A major theme in Colson Whitehead’s novel Zone One, along with just about every other piece of literature or cinema in a post-apocalyptic setting (zombies or otherwise) is the evaluation of how much the world can change with a single event. In Zone One, the survivors labelled the first day of the zombie outbreak as the “Last Night,” stating that “everyone knows where they were.” Mark Spitz is rational for assuming that the world will never return to “normalcy,” and intentionally tries to distance himself from who he was before the Last Night. However, he often finds himself reminiscing about the previous world, from remembering certain landmarks before they were ruined to imagining what certain zombies were doing before they turned. When he snaps back to reality, the distinct split between how things were and how things are now is always jarring.
A doctor in Zone One coined the term PASD, or “Post-Apocalypse Stress Disorder,” a condition in which the contemplation of this jarring shift causes serious health concerns with the survivors. One scene in the book has Mark Spitz confuse a doctor’s diagnosis of a recruit’s panic attack as his “past,” when he was, in reality, saying a shorthand for “PASD.” The context in this misheard proclamation actually makes sense: It was, after all, the recruit’s past that was causing him issues, an undoubtedly intentional wordplay by the hand of Whitehead. The characters in Zone One are, whether they want to be or not, obsessed with the memories of the world that no longer existed.
Some characters, such as Kaitlyn, cope with their PASD by hanging on tightly to trivialities from their past life, talking about things that could never conceivably be relevant in the new age. Her insistence of holding onto the past as such is a demonstration of people’s tendencies to create performances of memory. Despite how those elements of their pasts being gone, she desperately keeps them alive with reminders of the small things.
Whitehead’s depiction of the “before” world and “after” world in Zone One parallels reality in many ways: There are events in history that drastically change the outlooks of the average citizen. Most notably, anyone who remembers the events of 9/11 would tell you how different pre-9/11 America was from post-9/11 America. In the seventeen years since then, however, while the memory still lingers, the world has for the most part returned to “normalcy.”
There are many other historical events that the same could be said of, where they mark the “before’s” and “after’s” of citizen attitudes: The 2016 Presidential Election, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the war in Vietnam, the World Wars, the Civil War and American Revolution… the list goes on and on. The survivors of those events will always immediately proclaim that their event is the defining moment of human history, that the ultimate “before” and “after” starts right there. The truth is, as we all know, that they’re merely the markers of new chapters in the history books. After enough time, they become nothing more than footnotes.
Despite the scale of the Last Night in Zone One, it could be considered the same for that fictional world: Despite how drastically things change, “normalcy” always finds its way back eventually. Perhaps Mark Spitz is wrong in his assumption to the contrary?