Who is Mark Spitz?

As I read Zone One, I was able to notice many intricate ways that the author Colson Whitehead used to provide commentary on social issues. In my last blog post, “Let’s Talk About Teeth”, I discussed the role of teeth in both the novel and in a modern context. I also shared what I believed to be Whitehead’s underlying purpose behind his words. Throughout the course, I have been training my ability to notice. I was able to notice numerous instances where Whitehead hinted at social issues and provided his opinion without openly stating it.  However, there was one concept that I found difficult to unpack and was forced to dig deeper in order to understand Whitehead’s purpose. The naming of Zone One’s main character, Mark Spitz.

Mark Spitz is the name Whitehead gave to his main character. This was not the character’s real name but an ironic nickname given to him by other characters in the novel. He received this nickname when Richie, the Quiet Storm and he were in danger of being overrun by a group of skels on a bridge. Realizing that they were unlikely to overcome the massive group of infected, Richie and the Quiet Strom jumped from the bridge into the river below, escaping what they believed to be certain death. Mark Spitz didn’t move. Instead, “he leaped to the hood of the late model neo-station wagon and started firing.” After remarkably taking down all of the skels, he informed his companions that he could not swim. From then on he would be known as Mark Spitz.

I did not immediately recognize the name Mark Spitz, which may be an unfortunate consequence of being a member of my young generation. Luckily to make up for it, my generation has access to an incredible tool, Google. According to his Team USA Hall of Fame Biography, Mark Spitz was an 11-time Olympic medalist swimmer. Spitz throughout is career set 33 world records and won 9 gold medals at the Olympics. His crowning achievement as noted in his Hall of Fame bio was “in Munich, where he dominated, becoming the first athlete to win seven gold medals in seven events, all in world record time.” Spitz was a dominant athlete, who is considered to be one of the greatest swimmers of all time and achieved massive fame and recognition for his abilities in the pool.

The nickname Mark Spitz may seem entirely ironic, but is also fitting for the character in Zone One. Before the Last Night, Mark Spitz was described through a proposed superlative as “Most Likely Not to Be Named Anything most likely.” He was average, a B-student who was unremarkable until he found the one thing he was truly exceptional at, surviving. This is fitting because the Olympic Swimmer Mark Spitz shared a similar story. In an article authored by Scott Stump for Today, Spitz is quoted as saying “I’ve always thought of myself as a regular guy, and I happened to do something extraordinary in the journey of my athletic career.” Both the fictional character and his namesake were regular people that became special under the right circumstances. Whitehead supports that the new situation benefits his character by stating, “Now the world was mediocre rendering him perfect.”

On the surface, it may look like Whitehead gave his main character the name Mark Spitz as a comedic mocking of the character’s inability to swim. Although the name has a far greater meaning. The Olympian swimmer Spitz was nearly impossible to defeat in competition. Mark Spitz is also impossible to defeat in Whitehead’s post-apocalyptic world. Mark Spitz is seemingly invincible, “He had suspicions, and every day in this wasteland supplied more evidence: He could not die.” How can a single man, in a world full of constant danger and overwhelming amounts of death, be impossible to kill? It is my interpretation that the character doesn’t represent a man, but Mark Spitz is an idea. An idea cannot be killed or destroyed. An idea cannot be defeated much like the Olympic swimmer Mark Spitz. There is power in an idea and it lasts longer than those who believe it. Mark Spitz probably should have died several times throughout the story, but somehow escapes with his life every time, supporting the claim that he represents an intangible concept.

I believe that Whitehead wrote this story to create an analogy for the resistance against social injustice. This idea came to me when Whitehead quietly slides racism into the story. After Gary is bitten, Mark Spitz explains how he earned his nickname and then adds, “Plus the black-people-can’t-swim thing.” Revealed as an African-American character, Mark Spitz uses this conversationally to provide some humor in Gary’s last moments, but I believe Whitehead is cluing readers into his underlying message. The infected skels and stragglers represent social injustice, discrimination, and racism. The world is contaminated with racist ideas and discriminatory practices, like Whitehead’s world is infected by zombies. Inaccurate racial assumptions can spread much like a disease. Misinformation, when spread, can become powerful and difficult to overcome. Whitehead is showing his readers the dangers of what could happen when prejudiced ideas grow beyond control.

In addition, Whitehead’s message includes a beacon of hope. In the analogy, Mark Spitz represents an idea of hope for a better world. There are people remaining who are fighting back against overwhelming odds even though the future looks bleak. Even when everyone around him is dying, he survives.  If we continue to be diligent in our fight against social injustice, even when setbacks occur, we cannot be silenced. Whitehead uses the final scene of the novel as a call to action. Mark Spitz is alone, cornered and doesn’t like his probability of ever finding success, “No, he didn’t like his chances at all.” Whitehead encourages us to “swim” against the tide, and to combat against society’s flawed values. Like Mark Spitz, we all need to step out of the door and continue the fight because a better world is possible. After all, we all “have to learn to swim sometime.”

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