The New York Times courted some overheated nerd controversy back in October when Glen Duncan reviewed Colson Whitehead’s zombie novel, “Zone One,” in the Sunday Book Review. In the piece, Duncan put forth an analogy: a literary novelist writing a genre novel is like an intellectual dating a porn star–that is to say, nobody’s happy and the motivations on both sides of the romantic equation are suspect. Sci-fi bloggers and zombie movie lovers were up in arms, angry with Duncan for describing their passion as low-brow and worthless, and feminists and porn stars alike bristled at the notion that one couldn’t be a porn star and an intellectual. The twittersphere missed the point, as Duncan tried to explain in his Times follow-up to the review’s broo-haha, appropriately titled Zombiegate. With everyone’s dander all ahoo, however, I think that both Duncan and his critics overlooked what’s truly interesting about “Zone One.” The zombie fans were quick to admonish Duncan for his implication that genre-readers wouldn’t enjoy or comprehend a little bit of high-art mixed in with their shambling cannibals, but from my read of the book, Whitehead wasn’t trying to infuse complex literary ideas onto an established genre template, he was exploring his own generation’s weird love affair with the zombie apocalypse.
I’ve watched plenty (far too many) shitty zombie movies, as well as the few very good ones. I sat through the abysmally horrible first season of the AMC series, The Walking Dead (and read a few of the comics it was based on). I devoured (pun intended) “Zone One” over the course of two evenings. I will probably eventually watch the sure-to-be-terrible second season of The Walking Dead, and at some point be suckered into gobbling up some more zombie flicks on Netflix. Why, exactly? I’m not normally a horror fan, and yet I’m fascinated by the zombie genre–is it that it infuses the ordinary world with danger, or the notion of absolute loneliness infested in the stories, the sense of a civilization corroded and lost? Escapism? Wish fulfillment? No more jobs! No more money! Let’s loot the convenience store and eat all the Doritos we want, for tomorrow may bring sorrow! It’s surely not the often heavy-handed metaphors employed by the genre (zombies as consumerism, zombies as fear-of-9/11, zombies as familial curse/obligation, etc) that draw me in.
As Duncan noted in his rebuttal, the Amazon customer comments on “Zone One’s” page bear his thesis out. Sci-fi zombie fans found Whitehead’s book boring, hard to decipher and not “zombie” enough. But then, Amazon reviews are where every moron has his day–a random sampling of customer comments from any review of any book on Amazon will showcase some choice examples of cut-rate American idiocy.
Whether they enjoyed “Zone One” or not, what Whitehead spelled out in his tale is the subtext of every end-of-the-world zombie film ever made. The novel’s plot, the tedium of life in “the wasteland,” the lone wanderers both dulled and perfected by a world of constant terror, the weird detritus of personal memory and pop culture and the banality of endless violence–and above all, there is the notion that in living through a “zombie apocalypse,” you the survivor already know the story lines you will encounter, you’ve already seen all the movies–the abandoned farmhouse, the ruined shopping mall, the half-baked attempts at reclaiming the world from the hordes–you know how it will all turn out. “Zone One” deftly describes the weirdly addictive despair that lies hidden inside every tale of flesh-eating dystopia. It’s why even the trashiest, most half-assed zombie film will remain oddly compelling. We’re suckers for the spilling entrails, sure, but we’re also secretly suckers for hopelessness.