Zombies Take ManhattanBy http://profile.typepad.com/1237764140s22740 // August 10, 2012 in Books
At the end of Colson Whitehead's novel, Zone One, zombies overrun a concrete barrier that divides Manhattan at Canal Street. This event punctures the illusions harbored by the "pheenies" (those still living, representing the "Phoenix" or promise of America's resurrection) garrisoned in Tribeca; they had worked to segregate the plague and thought they might reclaim the rest of the island, zone by zone.
The story opens two days prior. We're introduced to the protagonist, Mark Spitz, a young man who lacked ambition in the pre-apocalyptic world but whose innate ability to evade notice serves him well in the year or so following "Last Night," a fateful day when all hell broke loose and the plague turned most of humanity into the undead.
Spitz works for the provisional government of reconstruction, "Buffalo," by "sweeping" Manhattan of zombies that an earlier wave of marines had missed, as well as of "stragglers," a subset of the undead who linger passively in the city and aren't (supposed to be) as dangerous.
Spitz loves Manhattan. Growing up on Long Island, he always imagined living on THE island. He knows lower Manhattan's streets from childhood visits to a playboy uncle who lived in a SOHO highrise, and from shopping trips and other errands he made up for himself as a teen. So Spitz spends a good deal of his walking thinking about the energy and meaning of New York, its inhabitants, its patterns of circulation. The changes wrought by the apocalypse provide a great context for contrast and comparison.
White was writing about the energy, mystery and uncanny productivity of a working, living Manhattan. But his city, too, careened on the precipice of disaster. Disaster was, White wrote famously, prophetically, not farther than a mere squadron of low flying planes.
Here's an excerpt from White, from early in the book, well before he invokes the ominous figure of the planes:
"By rights, New York should have destroyed itself long ago, from panic or fire or rioting or failure of some vital supply line in its circulatory system or from some deep labyrinthine short circuit. Long ago the city should have experienced an insoluble traffic snarl at some impossible bottleneck. It should have perished of hunger when food lines failed for a few days. It should have been wiped out by a plague starting in its slums or carried in by ships' rats. It should have been overwhelmed by the sea that licks at it on every side. The workers in its myriad cells should have succumbed to nerves, from the fearful pall of smoke-fog that trips over every few days from Jersey, blotting out all light at noon and leaving the high offices suspended, men groping and depressed, and the sense of the world's end. It should have been touched in the head by the August heat and gone off its rocker."
White kept his New York on the living edge of the precipice, but Whitehead pushes it over. And in so doing, Whitehead links the city's ultimate failure to an earlier legacy White may have acknowledged but dared not indulge:
"They had been young and old, natives and newcomers. No matter the hue of their skins, dark or light, no matter the names of their gods or the absences they countenanced, they had all strived, struggled, and loved in their small, human fashion. Now they were mostly mouths and fingers, fingers for extracting entrails from soft cavities, and mouths to rend and devour in pieces the distinct human faces they captured, that these faces might become less distinct, de-individuated flaps of masticated flash, rendered anonymous like them, the dead. Their mouths could no longer manage speech yet they spoke nonetheless, saying what the city had always told its citizens, from the first settlers hundreds of years ago, to the shattered survivors of the garrison. What the plague had always told its hosts, from the first human being to have its blood invaded, to the latest victim out in the wasteland: I am going to eat you up."