Cigarettes as a sign of civilization

As a cigarette smoker of five years (yes, I know, I should quit) I can’t help but pay special attention to the cigarette references Whitehead makes throughout Zone One.  Cigarettes come up on multiple occasions to fulfill different purposes. Sometimes they’re used to complete a metaphor or simile, like when the narrator describes shell casings falling to the ground like “tossed cigarette butts” (94). Other times they’re used simply to set the scene, like the various moments when Gary lights a cigarette before bed or after killing a skel. These casual moments are everywhere and deliberate enough to stand in for something bigger.

The symbolism of smoking cigarettes in Zone One is actually pretty ironic. While the skels seem to be the most widespread and dangerous ghost from the past, cigarettes are there in the backdrop– ghosts that are just as dangerous and present as they were in a world before the plague. The irony plays out nicely when the soldiers move conversation from skel-killing glory stories to “cigarette-salvage possibilities” because of how much smoking had picked up since the plague (44). This moment is so painfully human. I personally cannot even recall how many times I’ve gone out for a cigarette in a moment of high stress, to find myself conversing with another smoker who I know for no other reason except that they’re a smoker. The conversation follows a similar dialogue to the one seen in Zone One: we share some stories, talk about our stresses, and then finish with the conversation of cigarettes themselves.

I think that’s Whitehead’s whole angle; there is something inescapably human about addiction, especially during crisis. I’m willing to bet that most people have some kind of general association with cigarettes, whether it’s positive or negative. Let me be clear: I am not saying that everyone has a positive relationship with cigarettes. More that it can touch lives and minds in ways that people don’t always think about, like the scary antismoking PSAs on TV or the D.A.R.E. program that scares little kids shitless from the consequences of smoking. I could go on but I won’t.

My point is, cigarette smoking is widely relatable merely due to their massive, or as Roach would say, violent production, consumption, and controversy throughout different social spheres. Whitehead zeroes in on this idea when he calls a 24-7 gas-and-cigarette vendor “civilization’s nearest representative,” an interesting but obvious choice given the two products’ high demand, value, and pervasiveness across culture (22). Incorporating this widespread addictive substance into an unimaginable zombie narrative brings a common and understandable element to Zone One, which slightly close the gap between impossible and possible.

However, I think the gap between the seemingly impossible zombie story and real life is what makes the zombie genre so important in the first place. The distance provides us with a template for an extreme disaster scenario without subjecting us to real-life catastrophe. As consumers of these zombie narratives, we are also conscripted to the role of a learner in a way; as we watch or read for entertainment, we are compelled to relate to the disaster and compare our lived experiences to it. What would I do if I were in Mark Spitz’s seat? Would I survive a zombie apocalypse? What if it weren’t a zombie apocalypse? Maybe something less serious, like a hurricane or an earthquake… could I survive that? We question, compare, and learn something about ourselves and society through the zombie narrative.

As I parallel my life with the one the characters in Zone One are experiencing, I can’t help but parallel the cigarette smoking in Zone One to the rise in alcohol consumption in New Orleans post-Katrina. In Zone One, the narrator points out the spike in cigarette smoking since the Last Night. Later in the novel he mentions how most of the skels they’ve been putting down are single stragglers. The total population is affected by mental illness and PASD. Basically, the action has slowed, boredom has followed, and the collective stress of the community is higher than ever– i’s no wonder that cigarette smoking is up. As we saw in When the Levees Broke, after Katrina citizens experienced more depression, suicidal tendencies, and PTSD. When they weren’t fighting for survival or trying to rebuild their homes they drank beer with their neighbors and went on with their usual jubilant traditions like always (as seen in Levees and Welcome to New Orleans). Alcohol consumption turned into a both/and after Katrina; while it numbed their senses to the pain and loss from Katrina, it awakened a sense of community and release in the people of New Orleans. Beer culture became another form of communal catharsis in a way, similar to the smoking culture seen in Zone One.

It’s easy to take a two-dimensional glance at Zone One and pass it off as mere fiction. However, just as the characters wrestle with binaries between the dead and the living, so does Zone One itself. According to Roach’s thought process, the book could be described as a performance, awakening something in the liminal stage between fiction and nonfiction. As Roach says, this is where we can find the most meaning in a performance (37). In the case of Zone One, I think Whitehead draws attention to cigarette addiction during a zombie apocalypse to paint a reminder that addiction during catastrophe is a very human reality. As easy as it is to get wrapped up in “the seduction of scorn” as Dr. McCoy would say, it’s important that we actively place ourselves in the shoes of hurricane survivors before making judgement calls about their habits, just as we unconsciously relate with the characters we read about in our favorite fiction.

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