By Peter Ball
It’s not a zombie novel without boarded-up windows. Throw in a kook in the basement who thinks boarding up windows is a waste of time, maybe a few zombie hands reaching between the boards, and then busting them apart at the moment of climax, and you have yourself a zombie genre hit. But in the wake of the subprime mortgage crisis, when Colson Whitehead’s 2011 zombie novel Zone One was written, boarded-up windows were more likely to be associated with foreclosure than home defence. As Annie McClanahan argues in her book Dead Pledges, amid media reports of “zombie mortgages” and “Frankenstein”-like financial products, it is unsurprising that cultural texts of the early 2010s took up the gothic horror of the financial crisis (McClanahan 143). Zone One, with its pre-apocalyptic past of free-floating credit, and its musings on the state of housing in a post-apocalyptic present where “gentrification [has] resumed” (Whitehead 35), shows the tell-tale signs of an end-of-the-world text concerned with the world’s recent brush with a near-Great-Depression-level economic rupture. On this point, Whitehead himself has demurred, stating only that he took an interest in the more general “boom and bust” cycles that have characterised New York City in his lifetime (Colbert). Nevertheless, I will demonstrate how Zone One, on its own terms, serves undeniably as an allegory and response to the financial crisis; in the book’s reflections on the pre-apocalypse, a night at the casino symbolises the global economic system of free flowing credit, and a scene in a New York apartment satirises the hazy plurality of credit-fueled consumption and ownership; in the post-apocalypse, government efforts to secure the wealth and property of elites, as well as corporate attempts to capitalise on the sudden surplus of empty homes, parallel the bail-outs and opportunism in the wake of the subprime mortgage crisis. Finally, in reading the novel’s ending, I address Zone One’s vision of the future in the context of anti-capitalist scholarship of the recession, demonstrating how Whitehead reckons with the contradictions of a time that demands radical political action while threatening people’s very survival.
Zombies and capitalism have been linked ever since the original Haitian folk tales, which expressed the anxieties of free slaves over the possibility of a return to enslavement and being literal human capital. In these tales, Vodou sorcerers would curse people who committed suicide, reanimating them as slaves who would work the plantation fields at night in perpetuity (Heneck 65). In The Zombie Manifesto, Sarah Lauro and Karen Embry note how in this myth, the zombie represents both the slave and slave rebellion (Lauro and Embry 98); in its appropriation by Hollywood, it has been modulated such that it now represents “the capitalist worker, but also the consumer” (Lauro and Embry 99). By the time George Romero’s classic Dawn of the Dead is released in 1978, the zombie’s folkloric roots are fully severed, with Dawn‘s mall-bound zombies instead staging a critique of Americans as consumerist drones. An important consequence of this shift is that the zombie no longer has the means to free itself, as the rebellion does to the slave, but only the ability to facilitate the production of more zombies, as the worker does to the consumer. This shift marks the zombie as a pessimistic figure in modern anti-capitalist literature. In Capitalist Realism, for example, Mark Fisher describes capital as a “zombie-maker” where “the living flesh it converts into dead labour is ours, and the zombies it makes are us” (Fisher 15). The zombie has also been seen as an apt metaphor for late-stage capitalism, where the shift from material production to financialization finds parallels in the zombies who are “already-exhausted sources of value… that have been entirely consumed and cast aside” (Shaviro 286), but, I would add, have been reanimated through the spectre of speculative investment. Scholarship of Zone One has often figured the novel as a response to capitalist forces: Theodore Martin connects the novel’s self-aware and sarcastic deployment of genre tropes to its critique of the monotony of modern work, and Erica Sollazzo brilliantly details the book’s connections to both 9/11 and the financial crisis. My work in this paper extends this scholarship by deploying Annie McClanahan’s thesis in Dead Pledges that post-financial crisis cultural texts articulated their response to the financial crisis through a focus on consumer debt, thus linking both the global financial markets that relied on securitized debt for their growth, and the personal crises that resulted when it came time for those debts to be paid (McClanahan 4).
On his last night before the apocalypse, Mark Spitz visits an Atlantic City casino with his friend: the scene serves as a ripe metaphor for the decades of financial deregulation in the global financial system that led to the 2008 collapse. The neoliberal turn that led to the Great Recession is characterised by an increased reliance on credit, both to offset the rising cost of living in a time of wage stagnation and to fuel new securitized debt products whose sale was an increasingly important source of capital in a waning industrial economy (McClanahan 145). Neoliberal ideology downplayed the risk of growing consumer debt and risky investment in debt-based products by promoting the fantasy of free-flowing credit and the gamification of market forces (McClanahan 146). Zone One stages this free-flow of credit through “chips,” a marker of unrealized gain, that structure the internal economy of the casino, with Mark “[tipping] the waitresses in chips” (81). Chips flatten value—every chip is the same size, regardless of worth—and as a result are designed to encourage speculative investment (e.g., gambling on a dice roll) rather than hedging one’s bets and exchanging the chips at the casino bank. The casino’s chips reflect the shift away from risk-averse banking with deposit-financed mortgages towards riskier practises where lending institutions funded mortgages through the very sale of securitized mortgage debt to global speculators (McLanahan 146). Importantly, the casino structure implicates everyone in risky financial speculation: by receiving their tips in chips, the waitresses are drawn into the gamified economy and may be encouraged to try their fortunes at the table rather than take the money and run.
The scene does more than just restage the economics of free market capitalism; through imagery of separateness and artificiality, the scene accesses the dissociative, demarcated psychology of a neoliberal state. This push towards risk is the very appeal of the casino, and its greatest power: Mark and his friend “[do] not want,” the casino meeting their every need while their brains “[fog] over as possibility and failure [enthral] them in a perpetual and tantalising loop” (82). This passage reflects the cosy comforts of neoliberal capitalism, both in terms of the lavish materialism that credit affords and the game-like free-market principles that made bankers comfortable with the increasingly absurd amount of risk they were introducing into the system. Imagery of restriction emphasises how the self-contained logic of free-market capitalism constrains the imagination. The limits of the casino are clearly demarcated, with the gaming house described as both an “enclosure” and an “artificial habitat” (81-82). Both images bear undertones of animal husbandry, suggesting the predatory undercurrents of this system: Mark and his friend are ultimately human capital to be consumed. The constraint also leads to a blindness, with Mark and his friend “[receiving no] news from the outside” (83). This foreboding end to the scene echoes the neoliberal psychology that created the conditions for the financial crisis by obscuring material conditions in favour of an artificial perimeter around a simplistic optimism.
Alongside allegorizing the dangerous economic structures that led to the financial crisis, the casino scene alludes to the cycle of waxing and waning superpowers that fuels capitalist growth. The casino is in an autumnal stage, “emptier than it had been on their earlier missions” with “roulette stands shrouded in plastic,” and is in competition with a new generation of casinos that “burst from the gaping rebar-studded lots where the past-prime establishments had stood” (82). This sense of death and rebirth maps onto an oscillatory pattern in capitalism noted by Giovanni Arrighi, whereby an imperial power will gain hegemonic power through material capital, which, once the material is exhausted, necessitates a turn to financialization as a source of continued growth. In the final stages of this financialization, the hegemon enters a period of crisis and is replaced by a new power with a hand on a new source of material capital. This cycle has played out over the past 400 years, with capitalist power shifting from Italy to the Netherlands to Britain and most recently the United States (McClanahan 14). Accordingly, the passage emphasises the materiality of the new casinos (the lots they stand on) and the lack of participation in the financial system of the old casino (lack of patrons), as well as the old casino’s material decline, with its shuttered roulette table playing the role of the shuttered factory. The passage complicates the above idea by situating the old casinos on the very same lots as their predecessors; this suggests on how imperial power often sourced new pools of material capital not only by finding new populations to exploit, but also by developing new technologies to better exploit the labour of an already subjugated people. In the end, Mark and his friend do not make plans to attend the new casino, wondering if they have “outgrown these enthusiasms,” if their times at the casino are indeed “dead” and they are now becoming aware of “new circumstances” (83). In these musings, Mark questions the viability of the cycle of capitalist production going forward. Modern Marxists have proposed the “value critique,” which argues that late-twentieth century advancements in labour productivity signal an end to capitalism, because all possible material sources of profit have been exhausted (McClanahan 15). This “terminal crisis” is perhaps what Mark is noticing: a movement not towards another iteration of the capitalist feeding frenzy, but the death of that system, and a shift to something new.
Zone One takes up not only the destructive economic system that produced the financial crisis, but also the uncanny form of ownership that a credit-fueled economy produces. In the hazy plurality of Mark’s uncle’s apartment, Zone One shows how credit consumerism changes ownership from a singular life-long relationship to a state of constant newness. Mark’s uncle owns a condo in Manhattan, and outfits it with all the latest gadgets. Everything in his uncle’s apartment is represented in the plural: an endless stream of the latest and greatest “televisions” are controlled by a limitless supply of “remotes” (4), and a ceaseless rotation of “girlfriends” transport seltzer water and question Mark about a carousel of “monster movies” (5). By focusing on the plurality of the uncle’s material possessions, the text uncouples ownership from the possession of one specific thing, emphasising instead a capacity to possess a class of objects in its newest form. This form of ownership reveals a truth about credit-fueled consumption: when credit gives us the option to make large purchases without saving up or, especially in a deregulated savings and loans industry, even provide evidence that we will pay for it in the future, our commitment to objects is inverted; we get the object and then proceed to pay it off, such that when we have paid for it, the logical option is now to get something new. By applying this consumerist ownership logic not only to televisions but also to girlfriends, the passage reveals the interplay of consumerism and the objectification of women: the apartment is “equipped with rotating bosomy beauties” (6) centring access to women’s bodies on the uncle’s ability to own a fancy downtown apartment. The girlfriends are also workers, carting seltzer water to and fro, revealing how easily these ownership principles can extend from individual ownership of things to the corporate ownership of people’s labour.
The scene’s ample body horror imagery realises the anxious incompleteness of modern home ownership. The cityscape Mark beholds oozes with gore: air-conditioning ducts are “hunkered and coiled on the striving high-rises, glistening like extruded guts,” while building interiors are “butchered,” their “bones melted down to help their replacements surpass them” (5-6). The language reflects the violence of gentrification, as well as the unnatural quality of the modern high rise; their reflective exterior and generic “white-walled” (6) interior make clear that buying a condo in downtown Manhattan is about accumulating debt in service of an immaterial idea, rather than paying cash for a physical reality. This immateriality is manifested when Mark describes the physical sensation of standing in the high-rise as “floating” (7). Meanwhile, the buildings chop the residents up into a kaleidoscope of body parts, featuring a pair of “splayed pinstriped legs,” “half a lady’s torso,” and “a fist trembling on a titanium desk” (6). Not only are the buildings chopped up, but the residents are too, the landscape of urban real-estate rending them limb from limb, echoing the way in which mortgage-backed securities allowed homeowner’s debt to be chopped up and sold off to speculative investors looking for a hot new asset class. By centering this uncanny, precarious ownership in the body, the novel shows how these impersonal structures produce material wounds in the people pressed into them. Of course, the body horror on display here is clearly also a foreshadowing of the impending zombie apocalypse and the guts and gore that it entails. This raises an important question: why the zombie genre? To answer this question, we must move away from these pre-apocalyptic allegories for the social ills that produced the financial crisis, and consider the post apocalypse which concerns much of the book.
Despite their deep insight, these pre-apocalyptic moments make up only a tiny portion of the novel; rather than the conditions that produced the crisis, Zone One proves far more interested in what happens in its wake. The provisional government that arises in Buffalo following the apocalypse displays a protectorial relationship to corporations that echoes both the expectation in neoliberal theory that the government exists in service of the market, and the material realities of government bailouts in the fallout from the subprime mortgage crisis. A central insight of Foucault’s account of neoliberalism is that in dismantling the social state and reducing government regulation, it does not advocate for a world without government; rather, it aspires to a government that exists as a steward of the market, oriented on market principles, and also available to rescue a market in crisis (Brown 20). In keeping with its allegorical rendering of pre- and post-crisis neoliberalism, one of the first rules we learn about in the novel is the provisional government’s edict that no product may be looted from the dead city’s endless derelict stores unless it has first been sponsored by the corporation that manufactured it (48). The sponsorships are on one level a sarcastic joke about corporate philanthropy, the empty promise Mark Fisher identified in contemporary social justice fundraising that consumerism can solve the ills of society if we buy the “right products” (Fisher 15). Within the framework of allegorizing the financial crisis, however, the sponsorships also stand for the rescue of the corporate class, predicted by critics of neoliberalism and borne out in the decision by governments around the globe to inject unprecedented levels of cash into collapsing markets and corporations rather than providing direct assistance to citizens.
In addition to restaging the bailout of corporate interests by a neoliberal government, the novel also features corporate and individual opportunism that brought about a sudden increase in housing stock, echoing the nihilistic investments in foreclosed houses that took place following the subprime mortgage crisis. In the years after the financial crisis, private equity and hedge funds spent $36 billion buying foreclosed homes across the United States with the goal of renting them out to the millions of Americans who had themselves been victims of foreclosure. At the time, this cold-hearted tactic was couched in a thick layer of optimism, with lofty goals of stabilising housing markets and “professionalizing” the landlord sector with 24/7 availability (Semuels). A similar optimism is at play in the rhetoric of Zone One’s provisional government regarding their own project to repossess millions of homes lost due to societal collapse. The effort to clear out Manhattan real estate is called the “reboot,” and the new subjugated class doing this work is the “American Phoenix;” indeed, one of Zone One’s main crossovers with the rest of Whitehead’s canon is its persistent interest in marketing language. But beneath this glossy image lies working-class anxiety and morally fraught violence. Sweepers, the civilian units in charge of clearing New York City of remaining zombies, are wary of committing mysterious crimes like “defenestration” forcefully put in place by the government to make “the city habitable for the new tenants” (75). Despite the surplus of available housing, the sweepers are unsure if they themselves will be those tenants, with Mark’s sweeping partner Gary declaring “they’re going to put the rich people here” (89). These tensions reflect the fears of rampant gentrification after the financial crisis, and the sense of powerlessness that comes along with a loss of home ownership and a thrust into the tenant class. There is also of course the violent process by which the government takes command of these apartments, killing the non-violent “straggler” zombies who haunt their former houses; this forced removal of a shell-shocked class generated by a recent crisis has strong parallels with the forced evictions and repossessions that took place in the wake of the financial crisis.
While the past and present of Zone One align very clearly with both empirical fact and canonical theory on the Great Recession, the novel’s ending diverges from the utopic anti-capitalist theories popular during the occupy movement, while still developing a radical and prescient vision. On one level, the ending is a despairing picture of the prospects of a positive new direction after the financial crisis. At the end of the novel, the provisional government falls, as the island of Manhattan is overwhelmed by a horde of the dead. Mark Spitz has “the forbidden thought” (318), which we understand to be giving in to the end of the world and committing suicide by zombie. Mark considers swimming across the Hudson River to safety, but ultimately chooses to “walk into the sea of the dead” (322). Join the horde—a nihilistic conclusion to be sure, and not lost on the book’s critics. Theodore Martin, for example, argues that the book’s take on capitalism is a two-layered pessimism: on one level, the novel’s lesson can be summarised in an oft-quoted line, “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism” (quoted ni Martin 184), but on another level, by self-consciously writing in a generic and non-specific manner, Whitehead mocks those who would find anything new in this conclusion; this leaves us with the hope neither of escaping the confines of capitalism, nor of finding any new ways to critique it (Martin 184). Mark Spitz’s urge toward suicide gains additional horror due to its resonance with the original Haitian myth, where suicide was the precursor to zombification. Suicide doomed an enslaved person to an eternity of enslavement; that Mark not only gives in, but under Martin’s formulation has no choice but to give in, makes his enlistment in the ranks of the dead a bitter commentary on the modern worker and consumer’s absolute subjugation.
But Zone One also emerges from a context when left-wing theory was optimistic on the affordances of the financial crisis for an anti-capitalist future, and makes space alongside the aforementioned pessimism for a radical and prescient vision of what the future after 2008 could be. Mark Fisher, while believing the bank bailouts demonstrated such beliefs to be “unfounded,” nevertheless concluded that “neoliberalism [had], in every sense, been discredited” (Fisher 77), and the moment made room for a “genuinely revitalized left” that could break from well-trodden terrain of historical leftist movements and reassert itself as a real solution to the problems neoliberalism purports to solve (Fisher 71-81). These optimistic notes are present in the book’s ending too; the dead are a multi-racial, classless mob, with “every race, color, and creed … represented in this congregation” (303); their takeover of downtown Manhattan has resonance with the Occupy Movement that would follow not long after the book was published. Whitehead makes space for this reading in a passage near the end of the novel, in which he invites us to “let the cracks between things widen until they [are] no longer cracks but the new places for things.… The world wasn’t ending: it had ended and they were in the new place” (321). This passage emphasises the newness that rupture affords, the tectonic shifts made possible when all systems collapse. In providing this more optimistic reading, Zone One manages to hold two things at once: both the gritty realism necessary to survive the depths of economic abjection the crisis unleashed globally, and the giddy, unfettered dreaming that led people to take to the streets in revolution at a time of great personal struggle.
Zone One is an allegory ripe for its time, artfully capturing both the foolhardy economic structures that led to the financial crisis and its material and psychological consequences. In its vision of the future, the novel manages to hold up both the grim real-world prospects and the sanguine dreams at play. Unlike many of Whitehead’s previous allegories, this appears to be unintentional: Zone One is no Apex Hides The Hurt, the tepid reception of which Whitehead jokingly paraphrased as “oh, another racial allegory from the racial allegory guy” (Klein). Instead, Whitehead generally speaks of Zone One as more of an exploration of genre – of the things he found particularly interesting about zombies as a long-time George Romero fan (Colbert). Yet on its own terms (and perhaps influenced by its particularly symbolic genre), Zone One is the parable Whitehead never intended to write. It is also his last: the three novels that followed, Underground Railroad, Nickel Boys, and Harlem Shuffle all move away from the allegorical writing that he began with in his career. Underground Railroad is often discussed as the “turning point” in Whitehead’s oeuvre, when he moved from highbrow literary fiction to more straightforward, historical fiction. Perhaps Zone One too serves as a turning point, a transition novel from his explicit allegory to a Whitehead who plays it straight. In a time of extreme economic uncertainty, not to mention a real-live pandemic, perhaps in his upcoming work Whitehead’s unconscious economic allegory will be reanimated.
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