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The stuff nightmares are made of
Colson Whitehead has a problem—a big problem. He can’t stop thinking about zombies, even when he’s asleep.
“I’ve been having zombie dreams ever since I saw Dawn of the Dead in seventh grade,” Whitehead says during a call to his home in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene neighborhood. “Some people have anxiety dreams about showing up late for school or having forgotten about that big assignment. I have zombie dreams.”
Whitehead is explaining the genesis of his newest marvel, Zone One, a literary novel—yes, literary—about a zombie fighter in lower Manhattan whose post-apocalypse nom de guerre is Mark Spitz.
“I had some guests out to Long Island but I was going through something and I think I really wanted to be alone. I was wishing that my guests would leave, and I had a dream that I was going downstairs to the living room and I was wondering if someone had cleared out the zombies yet. I woke up and I thought, hmmm, that’s something you have to consider: Once you put civilization back together, what do you do with all these zombies? So the book grew from there.”
Whitehead, a highly—and deservedly—praised novelist and recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, says his “schtick at the moment is to try different genres. Sag Harbor is a coming of age novel. John Henry Days has a very loose structure. The Intuitionist has a very tight structure. . . . In Zone One I wanted to pay homage to the zombie movies and horror movies that I loved as a kid and still love to watch.”
Of course Colson Whitehead inhabits a genre like no one else. And his take on zombie/horror movies pays homage to the form but is at the same time startlingly original. “I have a darkly absurdist sense of humor that is part of my personality,” he admits.
Whitehead’s main character, Mark Spitz, is a supposedly mediocre human being. “My sense,” Whitehead explains, “is that if you’re incredibly dumb, you’d probably be killed off quickly, and if you’re really on top of things, you’d probably kill yourself.”
“I thought . . . once you put civilization back together, what do you do with all these zombies? So the book grew from there.”
But Spitz is also the consciousness through which Whitehead delivers some of his most enthralling—and sometimes hilarious—observations about modern life: “But then there are the personal barricades, Mark Spitz thought. Since the first person met the second person. The ones that keep other people out and our madness in so we can continue to live.”
Or, describing a chopper trip over Central Park: “Mark Spitz had seen the park unscroll from the windows of the big skyscrapers crowding the perimeter, but never from this vantage. No picnickers idled on their blankets, no one goldbricked on the benches and nary a Frisbee arced through the sky, but the park was at first-spring-day capacity. They didn’t stop to appreciate the scenery, these dead visitors; they ranged on the grass and walkways without purpose or sense, moving first this way then strolling in another direction until, distracted by nothing in particular, they readjusted their idiot course. It was Mark Spitz’s first glimpse of Manhattan since the coming of the plague, and he thought to himself, My God, it’s been taken over by tourists.”
Although Whitehead is a native New Yorker, Zone One is the first novel he has explicitly set in the city (The Intuitionist was set in a kind of “alternative gotham”). A meticulous researcher who plans out his work before he begins writing, he notes that “about two years ago at this time, I was taking photographs of downtown New York, trying to figure out what corners would be good settings for the story. Part of the tone in Zone One is a nostalgia for your lost city and trying to get it back. I spent six or nine months before I started actually writing the book researching and plotting it out. I mean, I knew where Mark Spitz was going to be on the last page on the very first day I started writing. Some people start with a blank page and see where the characters will take them. I always feel it’s hard enough to find the right words each day. If you wake up and don’t even know what’s going to happen, it’s twice as hard. That’s my simple model.”
Whitehead’s “right words” make Zone One not just keenly observant and funny but often downright scary. Before signing up to fight zombies in lower Manhattan, Spitz tries to escape the horror of the all-pervasive plague that unleashed the zombies by making a harrowing journey to Northampton, Massachusetts. In retrospect, as with many horror movies, a reader might laugh, but in the moment, such is Whitehead’s skill, one is more likely to cringe or even scream. Zone One is at times quite disturbing.
“Well I was disturbed when I was writing it,” Whitehead says. No, he doesn’t think that was because he was contemplating the upcoming 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attack. “I grew up in New York in the ’70s. It was a sort of apocalyptic New York then. But certainly tackling the idea of how you come back from disaster, how you make the world livable again after it has been destroyed, how you find those reserves of strength in yourself and other people was important. I wasn’t thinking about 9/11 specifically, but it was one of the many disasters, personal or communal, that I was thinking about.”
The father of a six-year-old daughter, Whitehead was newly divorced while working on Zone One and wrote the book “camped in the corner” of his smallish new digs. “I like working at home. There’s something about being able to make coffee, watch some CNN, take a nap and go back to writing that works for me. I play loud music when I work. When I have only a couple of hours left, I put on ‘Purple Rain’ by Prince and ‘Daydream Nation’ by Sonic Youth. That’s my exit music for all of my books.”
Whitehead is justifiably proud of the final pages of Zone One. “Finally after a year and a half, you get to what you’ve been building toward. What makes a good ending is secretly encoded all along.”
And the ending of Zone One is very good indeed.