Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Why zombies? and Zone One

I've thought a lot about zombies. Not as much as those who believe a zombie apocalypse is approaching, of course, but a lot. (I believe a stupid people apocalypse is much more likely.) Most of my mental cycles deal with why the recent zombie craze? Why are zombies compelling? Tonight I finished Colson Whitehead's Zone One, a book about society trying to rebuild itself after a zombie plague decimates the population and rewrites the definition of civilization, or perhaps by contrast illustrates its fragility or fallacy. Whitehead's writing is thick with delicious metaphor, both micro and macro. That is, most every sentence rings with irony and implicit parallels, but the story overall, pensive and thoughtful, is an exhaustive essay on human existence.

As I read it, not only did I rediscover my intellectual limitations, but came closer to solidifying what I think drives the collective obsession with zombies and things-generally-apocalyptic. Some thoughts: 1) The zombie apocalypse is total, in part because it is a secular armageddon. There is no deus ex machina to deliver even the most righteous. All are potential fodder for an endless turmoil, a hell without the added color of fire pits or pitchforks. It is also total because there is no shore, no harbor, no refuge from its presence. In a zombie world, there is no peace, no real protection. 2) Death by zombie is the most gruesome death the imagination can conjure, excepting perhaps becoming a nest in which an alien larva pupates and then exits. It is gruesome not just because one is eaten, but because one is eaten by a rotting corpse. Exsanguination by supermodel vampire does not come close to being surrounded by the voracious, putrescent undead. 3) The apocalyptic tale (especially with zombies) is rife with primal adrenaline, thick with fight-or-flight emotion. I'm always kicking the character out of the door, perplexed when they don't run, or when they foolishly try to hole up in a run-down house and hope the boards will hold. 4) The zombie apocalypse is really a fictional guise for the aforementioned quite plausible stupid-people apocalypse, in which otherwise sane people give in to an underlying behavior to rape, pillage, murder, etc. if the economy tanks, governments dissolve, global warming leads to global scarcity.

The above ideas were in existence long before I read Zone One, but now I posit (or repeat Whitehead's emphatic observation) that a major reason why we fret so much about an apocalypse is how it will likely render our current existence obsolete, meaningless. The voice of the book, whether in its main character's head or in an all-seeing monologue goes on at length about the world that existed before "Last Night" without ever feeling truly redundant, painting it as an illusion, a thing to be ridiculed or scoffed at, as I suppose one did the days before the Great Depression when fleeing the Dust Bowl and a husk of a farm in a faint hope of work farther west.

Whitehead also illustrates how fleeting so-called civilization is, as though it's really just a coat that humanity put on because it was en vogue, but that it was never our true nature.

However, I also note that at least for Mark Spitz, the main character, the post-plague misery legitimizes his previous isolation, his withdrawal from companionship, his lack of place in the previous world. And magically, his mediocrity in a life structured by incremental achievements makes him seemingly invulnerable when the only criteria of success that matters is survival. (It gives me a smidgen of hope that I'm not so very different from Mr. Spitz in that I have achieved little in this incremental life.)

As with numerous other forms of entertainment, this one boasts profanity par excellence, if only when Whitehead allows his soldier "sweepers" some very sailor-like commentary. I confess that I tried to stop myself from reading and hadn't the willpower. The sentences devoid of f-bombs and the like were all so dripping with delicious language. The proverbial mess of pottage scenario.

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