Decision making is a daily part of our lives. Whether a small decision, or a life-altering one, it is these small choices that determine what our future holds. In Percival Everett’s “Zulus”, the characters are faced with seemingly impossible choices that deeply affect not only themselves but those around them on a global scale. Tying this back to the central idea of this course, we can analyze what Everett is trying to communicate to his readers about consent, and how it should play a deep role in our decision-making process. One of the most tangible real-life examples of this being in medicine, as doctors are constantly faced with the question of is it worth helping one person or a group of individuals at the expense of another. In studying Harriet Washington’s “Medical Apartheid” we see the horrifying truth of what many doctors decided.
At the conclusion of Everett’s “Zulus”, the characters Alice Achitophel and Kevin Peters come across large chemical tanks which hold a gaseous agent designed to spread across the globe and end all human life. In this scenario, the readers are faced with the vastly contrasting personalities of Alice and Kevin, the two characters having dramatically different world views and opinions. In Kevin Peters eyes, pulling that lever will end all the suffering and nonsense that survivors of the war were left to contend with, as he is deeply cynical and feels that this world has nothing left to offer. Alice, on the other hand, the only fertile woman left on this world, is still hopeful that there can be a future for the survivors of the war. Looking at the conversation between the two characters, their opposing worldviews become extraordinarily apparent: “That is the Agent. That’s the gas they never let go. In the middle of the war they made it. It kills only humans…See the people, Alice? They come here to watch the resolve, Alice, to get up and release it…She was dizzy with pain, lost in all that she had heard, her mind coming slowly to understand that her child was not a primary concern or interest. But it was a living, breathing child and she could not let it go and she started to cry” (Everett 243). Alice at the end of this conversation realizes that Kevin does not share the same hopeful dreams for their child, a truly stabbing moment as the readers watch this scene unfold, viewing Alice’s hopeful nature be crushed by her faith in Kevin Peters. In the end, Kevin Peters makes the impossible decision for the both of them, Alice standing beside him with her eyes closed tightly shut: “He looked at her with that same face, that same face which had told her before and was telling her now that it was right and true and good and she put her hand on his atop of the lever. She questioned him with her eyes, then closed them” (Everett 245).
What gave Alice and Kevin the right? Was it okay that they made this choice to end all human life on earth as only two people in a world of several others? In my opinion, this is an intensely non-consensual act. Looking back on the readings that we have done throughout the semester in Harriet Washington’s “Medical Apartheid”, it is easy to see a parallel between the mindsets of several doctors and Kevin Peters. For example, in chapter ten of “Medical Apartheid”, Washington exposes the abusive and malice experimentation done on Philadelphia’s Holmesburg prisoners by Dr. Albert M. Kligman. The experiments were performed on African American prisoners as to gain a better knowledge on the field of dermatology. But at what cost? Numerous prisoners were left scarred and in deep excruciating pain against their own will. Dr. Kligman even went as far as to induce illness on his patients for his own personal gain: “…Kligman was inducing foot fungus, not treating it, because he saw the opportunity to conduct lucrative experiments upon thousands of captive bodies…” (Washington 249). It is horrifying to see how individuals such as Dr. Kligman were able to justify these actions based on the merits of harming few for the betterment of several others. Although Kevin Peters was most certainly not reaching levels of malice on the scale of Dr. Kligman, there is still something to be said about what Everett is trying to express through his character. Everett is aware of the nonconsensual elements of our society and how sometimes people in powerful positions are able to make life-altering decisions for many even though they are only one person. Dr. Kligman, in a position of power over the prisoners of Holmesburg prison, abused his status and managed to get away with nefarious medical experimentation, just another real- world example of the nonconsensual atrocities that have and still plague our society.
As Everett concludes his novel, you are left uneasy and dissatisfied with the journey that you were just dragged along, as in the end, nothing was accomplished. However, the takeaway of “Zulus” is not the conclusion of the story arc. Rather, it is the collective reflection on human nature as we follow the evolution of a population left shell-shocked after a nuclear catastrophe. With a deadline to the population, Everett paints a scene that strips away all the distraction of an innovating world. His characters are left only with survivors and how they treat one another – and the results are shocking, yet not entirely foreign to what we experience in the real world today. The novel leaves you to question all of the above, and that in conclusion was Everett’s purpose.