In Zone One, Mark Spitz deals with a feeling of mediocrity throughout his childhood and adult life. He describes himself as a B-student, always meeting just the minimum to scoot by without worry of failure or high expectations for above-average achievement, “He was not made team captain, nor was he the last one picked. He sidestepped detention and honor rolls with equal aplomb.” (Whitehead, 11) Although Mark Spitz describes himself as mediocre, we can see through his talent at demolishing the plagued zombies of this new world that he isn’t as mediocre as he likes to believe. The other day I came across a piece of information discussing what is called the “imposter syndrome” and I immediately thought of Mark Spitz. Read more
As a child I was always interested in novels based around worlds of fantasy and science fiction, anything that showed a spark of magic amidst the boring world of reality. I spent my time reading of heroes conquering beasts and monsters, ending in the hero saving the world or humanity. I always hoped that something out of the ordinary would happen and I, myself, would be presented with the opportunity to be become one of the heroes I idolized. Zone One is an example of one of the stories I would have picked up expecting to experience the journey and toil of a hero overcoming a large otherworldly problem, had I discovered this book on my own I would have been disappointed considering Zone One is the exact opposite.
Mark Spitz talks about how he too had always hoped for an adventurous adult life, “as a kid he’d invented scenarios for adulthood: to outrun a fireball, swing across the air shaft on a wire, dismember a gargoyle army with an enchanted blade that only he could wield.” (Whitehead 244) It is kind of a sick joke that Mark Spitz gets his adventure, just in the form of a plague that wipes out all of civilization, including those he cares about. This makes me rethink my wish for a life out of the ordinary, I feel a sort of appreciation for how easy I have it. If a zombie plague were to happen right now, I have a pretty good idea of how it would go down for me. I think I would end up returning to my family and try to survive it with them until one us ended up infected. If I were the first one to go, I’d die, but if it was one of my family members I predict we’d all get infected because we’d wait too long trying to live out his or her last moments of life and be bitten. I want to say I’d be a survivor like Mark Spitz and his sweeper unit, but if I want to be true to the novel with my prediction, I know I lack the the willpower to pull the trigger on a walking corpse.
From this joke that Whitehead plays on Mark Spitz’s character I gain a new form of respect for his resilience in the time of the plague. Mark Spitz acknowledges the irony of his situation, but rather than dwell on it he finds humor in it, “All the other kids turned out to be postal workers, roofers, beloved teachers, and died. Mark Spitz was living the Dream! Take a bow, Mark Spitz.” (244) yeah, Mark Spitz is living in the zombie apocalypse, but at least he’s not dead.
In this post I want to discuss a specific incident in Zone One and try to understand what this scene could mean. The scene I’m looking at is the fortune teller scene, here’s a quick recap: While on their duty of sweeping Zone One, Gary, Kaitlyn, and Mark Spitz come across a fortune teller rotting in her shop. When they first see the fortune teller she appears to be a Straggler and per usual, Gary feels the need to make a joke out of it by staging a seance. During Gary’s clerical stunt, Mark Spitz notices that the Straggler appears to be smiling, and as Gary releases the fortune teller’s hand from his she bites down on his thumb. This scene surprises the characters because the fortune teller had shown signs of being a Straggler.
Up until that scene there was a clear distinction between the Stragglers and the Skels, being that one group moved and attacked the living, and the others just stood frozen and inactive. “The fortune-teller must be a mistake, an errant bad comet loping into their solar system, the malfunctioning one percent of the malfunctioning one percent.” (Whitehead 301), but what if it wasn’t just a mistake, what if it was the parasite transforming and perhaps becoming stronger? In previous scenes in the novel, if a Skel saw a human they would immediately attack them or would at least wander around until they could smell flesh. But in this scene the Skel appears to pretend to be dormant until she finds the right opportunity to make her move. So could this mean the parasite is adapting to its environment and learning to survive more efficiently? Unfortunately the novel ends before this can be explored.
If the parasite were to adapt I believe it would mean an end to civilization. At the end of the book, the outcome for Zone One already looks pretty grim, the dead are gathering in masses around Zone One, “It was the most mammoth convocation of their kind Mark Spitz had ever had the misfortune to see. The things were shoulder to shoulder across the entire width of the avenue, squeezed up against the buildings, an abhorrent parade that writhed and palsied up Broadway until the light failed.” (303) So the situation is already pretty bad, but if the Skels learned a way to mimic Stragglers I think it’d be enough for them to overcome humanity. And that would be the end of us all.
As we read dystopian novels dredged in death or oppressive government regimes, religion is brought up. Because of the mass amounts of death and negativity found in an apocalyptic world, we are not only faced with the question of will humanity survive, but will religion survive? I know there are probably more important things to worry about during an apocalypse like, “Will I be able to find food today?” or “How will I cross the street without being attacked by zombies?”, but survival isn’t only about staying physically safe, there is also the preservation of the mind that contributes to survival. In Zulus and Zone One, religion is discussed in different ways. Read more
I’ve found a connection between Clay’s Ark, Zulus, and Zone One: food. In all of these novels, humans have to deal with alternatives to the plethora of foods we have available in any modern supermarket or grocery store. In Zulus, the planet is dying and cannot support the same amount of life as it used to, because of this, humans gain nourishment from a diet of cheese and crackers. Fresh fruit is a coveted item brought in from rebel camps outside city limits, “Alice Achitophel sat down with a cup of tea, cheese and crackers, and this evening an apple bought from a rebel in an alley downtown,” (Everett page 17). The only places to purchase fruit are in back alleyways and underground rebel gatherings. Clay’s Ark, showed the availability of food through the surprise of Blake when he enters the enclave. He is at first surprised to see a functioning farm. “Blake suspected this was the first meal he had eaten that contained almost nothing from boxes, bags, or cans.” (Butler page 482) This hints that farm-grown livestock and produce are lacking in availability, which could also be a nod toward the prominence of processed food in our daily diets. Yet Eli’s observation leads me to think differently. “He went to the well, turned the faucet handle of the storage tank, caught the cold, sweet, clear, water in his hand, and drank. He had not tasted such water in years.” (469) through this I inferred the availability of fresh, clean water (such as well water) is also lacking. Zone One displayed a more prominent lack of food, causing dystopian humans to ease their hunger with a nutritional paste, “He burped up some of that morning’s breakfast paste, which had been concocted, according to the minuscule promises on the side of the tube, to replicate a nutritionist’s concept of how mama’s flapjacks topped with fresh blueberries tasted.” (Whitehead page 12)
A cheese-only diet and nutritional food-paste may seem far fetched but some real-life alternatives to food are just as shocking. Around Lake Victoria in Africa, there is an abundance of flies or midges, as a way to take advantage of this influx, villagers use them to make fly burgers. These high protein burgers help battle protein insufficient diets and offer more accessible ingredients. A man-made product having enough vitamins and nutrients to supplement a meal is Soylent. Soylent, produced by Rosa Foods uses soy-protein, sunflower oil, and flavor specific ingredients, to produce a nutritional supplement which is available in a liquid or powder form. Soylent also has a year-long shelf life and doesn’t require refrigeration, helping reduce food waste. While these are specific examples, supplements for food can be found in more normalized forms like nutritional and protein shakes, we see them in our nutritional supplement areas of our local supermarkets and vitamin stores. Zone One seems odd because meals are super-concentrated, we’re used to drinking our meal supplements; just think how much more we could accomplish in a day if we could just swallow a pill and didn’t have to set time aside to eat and enjoy our food or dining experiences.
One thing I noticed and enjoyed in Zone One was Colson Whitehead’s ability to convey humor amidst the dreariness and dystopia of the apocalypse. He implements humor in his characters through games like “Solve the Straggler” and “Name That Bloodstain!”. This helps counter the more gloomy events of the novel so we aren’t completely overcome with how depressing the story actually is. Read more
As I read Zone One and learn more about the Stragglers, I am faced with the morality of killing them. There are three groups in this novel; the humans, the Stragglers, and the Skels. The Skels are the zombies who act against the human population, searching for any bit of flesh they can sink their rotted teeth into. The humans are the remaining bit of the species that have yet to be infected by the plague, fighting to survive the hunt of the Skels. Finally, there are the Stragglers, who aren’t alive, but they don’t show the hunger for flesh like the Skels. Instead, they are seen standing amongst store aisles or sitting on park benches, unmoving and unaffected by the world around them. Like animals looking for a final resting place, Stragglers choose the places they linger because that specific room or restaurant might have been associated with comfort in their previous lives. They don’t have prey to hunt or predators to fight off, instead they rot in their own worlds captured by a freeze-frame of a memory, so they’re just sort of there.
I am constantly uneasy every time I read about the deforming or defacing of Stragglers, which appears to be Whitehead’s intention. By giving them the habit of lingering where they’re comfortable, Whitehead humanizes them and makes us face the question of if it is okay to kill something that is doing no harm. I believe that it is, without a doubt, necessary to kill the Stragglers; the city must be cleared for new inhabitants and there is also a sort of mercy in releasing the Stragglers from the illusion of death. Each character in Mark Spitz’s unit deals with the killing of previous humans, Stragglers and Skels alike, by placing the negative or less appealing variety of human to them. For Gary, there were those who were able to conform to society’s rules in the way he couldn’t. For Kaitlyn they were the opposite, those who strayed from the order she lived her own life by. For Mark, they all possessed the same mediocrity he saw in himself, “Middling talents who got by, barnacles on humanity’s hull, survivors who had not yet been extinguished.” (Whitehead 267) It is the only way for them to find comfort in killing, by giving themselves the false sense of ridding the new world of the blemishes of the old.
As discussed in Ashley’s blog post, Humanity in Death, and Taha’s blog post, Rest in Peace, Mark believes he is releasing the undead from their toil between life and death, but I believe what ultimately helps him to be able to pull the trigger is the illusion he paints for himself.
Blake, in Clay’s Ark, finds his daughters and self captured by the car family in Present 22. He awakes in a dark room to find himself restrained by plastic cuffs and fears he may be “hobbled” (page 575). While reading this, I was unaware hobbling meant, so I did a little research in case others had never heard of the term before this book.
Death is a common occurrence: it happens every day, every person will have to deal with the death of someone they know and, at some point, death will happen to every person on earth. In Zulus, Sue Kabnis asks Alice Achitophel to report any patients that have died as she makes her rounds to collect urine and pills. During her daily routine, Alice makes an observation, “She dumped the medicines into the drawer held open by Sue Kabnis, as she did before, and left to go home with a stomach that was upset, tossing bile, because she had been asked to actually witness the dying, to acknowledge, to make it real by reporting it.” (page 203) Alice is forced to face the fact that people die more frequently than she’d like to believe. Read more
Chapter five of Harriet Washington’s Medical Apartheid opens with a description of the disappearance of Casper Yeagin, whose body was donated to the Howard University Medical School for anatomical dissection (as later discovered by his niece). Yeagin had no personal possessions when admitted to the Howard University Hospital, causing him to be registered as John Doe. His John Doe tag resulted in no one stepping forward to claim his body post mortem. Washington refers to the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act of 1968, allowing unidentified or unclaimed bodies to be donated to medical schools. The idea that an unidentified body could be donated to a medical school is unfamiliar and surprising to me. While I understand this Act allows for a way to dispose of bodies without them going to “waste”, it led me back to Monday’s class discussion on the display of Fortune’s bones in a museum and if that is truly what Fortune would have wanted for his body. Read more