The “Before’s” and “After’s”

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?

Thinking about care; remembering Salvador

I’ve been thinking a lot about the article we read on prison abolition– “Free Us All”— and the lessons about care embedded into it. I don’t think it is easy for many to associate radical politics with care, partially because of the connotations associated with the word “radical.” Yet, this is exactly what is happening in the feminist and female-led defense campaigns for incarcerated people in the United States, and in campaigns beyond our borders.

When Saidiya Hartman said that “care is the antidote for violence,” she put prison abolition into a feminist and humanist frame. And Hartman’s idea about care is at the core of our self-reflective assignment. So I think it is important that I start to think about what it means to use care as an antidote to violence.

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Memory and the Futility of Containment on a Smaller Scale

In class we discussed how Zone One deals with containment and how it can often be futile. The one main example of containment and its futility that I saw in the novel connected with one of our course concepts, memory. Mark Spitz mentions how, in this post-apocalyptic landscape, it’s necessary to only worry about the immediate future, otherwise, you’re not going to survive. He tries to contain himself in the present moment as much as possible but memory makes this effort futile. Mark is continually dragged back into the past, seeing and, more importantly, remembering faces of people he had “known or loved” in the zombies, such as his past teacher, Ms. Alcott. Even when survival requires living in the moment, the past still upwells in the form of memory. No matter how hard Mark, or anyone else, tries to contain themselves in the present moment, past experiences force themselves into consciousness.

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Memory and Media

After Monday’s class discussion I found myself very entrenched in thinkING about the thread of conversation that several of my peers brought up regarding films and movies that had been altered after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan. Beth brought up how this directly ties into performances of memory and forgetting, and I wanted to explore this further as it really got me curious about the process of altering media after a communally disturbing or terrorizing event takes place. What we have read so far in Colson Whitehead’s novel, Zone One, centers, for the most part, around Mark Spitz’s experiences as a sweeper scouring for skels in the demolished ash and debris of post-plague lower Manhattan. Through this, Whitehead is evoking an eerily similar setting to that of post-9/11 New York City and consciously performs a remembering of this traumatic time. This is definitely quite contrasting to what I found when researching media that came about in the wake of 9/11. Continue reading “Memory and Media”

Monty Python and the Black Plague as a Model for the Zombie Apocalypse

When reading Zone One, the phrase “Bring out your dead.” really stuck out to me for some reason that at first I couldn’t place. Then, it hit me: it reminded me of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I have embedded the clip above, but essentially, the person collecting the bodies of those who died from the Black Death calls “bring out your dead!” Eventually, around a minute in, one person tries to drop off a “body” that isn’t dead and hilarity ensues. [Sidenote: if you’ve never seen Monty Python and the Holy Grail or the musical version Spamalot, please do.]

Besides the obvious parallel between a not-dead body and the skels of Zone One, Colson Whitehead is clearly referencing the body disposal practices from the Black Death era as performed in this skit, performing a memory of another plague and another time of need for the prevention of the spread of disease. Continue reading “Monty Python and the Black Plague as a Model for the Zombie Apocalypse”

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. Continue reading “Cigarettes as a sign of civilization”

World Building in Literature

How many ways can an author attempt to build a world within a books plot? The simplest way could be to just let the story begin within the context of the real world. Let the setting start within that of the actual world and edit from there. Some authors choose to write entirely new worlds, new time lines, or even alternative physics like those found in the Star Wars franchise. Regardless of how different this world’s history is from our own, authors must address their world in a way that allows readers to adjust to the new setting and understand enough of how that world works so that they can follow the plot. However, not everything one reads may seem like it was necessary to further the plot of the story. Continue reading “World Building in Literature”

What Does the Zombie Genre Really Say About Us?

“Usually disasters like this bring out the best in everybody, and that’s what we expected to see. Now we’ve got people that it’s bringing out the worst in.” This is a quote from the Governor of Louisiana Kathleen Blanco in 2005 during the after effects in Hurricane Katrina as presented in When the Levees Broke. I was brought back to this moment and this concept while talking about zombie narratives in class on Friday, and while I was reading Zone One.

In reading the rather convoluted text Zone One, something that grounded and grounds me is the zombie genre and how familiar it is to me. This was true for a lot of people in the class like Spencer and Jenna, for example. I have experienced the “zombie disaster” genre through many mediums–video games, television shows, movies–but approaching Zone One, I became aware of how similar this–hopefully–fantasy genre is to the course concepts and materials we have covered.

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Touch of Gray

WARNING: This post may be construed as depressing for some, so if you just want to see some puppies and other animals, don’t read any of this and just watch the videos. Take care of yourself and if you need to take a break, do so.

Zombies have dominated pop culture for the last decade or two; they lord over TV with shows like The Walking Dead and iZombie, they share the subway with you on your way to a cubicle in a metal and concrete box populated by computers and board meetings, and they’re all over Colson Whitehead’s Zone One. Even though a plethora of papers has come about in an effort to explain just what it is about zombies that makes them so applicable to allegory in a new age of technology, the idea of an undead thrall that feeds on the living is an almost timeless one.

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Water, Water Everywhere

I’ve always heard my grandpa say “Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink,” and I really couldn’t tell you why he says it. The actual line comes from an 1798 text, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. I can safely assert that my grandpa has never read that and he was never a sailor. But, I found this to be a fitting title for this blog post and next time I see him, my grandpa will enjoy hearing about his five seconds of blog fame.

Anyway, due to the nature of this course, I’ve found that water is everywhere. Yet, I was still shocked to find the “language of water” in Colson Whitehead’s Zone One since water isn’t the driving factor of the plot. I mean at least not yet. I think it’s funny, because of the sheer nature of fluidity, that this recurrence of water has been grounding my thinking as I’m reading. I’ve been able to use language that is evocative of water, its properties and its force, as something I can hold onto as I dive into (see what I did there) a novel filled with specific genre conventions that I’m not very familiar with. It also allows me some ways to connect the novel with the ideas of churning and cycling that I’ve been thinking about all semester. Continue reading “Water, Water Everywhere”