How can you describe something you have seen when that something can be traumatizing and unimaginable to absorb in order to reflect on the experience or event? People who have been in wars as soldiers, in that case active in the warfare, or those who were innocent civilians in war territory may identify with the phenomenon of having to describe the indescribable and inconceivable. In Colson Whitehead’s novel Zone One, the war on zombies is a metaphor for the war on racism through the conflict taken up against the skels and stragglers for reconstruction pursuits by the government. The nature of the war is masked through literary devices such as third person omniscient point of view and the utilization of direct and indirect dialogue, thus introducing the potential for the war to be seen for something it is not.
The apocalyptic plague is the main conflict against man in Zone One and causes a war of sorts to transpire between the cannibalistic zombies and the uninfected, healthy humans. No one goes unaffected by this war revenging the countryside and suburbs alike. Consequently, all are on some level undergoing some form of trauma to work through continually, especially with no cure in sight of being discovered for the disease that makes people zombies. The storyteller of this novel is a victim of the war too, a nomad who has lost his parents to this horrific plague. The job he volunteers for keeps him in continual contact with the zombies who are referred to as either skels or stragglers. Therefore, he is an active participant in the war on zombies, for he is responsible for sweeping the territory in search of skels and stragglers with the order to shoot them dead. The intended goal of the operations is to zone off an area free of zombies to be a refuge for the healthy, and for a sense of supposed normalcy to return.
Zombie television shows and literature may be entertaining to some people, but its origination may change one’s ability to take pleasure in what they had previously indulged in. In Jeremy Story Carter’s article “The Racist history of Zombies,” he interviewed a literature professor who verifies that the typical portrayal of zombies is drawn from racist stereotypes of people from Haiti or the Caribbean. The stereotypes are integrated into this novel by the skels being characterized as threatening figures because of their cannibalistic tendencies. Therefore, the war on zombies in Zone One is an allegorical metaphor for the war on racism. Race itself is mentioned explicitly in subtle references, yet the function of the war on zombies is to keep the narrative of the war on racism alive, inescapable, and pervasive.
War narratives and war poems are common in literature, especially for authors to opine on war, or to make a critique on war in general. In Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle’s textbook An Introduction to Literary Criticism and Theory, the two authors broach the topic of a writer being able to tell a story when one is part of that story narrative, especially when the storyteller was subject to the trauma of war. Witness testimonies provided through storytelling could be problematic to literary critics, for they articulate that the storyteller may have “difficulty of fully or properly ‘knowing’ what has been witnessed, even by those most directly involved as victims- or indeed persecutors” (Bennett and Royle 351). While reading this novel it was difficult to assess what was being read at times, especially the way flashbacks pervade the text without any warning of being initiated. Colson Whitehead arranges the reader to be in the position of the witness testimony crisis of the witnesses because readers may have trouble following what they are being witness to in the telling of the novel. As a result, readers are put in the position of potentially discounting what has been laid out before them. If this happens to be the case, then the war may go unrecognized, and progress that could come from reflecting on the mistake of going into war is abandoned. In this novel, the war on racism is being critiqued and is seen as a hopeless fight.
Witnesses of war may be prone to mental health difficulties such as PTSD. Post-traumatic stress disorder is defined medically on Lexico.com as “a condition of persistent mental and emotional stress occurring as a result of injury or severe psychological shock, typically involving disturbance of sleep and constant vivid recall of the experience, with dulled responses to others and the outside world”. In the novel, the PTSD that is common among the citizens is referred to as Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder. The government recognized the trauma that would need to be addressed in order for reconstruction to occur, so they order pamphlets on PASD to be handed out at camps (Whitehead 67). Mark Spitz, the protagonist, struggles with PTSD through the novel. After he has a close encounter with death by almost being bitten by a skel, he experiences a panic attack, for “the next moment he was weeping, fingers curled into a nautilus across his face and snot seeping into his mouth, sweetly” (Whitehead 66). Exploring a traumatized person’s interiority like Marks is difficult, and this interiority complexity and challenge is presented to readers through the use of third-person omniscient point of view and the strategic use of summarized dialogue.
The literary devices used to tell the story such as word choice usage, point of view, and figurative language contribute to a chaotic narrative resembling the racing mind of a person with PTSD. The point of view chosen for the novel was third-person omniscient. This particular point of view is challenging because the interiority of characters is being provided, thus making it hard to distinguish between summarized dialogue and the interiority of the characters. In the chapter titled Saturday, Mark is telling the story of acquiring his nickname to Gary, yet the telling of the story is summarized without the dialogue exchanges. The only dialogue exchanges are unimportant remarks on the process of telling the story, which is highly ironic. The exchanges on the storytelling itself are remarks such as the following lines: “what do you mean?” “I’m getting there.” (Whitehead 176). Whitehead’s use of summarized dialogue is fascinating because it restricts readers from knowing how this character is describing their experience, or their witness testimony. As a result, the characterization that could be gleaned from direct dialogue is withheld and is only supplied through an impersonal third person narration with very little inspection of Mark’s interiority through thoughts. The disconnect between the telling of the story and the character renders the reader to become critical of the characters reliability or integrity, just as some people may be dismissive of racism and reparations of racist social injustices done to African Americans in the present and in the past.
Unsurprisingly, progress and change may come with conflict, but once the conflict is overcome genuine progress is achieved steadily and incrementally. The war on tackling racism will be unending, yet with sustained efforts progress can be made. Reparations of mistakes made in the past must be addressed for steps towards progress to even emerge and be fulfilled, which in the context of the novel means that offences and wrongs done to the African American community must be addressed and prioritized. Otherwise, the past will haunt and could be repeated, thus the nation would be regressing rather than progressing. A mantra that has been applicable to our studies in our Medicine and Racism literature course and to our individual growth, is to not focus solely on the horizon, or larger goals, rather it is best to focus on making small steps to reach our big, all-encompassing goals. Mark Spitz recognized the flaw in focusing solely on expediency goal attainments of horizon hopes and aspirations because to him a stragglers gaze that was “leveled at a void above the horizon” was incomprehensible (Whitehead 119). The horizon for Mark was not within his reach, nor is it a conceivable dream with the progress he felt society must engage in.