Colson Whitehead’s Zone One is a book critiquing modern culture and mass-market consumerism through a zombie narrative. The mediocrity of American life is personified through the character of Mark Spitz, an average man who led an average life prior to the apocalypse. Although in his past life Mark Spitz used to blend into common life, now he is an individual in post-apocalyptic society. In this zombie novel, main character Mark Spitz is illustrated in order to reflect the main themes in the novel, through use of action, narration, and internal dialogue.
The majority of Zone One is Mark Spitz’s internal dialogue, told mostly from a third-person point of view. The chronology of the narration jumps between past and current, and the reader is usually left unsure of the exact timeline of each scene. There are landmarks in the timeline, like The Last Night and the scenes that occur inside Zone One, that anchor the reader. The multitude of flashbacks flesh out Mark Spitz’ character in a jumbled way, reflective of the way Mark Spitz’s inner dialogue randomly follows various threads of thought as he proceeds through three days of Mark Spitz’s present life in Zone One. Through following this narrative, we learn about his background and the events leading up to his current posting in New York City.
The tone of the novel is cynical. Mark Spitz daydreams about his past, but pops back into reality suddenly, chastising himself for the indulgence of reminiscing. He knows that nostalgia and hope are dangerous when, at any moment, a zombie might appear out of nowhere. He can’t allow himself to be caught off-guard, but he has a plethora of flashbacks in between sweeping office buildings with his unit. He must remain in-the-moment, always aware of now and the next five minutes. While the new post-apocalyptic government, based in Buffalo, create morale building strategies and plan for years into the future, Mark Spitz is realistically focused on the present. Not only is he cynical about the future, but he is also disillusioned about the American society before the apocalypse. Through his inner dialogue, he mentions restaurants and old jobs that could be charming from one person, but in Mark Spitz’s realism they are corporate machines attempting to manufacture emotions and manipulate customers to make a profit. His job as a social-media presence for a big coffee company ironically places Mark Spitz as an artificial cog in the very machine he thinks negatively about.
The name Mark Spitz, a reference to an olympic swimmer, establishes the character as an outsider. He can’t swim, so when faced with a zombie ambush on a bridge, he fights his way out instead of jumping, earning him the sarcastic nickname of a victorious swimmer. The sarcastic nature of the nickname points to the cynical tone of the novel. Mark Spitz is unique in his luck and ability to survive in the worst situations, but he is also among thousands of other survivors with their own quirks, manifestations of drama, and survival stories. He is made average again, because everyone around him is special.
Whitehead uses the image of a cockroach to personify Mark Spitz. He is nothing special, one insect in a throng of pests. But, he is also extremely adaptable and thrives in a post-disaster world, like a cockroach. Mark Spitz is lucky and victorious, but so is everyone. The way Colson Whitehead demonstrates the character of Mark Spitz reinforces the messages of the novel, and offers a realistic and cynical– almost hopeless– perspective on modern life.