Zone One (Whitehead)

I have to admit I was skeptical. Though I am a fan of Whitehead’s (Sag Harbor, The Intuitionist), I am no fan of zombie stories. And, I admit, I wondered why he would bother with such a topic. Did I pigeonhole him?

I don’t think I’m over-intellectualizing this reading experience when I say that I think Whitehead has more on his mind here than honoring his childhood fascination with zombie movies. I think this book is a love song for what he perceives to be a lost New York, particularly Manhattan – a New York that has lost its way since the terrorist attacks in September of 2001. About halfway through the book, Zone One started to sound an awful lot like the next step after Ground Zero. There is Whitehead’s usual dose of sharply observed satire and his attention to the physicality of stuff, especially architecture. (Between this and The Intuitionist, I started to wonder whether there are architecture classes in Whitehead’s background.) Whitehead’s observations provided another surprise for me. This book is funny. It’s hard to provide an example out of context – this is not a book of one-liners after all and Whitehead rarely goes for the easy laugh (though the trite Buffalo and Cleveland joke surprised me). After a two-paragraph description of a dream that Spitz has about taking a yoga class with zombies, getting changed in the locker room next to a zombie, ordering a deluxe combo juice and taking the subway train home with the commuting dead, Whitehead notes in a one-sentence paragraph that “[t]he only unsettling thing about the dream was that he’d never taken a yoga class in his life” (109).

But I think Whitehead’s mind is on the personal and political barricades (a motif throughout the book) that we’ve erected since those attacks, and what they’ve done to those of us inside of the barricades – why “we never see other people.  . . only the monsters we make of them” (214). “Maybe,” I would argue Whitehead himself hopes, “we can unsee the monsters again” (239). He wants those barricades broken down because “you have to learn how to swim sometime” (259).

I saw that this title appeared on someone’s list of most overlooked books of 2011. I would have to agree. And I think we all ought to wonder why.


One Reply to “Zone One (Whitehead)”

  1. Since we’ve become caught up in the AMC series “The Walking Dead,” Chris and I have been having many in-depth discussions about the re-emergence of the zombie as a metaphor for all of our present day anxieties. We’ve also gone back to discussing the social critiques inherent in the one that started it all, “Night of the Living Dead.” Remember teaching junior level Brit Lit at City and how appropriate this metaphor is for “Man and Monster”? I will have to check this book out.

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