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Our Own Worst Enemy

by Jo Page on November 22, 2011

In Colson Whitehead’s new novel, Zone One, main character Mark Spitz is one of an armed team of “sweepers” tasked with taking out any stragglers found in lower Manhattan south of Canal Street: Zone One. Essentially stragglers are individual or small groups of leftover zombies that the Marines missed when they performed the en masse killing of multitudes of victims from the pandemic that has divided humanity into two distinct groups: the living and the living dead.

Mark Spitz is dispassionate about his work and has no faith in the capability of the new government, headquartered in Buffalo, to bring about the return of civilization. Having wandered about the Northeast with various random groups for several post-plague years, he’s been working for the government as a sweeper and garrisoned in a former Chinese restaurant now known as Fort Wonton.

He sums up the wisdom gleaned from his experiences succinctly: “There was no other reality apart from this: move on to the next human settlement, until you find the final one and that’s when you die.”

One could argue that that is not necessarily true only in a post-apocalyptic age, but rather encapsulates the human condition.

But here, in Zone One, it relates to the twilight hours of a doomed planet. The question is, what does the post-death age have to do with the one in which we’re living?

Tom Perotta’s new novel, The Leftovers, is more of a satire with distinct, interesting and intersecting characters who don’t share the anomie of Mark Spitz. And in contrast with the claustrophobia of a barrier-enclosed lower Manhattan, The Leftovers is set smack dab in suburbia Mapleton and its mayor, Kevin Garvey, is the mayor.

But all is not copacetic in Mapleton. While it hasn’t undergone the convulsive rupture of a world-wide pandemic, it has instead experienced the Rapture. Or the “Sudden Departure,” as it is referred to (particularly as some pretty sleazy characters got taken; it wasn’t all just the saintly folk).

A huge portion of the country has disappeared and we see the microcosm of that fallout in Mapleton. Some people join the Guilty Remnant movement, which devotes itself to hastening the end times, smoking, taking a vow of silence and going about their business of recruiting members with a steely resolve. Others have aligned themselves with Holy Wayne, a man who believes one of his six nubile, “spiritual brides” will give birth to the miracle son sent to repair the broken world.

Still others have become Barefoot People whose rule number one is to have pleasure—but paint a bull’s eye on your forehead in preparation for further existential mayhem.

In some way the two novels are as different as night and day in their place setting, in their narrative development, in the time the stories span, in the kinds of characters we meet. And yet, they’re both about a post-apocalyptic world. In each book something unthinkable and inexplicable has rendered the former order irretrievable and the reader is invited along for the grim, in the case of Zone One, or tragically bumpy, as in the case of The Leftovers, ride.

It’s hard not to notice their common themes, even as Perrotta’s story is expansive, sometimes humorous and Whitehead’s is hipster bleak. It’s hard not to wonder what is afoot in the collective unconscious that the whole notion of the apocalyptic has moved from the ranks of the extreme religious fundamentalists and into the mainstream culture.

Sure, the zombie movement is nothing new and its popularity has waxed and waned. On the other hand, there seems to be some kind of low-level collective edginess around the question of our future world.

We face questions of ultimate extinction all the time in our daily lives: concerns about global warming, religious warfare, biochemical threats, the list goes on and on. No wonder an infectious nervousness is pervading our culture, making it trendy and entertaining to envision our own demise, knowing we have been partnered with the technology that can bring it about.

Hauntingly, the words of the late Nazi minister of armaments, Albert Speer, have a prophetic value for us. At the Nuremberg tribunal Speer wrote: “As the former minister in charge of a highly developed armaments economy, it is my last duty to state: there is nothing to stop unleashed technology and science from completing its work of destroying man. . . . The more technological the world becomes, the more essential will be the demand for individual freedom and the self-awareness of the human being as a counterpoise to technology.”