, and they are stuck standing just as they were when the virus spread; holding a coffee pot in one hand and the daily news in the other. 

In any case, Zone One is a thinly veiled social commentary on not just class and the military, but also the concept of an apocalypse narrative. We all spend so long wondering about what will happen when the world ends, yet we can never actually know until it happens. Until then, we are left with these stories and a hopeful feeling that we will be the ones to make it out. All we can do is speculate and continue watching those same monster movies on channel 5 reruns, thinking maybe—just maybe—we might be different than those poor saps that get eaten up in the first act. I suppose the best we can do is avoid ending up a straggler.

Runner-Ups: “Universal Soldier” by Buffy Sainte-Marie, “Mediocrity Rules” by Le Tigre, “Into the Ocean” by Blue October.


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