Analysis of Zone One
Zone One is a novel by Colson Whitehead that takes on a rather pragmatic stance on one of the most common dark fantasies of the post-modern world. A zombie apocalypse is probably as imagined as any fiction can be, but in Zone One it acquires some believability through the realistic personality and experience of one Mark Spitz. The novel is about a post-apocalyptic situation in which the government can save a handful of people and rebuild the human race. The Manhattan area which has been renamed as Zone One is outside the protected areas where many stragglers are seen as the harmless zombies. These stragglers, along with some of the remaining skelt' remain outside of the safe zones where they are desperately looking for human food on which to survive. Mark Spitz is one of the volunteers whose job is to clear out these stragglers after the Marines had dealt with the more violent skels within the Zone One. In this story, Mark Spitz is working as a sweeper, and he represents humanity in its most real and most mediocre form, complete with the indomitable spirit that is portrayed in this man's ability to survive some tough situations. To enable the survival of humanity, some form of a government was created in Buffalo and their main interest was in enabling the Phoenix' to rebuild and thrive again after the apocalypse. Mostly, the story is given in the form of memory and that the prevalent setting is in a post-apocalyptic time after most of the zombies were gone. Thus, in the place of a quarantine is a safe zone where the living and protected from the living dead. In this contemporary fiction, Whitehead launches a tirade against bureaucratic establishments advancing for pursuing parochial interests and hoodwinking the populace.
The American Phoenix
In many apocalyptic stories, the people panic and start an insurgency against a government that they presume to have failed in keeping them safe. Riots take over the social scenes as people start looting stores to stock up on food and supplies as the system comes to a stand-still. The society changes from a sound civilization into a jungle system where people would do anything just to survive. In such a jungle like society, a functioning and powerful government is pivotal at a time of crisis to stop anarchy. The apocalypse in Zone One is not heavily covered in the novel considering the author's focus on the post-apocalypse but it can be expected that there were many challenges before the government at Buffalo was effectively established and stabilized in the area. The success of this government is dependent on their ability to deal with the insurgencies at a time of crisis.
The concept of the American Phoenix as portrayed by Whitehead is borrowed from the Greek mythology where the phoenix is a bird that rises from its ashes. The surviving Americans are thus, considered to have increased from destruction by the plague that had caused the zombie apocalypse. Ideally, the apocalypse would leave behind very few perfect survivors, but Whitehead is not keen on establishing an ideal situation. In this novel, "Zone One" Whitehead becomes serious when he noticed that the survivors are average people who were simply lucky that the new government rose up and acted when it did. It thus follows that there are no specified mechanisms for the survival of the American people in the novel. The government simply mobilizes the cavalry and some volunteers to fight against a scourge that could have wiped out the entire humanity. Creating a safe zone, in this case, is just what is expected.
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The haphazard arrangement or lack thereof through which humanity is saved in this novel creates a context within which one would argue for fate over human effort. In most Zombie apocalypse stories the zombies are all too powerful and smart such that they would be able to get into the safe zones as the people slowly weaken due to a shortage of food, clean water, and ammunition to fight them off. In Zone One the author does not dwell on or even delve into these issues. The main focus is on the aftermath of the apocalypse in which many people get to survive courtesy of the bureaucratic government in Buffalo, New York. Considering however that the pathogens that turned people into zombies were mortally contagious, it can be presumed that the survivors were kept well away from their infected counterparts or simply that they were immune to the infection. Another potential explanation is that there may have been a quarantine long before the government came into play. The Marines were still in action even with the unknown fate of the national government thus making it incredibly plausible that the people of the United States as portrayed in the novel were able to protect themselves without relying on the government to impose rules and laws on them. This ability to survive without a government would make the concept of the Phoenix even more applicable to the contexts in the novel.
Stragglers and Skels Outside The Safe Zones
It would be impossible to appreciate the efforts of the Phoenix government without considering that there still were zombies outside the protection areas in the post-apocalyptic era in which the novel is set. The government had worked to ensure that there were safe zones where people were effectively protected from the contagious infection that had previously come close to wiping out the human race. However, the government had not completely succeeded in ridding the planet of the living dead. Stragglers and skels provide a different angle from which one would approach the existence of a government at an apocalyptic time. The main story in this novel is about the survival of an imperfect human race with its fair share of mediocrity and good luck. That the zombies still exist after most of the surviving people were under the protection of the government indicates many possible flaws.
First, the government may have left out a lot of uninfected people considering that the zombies fed on humans. These zombies must have been eating something for them to remain alive for such long periods of time. It this follows that there may have been some quarantines that locked people out wrongly. If there were quarantines and some of the people remained outside the safe zones, it would be ethical to ask why this would happen. Why did the author allow his government to leave survivors out of the safe zones? It could be part of the strategy to tame insurgencies. The survival of the zombies meant the continued existence of a common enemy, and in times of crisis, it has been severally noted that the people need an enemy to focus on. In this particular novel, the enemy is not some terrorist group in Syria or a sympathizing government in North Africa. This means that the government has to make a sacrifice to maintain the enemy that was already created by a supposedly natural disaster.
The existence of these stragglers and the skels indicate some form of failure in the administration of the Phoenix government in Buffalo. Throughout the story, it is repeatedly shown that the Marines and the volunteers were working towards eliminating all the zombies sometimes make the region safe again. However, there is a time when Mark Spitz is reconsidering his role as a volunteer sweeper. After spending sometime in "Zone One", he is unable to justify the need to kill the stragglers who seem to be in a state of limbo as they are not violent or even driven like their more dangerous counterparts who seem bent on destroying every human they come into contact with.
The Phoenix government works with the corporate sponsors to provide food and supplies for the people to prevent cases of looting. This is possibly another strategy that the government has used to tame the situation and ensure that the individuals in the safe zones do not panic. Therefore, the corporate sponsors continue to provide supplies while the rest of the country is at a stand-still. People still eat, they obtain health care services, and their homes are still in good shape. There may not be plenty of consumer goods to go around, but the corporate sponsors are doing their best to give the people what they need. To cajole people and have their corporation, the government promises significant tax cuts to the corporate organizations that commit to helping the survivors. This means that the Phoenix government has a working strategy that is keeping the safe zones calm as they wait on the sweepers to clean out other parts of the city. Any insurgencies would be met with the fear of losing the support of the corporate sponsors that were willing to provide supplies for a population that has no money.
The Significance of Survival
Survival in this story is simply about being alive after the zombie apocalypse. The people in the safe zones live by military rules and depend on the rations provided by the corporate sponsors. The life in the novel is not about who does what but rather, who will survive the apocalypse and participate in rebuilding the society. Zone One is one of the few stories that consider the ease with which humanity forgets its values in the face of adversity thus fighting only to stay alive regardless of the circumstances. The government uses an aggressive military approach to keep the peace while negotiating very stiff terms of engagement with the corporate organizations. Freedom is no longer a concern, not because the people no longer want it but mainly because the circumstances of the nation at that time would render freedom a very dangerous aspect. If the people are allowed to do as they please, they would also have to fight for their survival. This would mean grabbing whatever they can get in order to make themselves comfortable rather than caring about others. Such a context also implies having a jungle rule system where survival is for the fittest and the weaker people would be pushed out and eventually eliminated from the mainstream society. It can be appreciated that this is how natural selection works, and the zombie apocalypse is often seen as a process of natural selection that is meant to ensure only the unyielding and the smart survive.
In Zone One, however, this is not the case. The people who survive are those who have acknowledged that they have no other job other than to stay alive. The citizenry is not worried about values or identity or even freedom. They just want to live, even under military rule with the threat of zombies outside the safety nets of the Phoenix government. The author's portrayal of how desperate the people are to survive is also a mechanism by which the government is avoiding insurgencies. They are giving people a chance to survive, and this means that the people are not likely to put that at risk. All the efforts made towards ensuring the safety of the safe zones allows the people to appreciate that the government cares about them even if these still are some doubts about the continued existence of the zombies.
A zombie apocalypse is one of the situations that are likely to bring the world to its knees if it ever occurred in reality. Moments of crisis are known to put out the worst as well as the best in people, and for the most part. An insurgency can be expected in particular against the inequality that most governments perpetrate as they pay more attention to the safety of a specific people while leaving the others to face the dangers on their own. One of the most interesting aspects of Whitehead's Zone One is the fact that the government seems to be working effectively to create safe zones, but it conveniently fails to eliminate the zombies. The stragglers in the Manhattan area are said to have been missed when the Marines were taking out the more dangerous zombies but what if they were left deliberately to ensure that the people still had an enemy of whom they could be afraid? In this story, it appears that there are many mechanisms that the government is using to keep the people in check, and one of them may involve sparing the zombies so as to increase the value of the government to the survivors. If citizens want to stay in the safe zones and away from the zombies, they would need to obey the rules set by the government and thus avoid any form of violence. This seems to work effectively in the governments favor.