Bookforum talks with Colson Whitehead

Zone One: A Novel BY Colson Whitehead. Doubleday. Hardcover, 272 pages. $25.
Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead is not a difficult writer in the way that a Thomas Pynchon is. His syntax is standard, and his sentences make sense on first inspection. Nonetheless, beginning with his brilliant first book, The Intuitionist, which followed the travails of an elevator repairwoman, Whitehead has consistently invoked complex alternative realities, infusing his settings with a subtle, Buñuel-like surrealism.

The main character of his latest novel, Zone One, is named Mark Spitz, a mediocre young man who has always pulled a B at best. In the book, Spitz is assigned to a cleanup detail in lower Manhattan, where he goes building to building, ensuring that each and every room is clear of the undead. Yes, Zone One, is a zombie book, but not like any that you’ve ever read. It’s literate and bleak with a pacing that’s as much Proust as it is Romero. Zombie attacks are as likely to engender a meditation on elementary school as they are a frenetic action scene.

The walking dead drive the action here, but Whitehead is just as interested in the survivors, in particular Spitz, who is analogous to a foreclosure buyer’s crewman cleaning up the mess just after the mortgage market exploded in 2007. His narrative does not give us the drone’s eye view of the mess or make us privy to the discussions in the halls of power. Instead, he offers an on-the-ground perspective and more valuable knowledge: what we, the you and I kind of we, might do if we actually had to navigate one of pop culture’s favorite horror scenarios.

BOOKFORUM: Ok, tell me how your zombies really work in your mind. How were they created? How do they survive? And where are they all walking to?

COLSON WHITEHEAD: Starbucks? What I wanted to explain, I did. What I left it out was irrelevant to my project. There's no one zombie. Writers manipulate the creatures for their own purposes. The shambling hordes in World War Z do not serve the same end as those in Zombieland, the creatures of the original Dawn of the Dead are no real kin to those in the remake. They are vehicles of pathos, terror, social commentary, humor, or slippery metaphor, depending on who is at the wheel. Our monsters are multivalent and ever-changing. Like us. I groan when I read a "Why Are Vampires So Popular Now" trend piece, endure the creaky generalizations, because I'd have a hard time devising a Cohesive Theory of Vampires, given their disparate incarnations. Dracula is not Buffy's Angel, and True Blood has nothing to do with Love at First Bite. The times make their monsters. We have ours, the next generation will have theirs.

Your book is set at a very strange moment on the zombie-attack timeline. The humans have won back some semblance of organization and are in the process of clearing out lower Manhattan. There is new hope upon the land. But there are some ominous signs that things may not be as they seem. Why’d you pick this particular time?

In the zombie genre, the first night or first five days of the disaster are pretty well chronicled. So there's that. But doesn't a lot of post-apocalyptic literature begin at a moment of flux? The young hero departs the underground bunker to see what's left of the surface world. Word comes of a haven by the ocean where survivors have rebuilt things. The refuge finally collapses after all this time, and now we have to discover or create a new one. Things are in a settled, steady state of awfulness. We have survived. Now where do we proceed?

There are two kinds of zombies in your book, the traditional face-eating variety and the vacant stragglers who just stand somewhere as the world goes by. Why add in the second variety?

You take what you want from a genre, deform it, steal from it, pay homage, and at the same time, if you're doing it right, you are extending the possibilities of that genre, reinvigorating it. I wanted to be true to a Romero-style version of existential zombie dread, but of course the fun part of being a writer is making up shit. So the stragglers appear, as an avatar of the post-collapse self, one possible way of doing things when everything falls apart. They are a vehicle for some of the things I wanted to explore in the novel, whether they are of the tradition or not.

Your novel is a fascinating examination of talent, or our definitions of talent. Spitz is mediocre, and that’s what he’s good at, as you emphasize from beginning to end. It turns out that is an important skill. Why do the mediocre succeed after the zombies come?

If you're smart, you kill yourself. If you're dumb, you're not going to make it. That leaves the rest of us.

What’s the relationship between this book and your earlier investigations into New York as a city? In your nonfiction book The Colossus of New York, you wrote: “No matter how long you have been here, you are a New Yorker the first time you say, 'that used to be Munsey's,' or 'that used to be the Tic Toc Lounge...' when what was there before is more real and solid than what is here now.” If New York falls to zombies, will we finally understand the civilization that produced it because we can say 'that used to be New York'?

My feelings toward my hometown, as expressed in Colossus, return here somewhat, but in the form of a novel—with bona fide characters, a narrative arc, and yadda yadda—as opposed to a series of impressionistic essays. But I wrote Zone One eight years after Colossus, and I've changed a bit, and there are ideas in Colossus that aren't applicable to Mark Spitz and his situation. I'm a New Yorker, the city has shaped how I see the world, move through the world. I don't think it will come as a surprise that my view of New York after everybody's dead is not too far from how I perceive New York now, when everybody's dead—I mean, trying to make it through the day.

At times this book is pretty bleak, but Mark’s encounter with a woman in a toy store is wonderful and warm, and their isolation feels almost self-imposed, though it obviously is not. After she disappears, you choose not to show us any of Spitz’s sadness, the week he spent waiting for her. Instead, Spitz asks himself this question, “If there’s nothing out there, what’s the point?” He doesn’t answer. What’s your answer to that question?

For me, it's answered in Mark Spitz's portrayal after this incident. But to open up the question to why novelists put this section there and that section there, what they make explicit and what they leave for you to fill in with your subjective knowledge, what they put in and leave out—the writer is making decisions in order to create an effect in the reader. You are shaping the reader's experience on the micro level—word to word, sentence to sentence—and on the macro level in terms of structure. Should the toy-store section come earlier or later? How will it shape the reader's understanding of the character, the larger ideas, if it's in the first third of the book, or the final third? Do we need to see the character weep, or is it already there in every action, every utterance, all the downbeat adjectives orbiting his head like gnats?

Not to be too meta, but where did you imagine we received this text from? If I were in a college English class, I’d say the sign of hope from your fictional universe is that we have this book here to read about it. Its presence is a sign that civilization survived such that a narrator from that time could exist.

Lit theory is good for "interrogating" a text, but it doesn't have much to do with writing a story, at least for me. (Theory-artists, keep knockin' 'em out, you crazy nuts.) Any hope in Zone One is generated from what you think can exist in the space between Mark Spitz's character and the dying world he moves in. Maybe there's space enough for hope in that crack, maybe not. It's up to you. Hey, that's some theory right there, that once the book is out in the wild, it's no longer mine, but the reader's. Have your way with it. I'm already working on something else, anyhoo.

I have been tempted to call your book post-apocalyptic, but I don’t think it is. If anything, it’s straight apocalyptic. What media were you consuming when you wrote it? Zombie movies? Political news? Twitter?

The usual pre-apocalyptic news sources. I read the paper like everyone else, even if the paper is a scrolling screen or a stream of links. I watched my favorite post-apocalyptic movies to determine why I love them so deeply and why they have stayed with me. Music was a big part of the research for Sag Harbor, as I tried to recall how I used to feel as a teenager. My queue of favorite dead-world movies helped with Zone One as I tried to figure out what aspects of their catastrophes pushed my psychological buttons, and why. And then there are plenty of real-world catastrophes that can help in that area, too.

Alexis Madrigal is an editor at the Atlantic and the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology (Da Capo, 2011).