Sunday, May 19, 2013

Dark Passages: Zone One

Colson Whitehead's Zone One (2011) might be the finest work of post-apocalyptic/literary horror ever written; its extraordinary prose almost makes Cormac McCarthy's The Road read like pulp fiction in comparison.  Whitehead's narrative--which traces an armed "sweeper" unit's efforts to clear a walled-off section of lower Manhattan of its remaining zombie population--works on many levels, variously offering grim realism (the evocation of devastation), sharp satire (of American consumerist culture), and profound philosophical speculation.  Zone One not only delves into the angst and anxiety of the human survivors, but also deliberates upon the existential condition of the plagued (the zombies here come in two types: the nastily cannibalistic "skels" and the catatonic "stragglers" stuck in pathetic pantomime of acts of prior life).  The following passage references the latter type, a grotesque perennially posed as a fortune-teller inside a palmistry shop:
Gary [who fools with the unmoving fortune-teller] could have addressed his brothers, had he been able to evade and outwit his own denial over their deaths. Any séance was doomed, in [POV character] Mark Spitz's estimation, even if the young psychic had functioned properly, if she had still owned her talents.  He'd sifted through the failed proofs of an afterlife many a cold night.  There was a barrier at the end of one's life, yes, but nothing on the other side.  How could there be?  The plague stopped the heart, one's essence sloughed off the pathetic human meat and dog-paddled through the ectoplasm or whatever, and then the plague restarted the heart.  What kind of cruel deity granted a glimpse of the angelic sphere, only to yank it away and condemn you to a monster's vantage?  Sentenced you to observe the world through the sad aperture of the dead, suffer the gross parody of your existence.  Outside Zone One, the souls sat trapped in the bleachers, spectators to the travesties committed by their alienated hands.
Turn randomly to any page in Whitehead's novel, and you are likely to find a stand-out passage like the one above.  Zone One is a national treasure for any inhabitant of the Macabre Republic who values sophisticated American Gothic fiction.

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