After reading Zone One and thinking about the themes in the book, I realized what grounded me amidst the complex timeline of the narratives was my experience not only in consuming zombie media like I mentioned in my last post, but also in reading war novels. For example, I read Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk and Johnny Got His Gun for a war novels class I took in freshman year.
Something I will highlight in this blog post, however, is Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five because it mirrors the narrative of Zone One in many ways. I think, like any author and their work, Whitehead had a very important point in having this complicated narrative. One objective was to reflect the characters having Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder, or PASD. This correlation of narrative to character is also true true of Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five.
Firstly, PTSD is represented in Slaughterhouse-Five through Vonnegut’s main character Billy Pilgrim who is “unstuck in time.” According to Vonnegut, who tells his stories in a modernism and magical realism style, Billy Pilgrim lives every moment of his life–from his time before, in and after the war–simultaneously. Like Whitehead’s Zone One, the narrative of Vonnegut’s work jumps back and forth between past, present and future (if you were to call it that).
In Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut does not blatantly state that Billy Pilgrim is experiencing PTSD, rather, he structures his narrative so that it is obvious that Pilgrim suffers from the mental illness. Through the structure of his narrative, Vonnegut shows that Pilgrim’s time in the war, post-war dreams and possible illusions he has affect his life all at once, even if he has not physically experienced them yet.
Whitehead’s tactic in addressing PTSD through his work is similar to Vonnegut’s, but also takes a different turn. In general, some symptoms of PTSD include “Flashbacks—reliving the trauma over and over, including physical symptoms like a racing heart or sweating, Bad dreams, Frightening thoughts,” according to the National Institute of Mental Health. It’s no secret that Whitehead bases PASD–Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder–off of PTSD.
On the surface, Whitehead’s transformation of PTSD to PASD is obvious and semi-satirical. When Whitehead brings up PASD in Zone One, he writes, “symptoms included feelings of sadness or unhappiness; irritability or frustration, even over small matters; loss of interest or pleasure in normal activities; reduced sex drive; insomnia or excessive sleeping….nightmares, goes without saying” (67-68.) These symptoms easily reflect that of an individual with PTSD, and it becomes satirical when combined with common symptoms that doctors say that medical ailments usually have (I’m reminded of drug commercials that have a very long list of possible side effects from the medication). Already, Whitehead relays the similarities between the two true and fiction mental illness and makes a statement that the apocalypse is similar to a traumatic event that one might go through in a non-apocalyptic event.
Whitehead’s narrative for Mark Spitz begins in the past, which is significant in the string of things because it emphasizes the importance of Spitz’s memories on his current life. This is seen specifically when Whitehead writes, “Normal meant ‘the past.’ Normal was the unbroken idyll of life before. The present was a series of intervals differentiated from each other only by the degree of dread they contained. The future? The future was clay in their hands” (81). Whitehead’s explains the past as constant, and is a way in which the characters ground themselves in this topsy turvy present of an apocalyptic New York City.
Both Vonnegut and Whitehead explore that a way to cope with stress of traumatic events is to hang onto something you know–whether that be the memory of the traumatic event or something comforting from the past. It’s a little “meta” in a way because I as well cope with reading Zone One by clinging to the memories of past books I read like Slaughterhouse-Five. Clinging to the past is important when trying to cope with the present, because it is in fact the only thing that is constant because it occurred and nothing will change that.
Additionally, the reason why we are so confused by the narrative and jumps to the past in Zone One is because it is a representation of the characters being confused by their own narrative. The only way Mark Spitz knows how to cope with the idea of being around zombies is because he relies on the analysis of the significant events in his past in relation to the moment he is in now. As readers, we too are taken on that journey with him, and we too are disoriented and are informed on the present just like he or any of the characters in the novel are.
Outside of trying to understand a rather difficult text, I personally am in interested in how these two accomplished authors tackle representing mental illnesses in their texts. Not only do Vonnegut and Whitestone allow sympathy of the characters from the readers, but they engrain PTSD into the mere structure of the text, which allows us as readers to have a better understanding of the works and enact in more actions of thinking than imaginable.