Skip to navigation – Site map

HomeIssues17-4Tedium and Terror: Dreading Narra...

Tedium and Terror: Dreading Narration in Colson Whitehead’s Zone One

Mark Pedretti


Critics of Colson Whitehead’s novel Zone One (2011) have treated its post-zombie-apocalypse setting as a futural standpoint for critiquing the present. This article argues that Whitehead equally deploys this setting as an allegory for the lived experience of historical and personal temporality in late capitalism. The fundamental quality of that lived experience is boredom, but in a particularly contemporary instantiation, which takes into account the endless bombardment of “events” in 24/7 networked time. Drawing upon and also revising Frank Kermode’s theory of narrative eschatology, I argue that Whitehead’s novel offers a form of boredom “after the end” predicated on dread, understood as a mix of tedium and terror. The article concludes by considering this form of dread as indicative of a postnarrative moment that calls for new forms of storytelling.

Top of page

Full text

1. Introduction

  • 1 I recognize that, for genre purists, to call the infected horde of Boyle’s film “zombies” is incorr (...)

1If, as Maitland McDonagh wrote of Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later… (2002), “Every generation gets the zombies it deserves,” then what are we to make of Colson Whitehead’s 2011 novel Zone One, which Andrew Hoberek has unironically described as “the greatest American novel of the twenty-first century” (“Living” 406)? Boyle’s film was lauded both for breathing new life into a decaying genre by introducing fast-moving zombies1 (Osmond 39) and for seizing upon, with the Rage virus, the cultural zeitgeist of “demagoguery and terrorism, intolerance and road rage” (Kaltenbach). At the risk of turning Boyle’s innovations into a rule, what, then, are Zone One’s distinct contributions to the zombie genre and its symptomatic reflections of our lived historical present? Early reviews of Zone One treated Whitehead’s foray into zombie fiction as a kind of literary slumming; Glen Duncan compared it to “an intellectual dating a porn star” and predicted that horror fans would dismiss the novel for its high-minded digressions in lieu of blood-and-guts action. Tim Lanzendörfer has argued that the novel’s intrusion into what has “only slightly more derogatively been called ‘junk fiction’” ostensibly poses a problem for understanding its “literariness,” the purported antithesis to the cookie-cutter production of romance novels, westerns, and the like (40). And yet, since the time of its publication, critics have followed the spirit of Hoberek’s suggestion and persuasively demonstrated the novel’s distinctive critique of corporate capitalism (Sollazzo), its imagination of a hobbled postracial utopia (Saldívar 13), and its examination of racialized biopower (Hurley).

2These interpretations, along with form-oriented readings like those of Lanzendörfer and Carl Joseph Swanson, who examines how Zone One’s “most powerful figures and motifs [derive] from variations on the formal conventions of the zombie genre” (381), emphasize the futural horizon of the postapocalyptic imaginary, its stilted or inverted vision as a distantiated means of critiquing the present. While Swanson places Zone One squarely within the narrative tropes of the zombie genre—“Whitehead has made no secret of his own horror fandom” (380)—little critical attention has been paid to how Zone One might be innovating within those conceits, in the same way that Boyle’s scrambling “infected” revised George Romero’s lurching ghouls. And while Whitehead’s apocalyptic invocations have been treated as an ersatz utopian impulse (Saldívar) or at least a critical standpoint rooted in their futurity (Sollazzo; Hurley), there is little discussion of the depicted lived experience of that imagined future itself, or how the novel’s incredibly detailed descriptions of day-to-day life after “the end” might themselves be reflective of latent realities in our present. That is, while the postapocalyptic imaginary offers us a temporally displaced critical standpoint, it can also function as an allegorical representation of the here and now.

3Hoberek, in a review of more recent postapocalyptic fiction, has taken this latter approach by observing how “the recent crop of post-apocalyptic novels... emphasize the ghostly present haunting their imagined futures” (“Post-Apocalyptic”). But what he sees as a recent trend might belong to the genre itself: as Evan Calder Williams reminds us, etymologically, “apocalypse” is an uncovering of “what has been hidden in plain sight all along” (5); it reflects not a futural standpoint so much as the present revealed for what it is. The language of Zone One’s opening pages, in which protagonist Mark Spitz remembers the New York City of his childhood in zombified terms—“every lurching specimen his father enlisted from the passersby” (4), “the wireless speakers haunting the corners like spindly wraiths” (4), “the massive central air units... glistening like extruded guts” (5), etc.—suggests that the novel seeks to draw an equivalence between our lived present and its imagined future, holding up a mirror to our current social and economic lived experience.

  • 2 Soren Forsberg’s review elucidates Zone One’s dashing of readerly expectations: “As scores of disgr (...)

4This article intends to take up McDonagh’s axiom and argue that Zone One is indeed the zombie narrative we deserve. I see Whitehead as following in Boyle’s footsteps to make contributions on the two axes described above: intragenerically innovating on the tropes of zombie narratives, and doing so in a way that both reflects and reflects upon the lived conditions of our late-capitalist present. The key term for understanding Whitehead’s interventions on both axes will be boredom. As Duncan observes in his review, “There isn’t a plot. To make matters worse, the protagonist is a laconic introvert of self-avowed mediocrity. The only ostensibly interesting [thing] about him [is] his nickname.” Contrary to our generic expectation for a terrifying zombie narrative, Duncan’s plot description suggests that boredom is here mobilized as a constitutive narrative feature.2 For Whitehead, boredom functions as both a Bakhtinian chronotope, a discursive configuration of temporal and spatial relationships at the level of narrative representation (84–85), and what Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht calls “atmosphere” or Stimmung, the elements of prosody and tone capable of “catalyz[ing] inner feelings without matters of representation necessarily being involved”—an elusive, affective mood generated not by what the text means (or fails to mean) but by the “tunings” in “the textual dimension of the forms that envelope us and our bodies as a physical reality” (Atmosphere 5). Whitehead deploys boredom in ways that revise traditional expectations of the zombie genre, while also diagnosing the present as a kind of attenuated, tedious temporality. But before we see how he does this, it is important to understand the role that boredom plays in the apocalyptic imaginary more broadly, and how that might allow us to distinguish between varieties of apocalypse and postapocalypse alike.

2. Time and Interest

5Frank Kermode, in his famous study of literary eschatology, offers a useful distinction between two orders of temporality: chronos, the durative time of the everyday, the simple linearity of time’s undifferentiated passage; and kairos, eventful time, the punctum that disrupts the line (cf. Aristotle, Phys. 220a 5–15). Implicit in Kermode’s temporal taxonomy is a dialectic of boredom and interest that operates on both the individual and historical levels. The durative time of chronos is the time of boredom; it is “the emptiness of tock-tick, humanly uninteresting successiveness,” “‘passing time’ or ‘waiting time,’” “time which is simply ‘one damn thing after another’” (46–47; second emphasis added). Chronic time is, in another word, boring; it is the time of work, of repetition, what Theodor Adorno calls “the realm of the eversame” (192). For Adorno, boredom is the interpellation of chronic temporality into the heart of subject formation; it is “a function of life lived under the compulsion to work, and under the strict division of labour” (192). Thus, what, for Kermode, appeared as a world-historical temporal determination is also very much a phenomenon of subjective experience under the conditions of alienated labor.

  • 3 My deep thanks to Mitchell Breitweiser of the University of California at Berkeley for illuminating (...)

6Kairos, by contrast, is “an escape from chronicity” (Kermode 50), and thus also from the uninteresting, presumably turning into its opposite; kairotic time is “charged with meaning” (47), resisting the urge of time to “empty itself” (46). In Kermode’s examples, kairos is simple eventfulness: surprise, suffering, struggle, or Karl Jaspers’s existential “boundary situation” in which human mettle is tested (47). Whether in pleasure, pain, trauma, or excitement, kairotic time is interesting—a respite from plodding chronos. But kairotic time is not merely the antithesis of chronos; kairotic time lends meaning to chronic time. It is eventfulness that makes “one damn thing after another” worth it, in the end: “Within this organization that which was conceived of as simply successive becomes charged with past and future: what was chronos becomes kairos” (46). In this retrospective redemption of boredom, Kermode finds the basic premise of narrativity: a story emerges only with “an escape from chronicity” in the form of an event, which in turn conditions the promise of a resolution: “A significant relation between the moment and a remote origin and end, a concord of past, present, and future” (50). Narrative begins with the disruption of chronos by kairos and reaches its resolution as it moves towards a new state of chronos, whether that be the fullness of the Parousia (in Christian eschatology) or a return to the ordinariness of regular time.3 Narrative thus appears as an “antidote to boredom” in both the simple sense of filling the time (of reading) with interest, and in the elaborate sense of redeeming the chronic temporality of daily experience (Spacks 17).

7This notion of temporal redemption continues to inform a significant swath of our contemporary preoccupation with apocalyptic endings. It is no surprise that significant political actors in the real world have indulged at least the possibility of a world-ending zombie plague: at the same time as Zone One was published, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control launched a public health campaign that used an imagined zombie apocalypse to discuss disaster preparedness (Centers; Good). But the CDC’s campaign also coincided with its denial of rumors that several grisly human-on-human attacks across North America were caused by a zombie virus (Rosenfeld). Despite those official refutations, a small but surprising number of Americans take the threat of an actual zombie apocalypse seriously and literally, and have taken measures to prepare for its eventuality (Sanders; Hogan). In light of the eschatological imaginary sketched above, we can understand this form of disaster preparedness as a sublimated desire to make one’s life meaningful in relation to an imagined apocalyptic event—to turn the alienated labor of daily chronos under capitalism into a purposive activity relative to an anticipated kairotic event. So complete is the alienation of labor, to borrow from Zara Zimbardo, that the only way to redeem it is through the imagination of an alternate reality where the dead literally walk the earth. For these “doomsday preppers,” it is the prospect of fighting off zombie hordes that makes the “one damn thing after another” of ordinary life meaningful; they can proleptically imagine an interesting narrative for their lives. Richard Mitchell’s insightful sociological interpretation of prepper culture makes this clear: “Crises, chaos, even doomsdays have latent allure. Along with uncertainty and danger come opportunities for creative engagement in meaning-filled, concrete work that matters, honest tests of character in contests with the fateful forces of a new age. Survivalism is a celebration of these changes in imaginative narrative and rehearsal” (11). It is the sense of “meaning-filled, concrete work that matters” that connects the doomsday preppers’ lived experience with Kermode’s temporal mythology: the promise of kairotic redemption for the meaningless, alienated labor of the everyday. As Kezia Barker argues:

The prepper also stands for that which has been repressed in late modernity, emerging in a context of a crisis of representation, a yearning for authenticity, for resourcefulness, for personal re-evaluation and meaning, for a hand in economic and cultural crafting. The prepper offers one, albeit flawed, example of how among poorly distributed abundance a subjectivity can be performed that imagines and adjusts to scarcity, where apathy, rather than action, is framed as an irrational response to the reality of our everywhere crises. (494)

8In both Mitchell’s and Barker’s analyses, “meaning” represents a temporalized antidote to the boredom of work, an affective disposition, which is then pathologically projected outwards, towards the world-historical transformation of an imagined apocalyptic event.

9This real-life fantasy of surviving the zombie apocalypse as a way of escaping the tedium of alienated labor has been reinforced by several predominant fictional narratives in the zombie genre. George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) begins with Barbra (Judith O’Dea) observing that clock-time is out of joint: “They ought to make the day the time changes the first day of summer.... It’s eight o’clock and it’s still light.” While she is literally referring to the start of Daylight Savings Time, it is as though the events of the narrative require the suspension of ordinary time and a passage into “Messianic time” turned upside-down (Benjamin 263). Meanwhile, Barbra’s brother Johnny (Russell Streiner), soon to be attacked by the first ghoul they encounter in the cemetery, is more concerned with the tedium of their journey. Fully invested in everyday chronos, he complains, “We’ve still got a three-hour drive back; we’re not going to be home until after midnight.” In Romero and Daniel Kraus’s recent novel The Living Dead (2020), itself a compendium of Romero’s fifty-year zombie fantasia, the disjuncture of ordinary time is updated when one of the novel’s protagonists, a teenage girl named Greer Morgan, loses her cell phone at the outset of the plague (89), signifying that there will be no returning to the tedium of endless social media scrolling. Perhaps the clearest expression of this simultaneous disruption and redemption of chronos by kairos is to be found on the back cover of the collected volumes of Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore’s graphic novel series The Walking Dead (2003–2019):

How many hours are in a day when you don’t spend half of them watching television?
When is the last time any of us REALLY worked to get something we wanted?
How long has it been since any of us really NEEDED something that we WANTED?
The world we knew is gone.
The world of commerce and frivolous necessity has been replaced by a world of survival and responsibility.
An epidemic of apocalyptic proportions has swept the globe causing the dead to rise and feed on the living.
In a matter of months society has crumbled.
No government, no grocery stores, no mail delivery, no cable TV.
In a world ruled by the dead, we are forced to finally start living.

10Leaving aside the deeply conservative ideology of individualist responsibility that runs through this blurb—if not The Walking Dead both in comics and on television, or even the zombie genre as a whole (Crockett and Zarracina)—the point here is that, according to its fictions, the zombie apocalypse is at least supposed to be interesting. It promises to raise us out of the tedium of television, grocery stores, and empty consumptive desires so that “we” can “finally start living.” If the zombie represents the “juncture of the mindless worker and the mindless consumer” (Zimbardo 276), the victim of pure chronos, its deep groan the sign of its unending boredom, then the fantasy of surviving (in) the zombie apocalypse imagines an “escape from chronicity,” a life suddenly rendered meaningful and interesting by the release from the social and economic structures that maintain the drudgery of daily labor. The figure of the zombie, then, simultaneously becomes the poison and the cure: at once a representation of alienated labor (“mindless worker), its supposed palliative antidotes within capitalism (“mindless consumer”), and the catalyst for wresting free from the structures of mindless work and mindless consumption altogether.

3. Apocalypse without End

11Most of Kermode’s literary examples come from the tradition of the high-modernist novel, running about as far as the contemporaneous narrative experiments of Jean-Paul Sartre and Alain Robbe-Grillet. But what happens to the chronos/kairos distinction in our present of neoliberal capitalism, when, as the example of the doomsday prepper suggests, the prospect of world-historical revolutionary transformation has approached its asymptote, and when even redemptive personal meaning appears an ever-retreating horizon? If ours is a time without the prospect of radical transformation, it is also one of seemingly bottomless eventfulness: the sleepless fever-pace of 24/7 networked time (Crary 8–10); the compression of action, event, and response in “real time” analysis (Crang 62–88); the demands of fast capitalism as the erasure of Adorno’s labor/leisure distinction (Agger 219–34); the bottomless distraction of social media preventing us from realizing collective solidarity (Pettman 58); and the emergence of a governmental “survival regime” predicated on endless global instability and (military) intervention (Illas viii). We are bombarded, ceaselessly, by events, crises, and diversions demanding our attention—to the point of a certain tedium. Nonstop eventfulness exhausts our attention; in such a milieu, the distinction between boredom and interest collapses. We scroll through social media in order to distract ourselves from the boredom of work, only to find a new form of boredom in the distraction. And if the boredom/interest distinction served as a proxy for Kermode’s chronos/kairos temporality, then does that, too, not also become equally indeterminate? Does the repetition of kairos in ceaseless events not produce its own form of chronos? We are living in what Robert Hassan describes as a generalized “temporal fragmentation, a smashing of the uniform and universal linearity of the clock into a billion different time contexts” (51). To return to Kermode’s original metaphor, with the smashing of the clock comes the undoing of its tock-tick, his premise for narrativity and eschatological resolution.

12In this new “timescape that is disordered” (Hassan and Purser 14), where boredom and interest, chronos and kairos, are indistinguishable from one another, what remains of the apocalyptic imaginary? Can we have an apocalypse without kairos—or with nothing but kairos? Would either version be anything other than the prospect of an undifferentiated horizon of sameness? And would this not be an apocalypse of unending boredom? We can imagine at least two visions of such an apocalypse. The first would be what Evan Calder Williams calls late capitalism’s “statically catastrophic” collapse in its “sickly frantic state” (4). Such a “general contraction” would leave us with “an end without revelation”:

At the emergent moments of what would come to be called neoliberalism, both its apologists and its antagonistic symptoms—punks—declared there was no future: just the eternal present of this world declaring itself to be the only show in town, even as it veered off the rails. The situation to come is a different no future, the slow entropic loss of energy and profit, coupled with the state’s brutal refusal—and ways of demanding the same of its citizens and subjects—to acknowledge that the eternal present has become an eternal past. (4–5)

  • 4 As Hannah Arendt writes in On Violence, “Only in a world in which nothing of importance ever happen (...)

13The prospect of no future is very much that of no kairotic events, of no emergent revolutionary fullness that could disrupt the order of things. The future is only the future if it is subject to the contingency of events; no future is another way of describing the perfect extrapolation of the present in the predictability of chronos.4

14Alternatively, what if we turned the screw once more, and instead we imagined an event that ends all events, a kind of anti-kairos that resulted not in the fullness of time but its antithesis, an eventless temporality of pure chronos? Jonathan Lear finds such an anti-kairotic temporality in the testimony of the last Crow Chief Plenty Coups: “When the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this, nothing happened. There was little singing anywhere” (qtd. in Lear 2; emphasis added). Plenty Coups’s statement represents the complete inversion of Kermode’s eschatology. He posits an event that: resembles kairos but does not so much initiate narrative as foreclose its possibility; does not redeem the chronic time of boredom so much as permanently install it; and does not lend meaning to durative time so much as signal the end of meaning as such. Lear understands Plenty Coups’s statement as “a retrospective declaration of a moment when history came to an end” (3)—a formulation which, on its surface, seems remarkably similar to Kermode’s eschatological redemption. But it belies an essential difference: the moment of retrospection does not redeem chronic time (“all of that waiting was worth it”) so much as demonstrate how everything that happened after the event was really nothing at all. Even as we may narrate those moments as though they were eventful, in the end—or after the end—they were not. Lear concludes that Plenty Coups’s utterance reflects the absence of narrativity—that after the buffalo were decimated, very little that happened was worth telling (3). If kairos is, for Kermode, the condition of narrative, then the anti-kairos of Plenty Coups would seem to represent its final closure.

15To bring together the diverse strands I have explored here: the Christian apocalyptic tradition has given us an eschatological model predicated on the chronos/kairos distinction, which operates both at the level of world-historical time and individual experience. This distinction persists in the form of prepper fantasies of a zombie apocalypse, where the personal and the world-historical are conflated as a way of imagining oneself as the subject of history. But such a fantasy is a compensatory manifestation of the collapse of this temporal distinction in neoliberal networked time, coupled with (pace Williams and Zimbardo) both the near-total alienation of labor and mindless consumption under late capitalism, where boredom, even in the form of endless distraction, is the rule rather than the exception. The present’s insistence on eventfulness has turned kairos into its opposite and created a distinct boredom out of its supposed antidote. We have entered, then, into an era characterized by its anti-narrativity—a kind of ultimate threshold, indeterminately passed some time ago (cf. McGurl), after which all that remains is Plenty Coups’s dictum: “After this, nothing happened.” Lear seeks to take seriously this dictum as a form of lived temporality (5), and I would contend that Whitehead does too. Boredom is the nexus that conceptually gathers these vectors, and which constitutes the essential Stimmung of Zone One, observable on the levels of both narrative temporality and characterological experience.

4. Dreading Survival

  • 5 For a discussion of montage and boredom in this issue, see Anna Pochmara, “‘I Don’t Think I Have an (...)

16The narrative present of Zone One would seem to take its inspiration from a moment in Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978), where, after a group of survivors has secured a suburban Pittsburg shopping mall by purging it of the undead inside, their leader Peter (Ken Foree) declares, “This place is gonna be rotten. We’ve got to clean it up, brother.” What follows is a montage of Peter and Stephen (David Emge) loading bodies onto palettes and storing them in the mall freezers in order to make the space habitable. Yet what Romero handles in montage—the cinematic syntax for passing time—Whitehead translates into emplotment.5 Omega Unit, comprised of “mediocre specimen” Mark Spitz, Kaitlyn, and Gary (90), are tasked with reclaiming the buildings of lower Manhattan from the zombies, stragglers, and bodies. Even though Mark Spitz fancies himself more than “a mere exterminator eliminating pests” (19), the job is menial, as symbolized by unappealing meals of “breakfast paste” (11). Omega are ultimately working towards the resumed gentrification of Manhattan (35), making the island suitable for “politicians and pro athletes. Those chefs from those cooking shows” (89). Sweeping crews like Omega are even bound by their own “broken windows” policy (75), which hearkens to the actual gentrification of Manhattan since the Giuliani administration of the 1990s (Holtzman). In the same way that, before the zombie plague, Mark Spitz “had always wanted to live in New York” (3), even after reconstruction the pleasures of the city promise to be denied to a day-laborer like him.

17More centrally, the work of Omega Unit is overtly boring. Their superior, the Lieutenant, muses, “Clear some buildings. You have to admit, it passes the time” (271), implying that the survivors have nothing but time in the aftermath of the plague’s harrowing. Whether sweeping exists to pass the time, it certainly brings with it the routinization of labor, and the desire for free time outside of work: “Hard to believe that reconstruction had progressed so far that clock-watching had returned, the slacker’s code, the concept of weekend” (9). Whereas Romero’s characters leave clocks behind to enter apocalyptic temporality, Whitehead’s are bound by them, returning to habits “replete with Monday-morning despair, hump-day torpor, and a fragile strain of muted Friday-afternoon euphoria” (253). So ordinary has become the extraordinary zombie apocalypse that Omega commonly refer to the undead as “weather” (41, 234)—a metaphor also used to denote the burning of bodies (230). The exceptionality of their circumstances has become “the usual helter-skelter” (154). We are back in Kermode’s “one damn thing after another,” in the regular rhythms of chronos that precede, rather than constitute, narrative time.

  • 6 On the closing of the futural horizon in the zombie genre more generally, see Jaffe 105.

18Mark Spitz’s arrival in the Zone, as a sweeper, however, does not mark the beginning of his boredom; rather, contrary to the prepper fantasy of perpetual excitement, Whitehead depicts survival in the wilds of the zombie apocalypse as intensely tedious—or, rather, the particular tedium we have described above as characteristic of our present, in which unending eventfulness turns into boredom and kairos turns into chronos. Hiding, foraging, roaming “from empty house to empty house like the other isolates” (105), ever vigilant for the undead—survival is a life of constant need, the collapse of any futural horizon of hope:6 “If you weren’t concentrating on surviving the next five minutes, you wouldn’t survive them” (32). While one can imagine the characterological experience of such foraging as one of vigilance and intense concentration, Whitehead’s prosody—the flat sarcasm, the cadence, and mildly elevated diction of his sentences—cultivates a Stimmung of boredom. This disjuncture between represented event and representing tone—terror on one level and boredom on the other, in ceaseless oscillation—reflects the collapse of Kermode’s chronos/kairos temporality. A world in which “a rusty machete and a bag of almonds made you a person of substance” is closer to Hobbes’s famous description of the state of nature as a “continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” (64)—which even Hobbes recognized as tedious: “No account of time; no arts; no letters” (64). Mark Spitz juxtaposes his lived experience of survival with his imagination of it as exciting and eventful, derived from movies:

As a kid he’d invented scenarios for adulthood: to outrun a fireball, swing across the air shaft on a wire, dismember the gargoyle army with the enchanted blade that only he could wield. Now he was grown up and the plague had granted him his wish and rendered it a silly grotesque. It was not so glamorous to spend two days doubled over, shitting your guts out because you’d gambled on the expired bottle of kiwi juice. All the other kids turned out to be postal workers, roofers, beloved teachers, and died. Mark Spitz was living the dream! (244)

19Nowhere is the tedium of survival clearer than in Mark Spitz’s time with Mim in the toy store. Even though his encounter with Mim constitutes a rare and genuinely meaningful human connection, their daily life together, holed up in a toy store for the winter months (240), is marked by extended periods with nothing to do, punctuated by moments of sheer terror. Whitehead asks us to imagine this time in its unceasing boredom: “They read and played games. The place was lousy with board games, of course, the childhood stalwarts, and the modern abstrusities with mind-bending premises and loopy procedures. Every week or two they passed whipped-cream canisters back and forth and huffed until they felt their brain cells pop like soap bubbles” (243). This counts as an idyll in Whitehead’s apocalypse.

  • 7 For a thoroughgoing consideration of this habituating process in the context of literature, see Clu (...)

20This particular mixture of “impregnable boredom” and routinized “fear and danger” (226, 196) in Zone One has a name: dread (87, 183). Not Kierkegaardian angst so much as the continuous experience of terror, to the point of habituation: captivity and torture, prolonged bombing, genocidal occupation, racist policing of communities, or endurance of pandemic would all provoke this same sense of routinized fear. Dread is the inverted image of endless distraction: it retains the repetition of eventfulness that marks its tedium but suffuses it with terror. To borrow from neuroscience, in dread the rush of adrenaline becomes habituated to lose its effect (Thompson and Spencer), and repeated exposure to a stressor becomes routinized (Grissom and Bhatnagar): that which used to produce novelty, excitement, and interest, even negatively, becomes a source of boredom through its chronic repetition.7 I think that Whitehead’s essential insight in Zone One lies in naming this especially contemporary phenomenological experience; once its contours are adumbrated, we recognize it as the latent condition of a culture where anesthetizing hypermediation coexists with the ever-present prospect of absolute violence. Whitehead emphasizes the attenuated temporality of this dread: “Listening, ever listening for footsteps. The insomniac’s brutal scenario had become the encompassing reality across the planet. There were hours when every last person on Earth thought they were the last person on Earth, and it was precisely this thought of final, irrevocable isolation that united them all” (108). As anyone who has spent a sleepless night watching the clock can attest, insomnia slows time down tremendously: “Time slowed down in situations like this, to grant dread a bigger stage” (20). The passing of time is all there is, but here with an added dose of what Gumbrecht calls “latency” (After 23), the sublimated terror of waiting for inevitable violence. The universal sense of isolation connects dread to the novel’s imagined Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder (67)—“everyone was fucked up in their own way” (37)—which manifestly summons the logic of trauma, itself conditioned on a repetition of terror (Caruth 11). Such dread, distributed across a population, returns us to the temporality of Plenty Coups’s proclamation: “Normal meant ‘the past.’ Normal was the unbroken idyll of life before. The present was a series of intervals differentiated from each other only by the degree of dread they contained. The future? The future was the clay in their hands” (Whitehead 81). The optimistic note at the end here reads as “pheenie bullshit” (32), the officially sanctioned optimism of the reconstruction; and the past/PASD homophony suggests that the past is far from idealized, but instead a return of past horrors (69). We are left, then, with a dreadful temporality entirely deprived of eventfulness, and yet horrible to endure.

21The second distinctive feature of dread in Zone One is the leveling off of what Hubert Dreyfus would call “meaningful differences” (“Holism” 3), the cultural poles that make possible exemplary forms of life. Dread replaces such meaningful differences with an unending sameness. Whereas Dreyfus would say, for example, that the ancient Greeks offered a world organized by the difference between heroes and slaves, the postapocalyptic world of Whitehead’s novel contains no such differences at all: “This was his world now, in all its sublime crumminess, where intellect and ingenuity and talent were as equally meaningless as stubbornness, cowardice, and stupidity” (182). Such sameness not only forecloses the options for human flourishing but flattens daily experience. Mark Spitz eschews the prospect of returning to survival foraging because it entails “mov[ing] through a single infernal subdivision without outlet, serried cul-de-sacs and dead-ends overlooking broken land,” with one house the same as the next (227). To stick with Dreyfus’s terminology, if worldhood is our totality of meaningful involvements (Being 91–96)—from hammers and chairs to spheres of sociality—then in the experience of dread, those involvements drop away (Being 178–181); the “stuff” of the world is still there, but it loses its significance. In dread, I can cognize what a hammer is and how to use it, but I cannot see any reason why that would ever be a meaningful thing for anyone to do. Dreyfus makes this claim about anxiety in Heidegger’s Being and Time, but, mutatis mutandis, the same would hold true for Heidegger’s characterization of “profound” boredom in The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics as one of Dasein’s fundamental attunements: “The whole situation and we ourselves as this individual subject are thereby indifferent, indeed this boredom does not even let it get to the point where such things are of any particular worth to us.... It takes us back to the point where all and everything appears indifferent to us” (137). By emphasizing dread as a phenomenon that thwarts the boredom/interest dichotomy, using repeated terror as a source of tedium, Whitehead gives the lie to the zombie-preppers’ fantasy of an interesting apocalypse. Instead of Kirkman’s demand that we “start living,” Whitehead offers us a life barely worth living at all.

5. Dreadful Narration

  • 8 Perhaps the clearest example of this quasi-verisimilitude is the central address of part 1, 135 Dua (...)

22So far, we have largely been exploring dread as a characterological phenomenon, something experienced by Mark Spitz, Omega Unit, and the rest of Zone One’s intradiegetic world; what about our experience as readers? How does Whitehead instantiate dread at the level of narrative form? I will work outward from the leveling of meaningful differences we just explored: one of the most noticeable features of Zone One is what can be described as its quasi-verisimilitude—its clear invocation of a world of familiar referents, which are deprived of the particularity that situates them in our world. Commercial and media objects—rendered obsolete by the zombie plague—are described generically, such that readers recognize them both because and in spite of their namelessness. For instance, the narrative voice will refer to “the best-selling spreadsheet program” rather than Microsoft Excel (100); “a popular doughnut-and-coffee concern” rather than Dunkin Donuts (143); “a coffee multinational” rather than Starbucks (184); “the national budget-hotel chain” rather than Motel 6 (318)—the list goes on. Admittedly, some of these generic descriptors are less definite (viz., “the specialty sandwich at the fast-food chain” might refer to McDonald’s McRib, any number of chicken sandwiches from Burger King, or the latest flavor of the month from Subway [298]), but that is precisely the point. Whitehead’s narrative voice renders our familiar world blurry, seen through a glass darkly.8 It offers enough detail for us to get a toe-hold in the commonplace, only to deny us the security of definitive reference. This is Dreyfus’s leveling of meaningful differences: the world is still there, but all of the particular intentions and associations that make it meaningful (“I love the coffee at Dunkin Donuts!”) are sloughed off, rendered superfluous not only to the world within the narrative but to the narrative voice itself.

  • 9 The German word Unheimlichkeit captures this sense of uncanniness. For a well-known reading of Unhe (...)

23In this way, the narrative voice enacts a type of uncanniness similar to what Mark Spitz feels when walking in the Zone: he inhabits a ghost-world, parallel but not identical to the one we are familiar with, loosed of the reliable anchors of worldhood.9 The city block containing 135 Duane Street appears to him as a holdover from the world before the plague: “It was any city block on a normal day of that expired calendar, five minutes before dawn, say, when most of the city was still sleeping it off.... From time to time Mark Spitz happened on these places in Zone One, where he strolled down a movie set, earning scale as an extra in a period piece about the dead world” (79). The “obsolete world” continually intrudes, a spectral overlay in the perception of the “soldiers of the new circumstance” (39)—and in our readerly encounter with Whitehead’s text. In the same way that the narrative voice in the novel’s opening pages deploys ghoulish metaphors to describe the streets of Manhattan, those same metaphors invert to describe the undead as the city’s new “tourists” and commuters (92, 117). Even as the text asserts the kairos of Last Night—“transforming them all” (31)—its metaphors and analogies continually overwrite the event, blurring the boundary between before and after. We as readers are positioned similarly to Mark Spitz, standing in the empty franchise restaurant steeped in “the nostalgia industry,” under the vertigo of “other lives that were now pushing into this one” (189, 191):

He grew dizzy in his mesh. He felt like a little kid who’d split for the restroom and then forgot where his parents were sitting. Another family had replaced his own when he reached the table, no kin of his at all, they hailed from the badlands, sizing him up, suspicious and foreign. An elemental horror roiled in his skull and he swiveled his head, sweeping his light across the darkness and dust. Search as he might, this time he was not going to find them. (191–92)

24This is the Stimmung conjured by Whitehead’s prose, smearing across and simultaneously undoing the temporal distinctions of pre- and postapocalyptic imaginaries, leaving us with a deadened mood of indifference to the event that separates them.

  • 10 The distinction I am aiming for here is more clearly captured in a language like French, where l’im (...)
  • 11 The style I am observing here is similar to what Genette finds in Proust’s use of intrusive memorie (...)
  • 12 I have in mind some particularly harrowing passages from The Underground Railroad (2016), where hor (...)

25In a similar vein, the novel’s narrative voice tends to elide the direct telling of events; it represents truly horrific experiences with diegesis rather than mimesis, recounted rather than shown, distancing the reader from their eventfulness (Genette 162–64). Even though the narrative voice is focalized through the consciousness of Mark Spitz, a technique that Gérard Genette claims is designed to minimize readerly distance (168), the depredations of the plague are related through the haziness of his memory, part of a habitual rather than narrative past.10 This is one of the most pervasive aspects of Whitehead’s style,11 in Zone One and elsewhere in his oeuvre,12 so we will confine ourselves to a few examples:

First time he saw someone get pinned by a group of them was in the early days, must have been, because he was still trying to get out of his neighborhood.... The old man ran faster, veering to arc around them, but he didn’t make it. Dark aviator glasses covered his eyes and he had a wireless rig stuck in his ear, into which he narrated his progress. Was the old man actually talking to someone? The phones were dead, all the stalwart and dependable networks had ceased to be, but maybe the authorities were fixing things out there, Mark Spitz remembered thinking, the government was getting control. Authority laying on hands. Two of them got the old man down and then all of them were on him like ants who received a chemical telegram about a lollipop on the sidewalk. There was no way the old man could get up. It was quick. They each grabbed a limb or convenient point of purchase while he screamed. They began to eat him, and his screaming brought more of them teetering down the street. All over the world this was happening: a group of them hears food at the same time and they twist their bodies in unison, that dumb choreography. A cord of blood zipped up out of their huddle, hanging—that’s how he always recalled it, that’s what he saw as he ducked down behind the cinder blocks and watched. A length of red string pinned briefly to the air, until the wind knocked it away. They didn’t fight over the old man. They each got a piece. Of course there couldn’t have been anyone at the other end of the call because the phones never came back on. The old man had been barking into the void. (22–24)

26Here, the narration of a singular event is rendered blurry by narratorial diegesis; we are not presented with the event as much as its recounting in memory (“must have been,” “that’s how he always recalled it”). Style indirect libre is deployed for Mark Spitz’s retrospective commentary (“was the old man actually talking to someone?,” “of course there couldn’t have been anyone at the other end”) as it has sedimented through repeated retelling. We have an event, but it is presented with a minimum of scene or “detailed narrative” (Genette 166). Instead, it is narrated as a précis—the synopsis of a scene that, from the movies that comprise the bulk of the zombie genre, we expect to see in immediate form.

27This is the dominant narrative mode of Zone One: not the presentation of events but rather the presentation of their having-been-told, of the way they have been shared among the survivors. Gary’s Last Night story is presented entirely in the narrative voice, ranging summarily over many hours’ worth of events (125–26) with a high degree of what Genette would call “narrative speed” (166). So is Kaitlyn’s (293–97). Inasmuch as the narrative perspective is focalized through Mark Spitz, we come to recognize that we are getting an account of an account, the relating of how a story was told to him, not the “showing” of the story “itself.” But even Mark Spitz’s Last Night story (81–88), ostensibly capable of more detail by belonging to the focalizing consciousness, is told in this manner. This is also true for the story of how he got his nickname, punctuated only by a handful of interventions from Gary (167–83). In both instances, narrative focalization does not take us into Mark Spitz’s memories so much as into the stories he tells, to himself and others, of those memories. There are, of course, exceptions: much of the action in the narrative present is told with a higher degree of mimesis (more direct dialogue, etc.)—but this is also predominantly the time of the characters’ workaday boredom.

28These origin stories are told, in the famous parlance of Seinfeld, with a “yada yada yada” that eliminates narrative detail for the sake of avoiding boredom (cf. Shrieves), because the audience can fill in the predictable details: “At their core, Last Night stories were all the same: They came, we died, I started running” (138). The trauma of survival—what for Caruth would constitute a primary engine of narrativity as such (5–7)—is rendered unnecessary for its ubiquity. No one’s stories are worth telling because “they’d all done the same things during the miseries” (108). One could also say this about the zombie genre as a whole, with a relatively stable canon of tropes and narrative moves. In this regard, Last Night “had a knack for narrative closure” (160): the last story that anyone can tell but also the story of an event that is not worth telling. Last Night is Whitehead’s version of “after this, nothing happened.” It brings an end to all storytelling: “It was impossible to find a gossip magazine or newsweekly that had been published beyond a certain date. There was no more gossip and no more news” (12–13). Books are burned during the plague (242), and “all the writers were busy pouring jugs of kerosene on the heaps of the dead, pitching in for a change” (51). Despite Mark Spitz’s imagination of apocalypse in Hollywood narrative terms—“he was the one left to explain it all to the skeptical world after the end credits” (166)—Last Night reduces all stories to anecdotes (59, 138–39), temporary amusements to pass the time. Even as the long version of Mark Spitz’s Last Night story (“the Obituary,” 138 and passim) promises the permanence of historical witnessing—“when you were long disappeared and a stranger took the time to say your name” (139)—he knows that such testimony is ephemeral: “Ever since the soldiers rescued him, he started losing them, the names. They were dust in his pocket” (247).

6. Straggling towards Narrative

  • 13 Admittedly, there are analogues for the straggler elsewhere in popular zombie mythology. Romero mak (...)

29Zone One is thus profoundly anti-, or perhaps post-, narrative, both (to stick with Genette’s narratology) intra- and extra-diegetically, for characters and readers alike. Whitehead suggests that this is very much our world in the present through one of the signal innovations of Zone One: the straggler, a type of zombie who remains fixed in place, apparently in reverie for their “perfect moment” (196).13 Whitehead’s stragglers resist narrative in their own way; even though the logic of their chosen locations can be intuited because “their lives had been an interminable loop of repeated gestures” (62), exact reasons remain obscure: “The why was always somewhere else.... There was no one there to tell [their] story” (64–65). Mark Spitz also muses that being a straggler must be exceptionally boring:

The plague stopped the heart, one’s essence sloughed off the pathetic human meat and dog-paddled through the ectoplasm or whatever, and then the plague restarted the heart. What kind of cruel deity granted a glimpse of the angelic sphere, only to yank it away and condemn you to a monster’s vantage? Sentenced you to observe the world through the sad aperture of the dead, suffer the gross parody of your existence. (282)

30“The sad aperture of the dead” is our ordinary life of routinized experience in late capitalism; while stragglers compose only an “aberrant fraction” of the undead in the novel (317), the Lieutenant speculates about the possibility of a world of stragglers:

Help me out, picture ninety-nine percent straggler. Never mind how everyone’d get bit—let’s say it was airborne instead. What would we do with them? All these skels standing around. Can’t cure them. Bring ’em home into “familiar surroundings” and they’d probably just get up and walk back to where you found them. You leave them there, it seems to me. Wherever they chose. Let them sit in the cubicles, let them ride the bus all day and night and in the depot after hours. Chillin’ on the beach catching some rays. They don’t know what’s going on—they probably think it’s business as usual. Going about their day like they always did. (194–95)

31The Lieutenant is imagining a world that is very much like the one we inhabit now—“after a while you wouldn’t even notice them” (196). Stragglers are afforded gender, while skels are not, suggesting their closer proximity to the living (102); they “looked like regular people” (107). Mark Spitz fancies himself as a straggler inside the restaurant (192), and the Lieutenant suggests that the entire reclamation operation of the Zone is staffed by “a bunch of stragglers. Welcome to the team” (123). In the same way that Whitehead’s quasi-verisimilitude presents us with a recognizable but distinct version of the furniture of the world, the straggler is his way of seeing ourselves through the looking glass. We have met the stragglers, and they are us.

32This set of equivalences between straggler and “normal” person thus suggests that Whitehead is diagnosing our historical present as resistant to narrative, similar to Fredric Jameson’s estimation that for us “time consists in an eternal present,” without “any sense of an immediate future and of imaginable change.... We are like people only able to remember their distant pasts, who have lost the whole dimension of the recent and the most familiar” (70–71). Mapping this diagnosis back onto Kermode’s chronos/kairos narrative model, in which narrative closure traditionally establishes a new state of chronos, it would be tempting to think about Zone One’s postapocalypticism as taking place after the narrative proper, after the oft-elided events of the kairos, in that time of closure—in this case, not the Arcadia of “ever after” so much as “the faint residue of humanity stuck to the sides of the world” (32), a whimper rather than a bang. Such is also the fear and sadness of Plenty Coups, whose proclamation worries that the Crow are now outside of events worthy of being told. For Whitehead’s survivors, “it was not hard to see the inhabitants of the camps devolve into demented relics too damaged to do anything more than dwindle into extinction in a generation or two” (171). The novel’s narrative present is all denouement, literally sweeping up the stage after the sound and fury of performance.

33So what remains after the end? Whitehead offers two competing visions to this apparently permanent postnarrative condition. The first, and certainly the more grim option, is the work of the Reconstruction; headquartered, coincidentally enough, in Buffalo, New York, it embodies the failure of historical imagination, with a combination of neoliberal private sponsorship (cf. Sollazzo 466–68), bureaucratic efficiency, and a politics of spectacle (e.g., Ms. Macy’s search for a hotel for the next summit on the basis of “the symbolism alone” [208]). Buffalo is less a radical re-construction than a restoration of the previous order, arising “from the amino-acid pool of madness” to assure the survivors that “you knew where you stood” (111). If narrative is one way of rendering an undifferentiated “eversame” of “one damn thing after another” meaningful, then Buffalo represents another possibility: “The System” (21), an agentless ordering that lives on, like a zombie, far after its purpose or utility—“systems die hard”—and produces “a well-organized muck with a hierarchy, accountability, and, increasingly, paperwork” (201). Systematization transforms the historical contingency of Plenty Coups’s dictum into a rule. This, suggests Whitehead, is the dream of neoliberal capital: a world without events, and thus entirely subject to the laws of quantitative measurement and accurate return on investment. It is also a world of perfectly ordered walls; but, as Zone One insists, the walls always fail, “the rules [break] down” (110).

34The second option, and the one that I contend Whitehead ultimately endorses, is another kind of postnarrativity, in which we are asked to imagine that final chronos not as an end but as a beginning, an opening towards something that may or may not follow traditional narrative logic. The chronos of the novel’s narrative present is incipient rather than conclusive but does not offer simply a precondition for a new narrative according to its familiar patterns and tropes. The collapse of Kermode’s chronos/kairos narrative model does not presage some bootstrapping reassertion of kairos so much as the emergence of something else entirely, a new kind of storytelling. When Mark Spitz imagines himself in the traditional apocalyptic movies of his youth, he ultimately invests not in surviving the event but in what comes after: “By his sights, the real movie started after the first one ended, in the impossible return to things before” (166). Zone One occupies that space of impossible return; its variegated forms of boredom no longer symptomize the success or failure of narrative (cf. Spacks 1–2), but instead transform the suspense of dread into the anticipation of expectation:

He didn’t know if the world was doomed or saved, but whatever the next thing was, it would not look like what came before. There were no intersections with the avenues of Buffalo’s shimmering reconstructions, its boulevards did not cross their simulations and dioramas of futurity. It refused the shapes Mark Spitz conjured in his visions of reinvention in the big city. (320)

35The fantasies of constant novelty offered within the existing social order of late capitalism themselves become repetitive and boring (e.g. 6, 315); and yet the postnarrative moment looks and feels remarkably similar: “The world wasn’t ending: it had ended and now they were in a new place. They could not recognize it because they had never seen it before” (321). The contours of that unrecognizable future are presaged by the Quiet Storm, one of Mark Spitz’s coworkers in “loathsome Connecticut” clearing cars from the interstate (150), who takes it upon herself to arrange them in inscrutable patterns at the roadside: “We don’t know how to read it yet” (290). While critics such as Hoberek have emphasized the linguistic inscrutability of the Quiet Storm’s hieroglyphs in this passage (“Living” 413), I want to attend to its equally cryptic grammar, syntax, and schema; reading is more than deciphering symbols, entailing a host of culturally determined codes, conventions, and practices. We need not prepare for the apocalypse to come so much as recognize how that futural imaginary—of the doomsday preppers as much as of capitalism’s endless “progress”—blinds us to the one that has already occurred. The narrative forms that delighted Kermode and Genette may no longer suffice; rather than anticipating the kairos of an event, Whitehead leaves us having transformed boredom, with Jameson, from the groan of the zombie or the sigh of exhaustion, into “a kind of breathlessness, as we listen for the missing next tick of the clock, the absent first step of renewed praxis” (71).

Top of page


Adorno, Theodor. “Free Time.” The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture, edited by J.M. Bernstein, Routledge, 1991, pp. 187–97.

Agger, Ben. “Time Robbers, Time Rebels: Limits to Fast Capital.” 24/7: Time and Temporality in the Network Society, edited by Robert Hassan and Ronald E. Purser, Stanford UP, 2007, pp. 219–234.

Arendt, Hannah. On Violence. Harcourt Brace and Company, 1970.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Translated by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist, U of Texas P, 1981.

Barker, Kezia. “How to Survive the End of the Future: Preppers, Pathology, and the Everyday Crisis of Insecurity.” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, vol. 45, no. 2, 2020, pp. 483–96.

Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. Translated by Harry Zohn, Schocken Books, 1968.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Zombie Preparedness.” Center for Preparedness and Response, 23 Feb. 2021, Accessed 15 Nov. 2021.

Caruth, Cathy. Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History. The Johns Hopkins UP, 1996.

Clune, Michael. Writing Against Time. Stanford UP, 2013.

Crang, Mike. “Speed=Distance/Time: Chronotopographies of Action.” 24/7: Time and Temporality in the Network Society, edited by Robert Hassan and Ronald E. Purser, Stanford UP, 2007, pp. 62–88.

Crary, Jonathan. 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep. Verso, 2014.

Crockett, Zachary, and Javier Zarracina. “How the Zombie Represents America’s Deepest Fears.” Vox, 31 Oct. 2016, Accessed 15 Nov. 2021.

Dreyfus, Hubert L. Being-in-the-World: A Commentary on Heidegger’s Being and Time, Division I. MIT P, 1991.

Dreyfus, Hubert L. “Holism and Hermeneutics.” The Review of Metaphysics, vol. 34, no. 1, 1980, pp. 3–23.

Duncan, Glen. “A Plague of Urban Undead in Lower Manhattan.” New York Times, 28 Oct. 2011, Accessed 15 Nov. 2021.

Ferrari, Anna. “Not Moving While the World Falls Apart: Living in Quotes in John Weir’s The Irreversible Decline of Eddie Socket.” European Journal of American Studies, vol. 17, no. 4, 2022.

Forsberg, Soren. “Don’t Believe Your Eyes: A Review of Colson Whitehead’s Zone One (2011).” Transition, no. 109, 2012, pp. 131–43.

Genette, Gérard. Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method. Translated by Jane E. Lewin, Cornell UP, 1980.

Good, Chris. “Why Did the CDC Develop a Plan for a Zombie Apocalypse?” The Atlantic, 20 May 2011, Accessed 15 Nov. 2021.

Grissom, Nicola, and Seema Bhatnagar. “Habituation to Repeated Stress: Get Used to It.” Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, vol. 92, no. 2, 2009, pp. 215–24.

Gumbrecht, Hans Ulrich. After 1945: Latency as Origin of the Present. Stanford UP, 2013.

---. Atmosphere, Mood, Stimmung: On a Hidden Potential of Literature. Stanford UP, 2012.

Hassan, Robert. “Network Time.” 24/7: Time and Temporality in the Network Society, edited by Robert Hassan and Ronald E. Purser, Stanford UP, 2007, pp. 37–51.

---, and Ronald E. Purser. “Introduction.” 24/7: Time and Temporality in the Network Society, edited by Robert Hassan and Ronald E. Purser, Stanford UP, 2007, pp. 1–24.

Heidegger, Martin. The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics: World—Finitude—Solitude. Translated by William McNeill and Nicholas Walker, Indiana UP, 1995.

Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan, or, The Matter, Form, and Power of a Commonwealth Ecclesiastical and Civil. 4th. ed., George Routledge and Sons, 1894.

Hoberek, Andrew. “Living with PASD.” Contemporary Literature, vol. 53, no. 2, 2012, pp. 406–13.

---. “The Post-Apocalyptic Present.” Public Books, 15 Jun. 2015, Accessed 15 Nov. 2021.

Hogan, Ron. “The Walking Dead vs. Real-Life Survivalists: How to Prep for The Zombie Apocalypse.” Den of Geek, 2 Oct. 2020, Accessed 15 Nov. 2021.

Holtzman, Ben. “Gentrification’s First Victims.” Jacobin, 13 May 2016, Accessed 15 Nov. 2021.

Hurley, Jessica. “History Is What Bites.” Extrapolation, vol. 56, no. 3, 2015, pp. 311–33.

Illas, Edgar. The Survival Regime: Global War and the Political. Routledge, 2019.

Jaffe, Aaron. “Zombie Demographics.” The Year’s Work at the Zombie Research Center, edited by Edward P. Comentale and Aaron Jaffe, Indiana UP, 2014, pp. 89–115.

Jameson, Fredric. The Seeds of Time. Columbia UP, 1994.

Jentsch, Ernst. “On the Psychology of the Uncanny (1906).” Translated by Roy Sellars, Angelaki, vol. 2, no. 1, 1997, pp. 7–16.

Kaltenbach, Chris. “‘28 Days Later’ Will Get Under Your Skin.” Baltimore Sun, 27 Jun. 2003, Accessed 15 Nov. 2021.

Kermode, Frank. The Sense of an Ending. Oxford UP, 1967.

Kirkman, Robert and Tony Moore. The Walking Dead, Volume 1: Days Gone Bye. Image Comics, 2004.

Lanzendörfer, Tim. “The Politics of Genre Fiction: Colson Whitehead’s Zone One.” C21 Literature, vol. 3, no. 1, 2014, pp. 39–52.

Lear, Jonathan. Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation. Harvard UP, 2006.

McDonagh, Maitland. “28 Days Later: Review.” TV Guide, 2002,

McGurl, Mark. “Zombie Renaissance.” n+1, no. 9, Spring 2010, Accessed 15 Nov. 2021.

Mitchell, Richard G. Dancing at Armageddon: Survivalism and Chaos in Modern Times. U of Chicago P, 2002.

Musvik, Victoria. “‘Boring Photography’: American New Topographics, Socialist Boredom, and Post-Soviet Deadpan Photography.” European Journal of American Studies, vol. 17, no. 4, 2022.

Mori, Masahiro. “The Uncanny Valley.” Energy, vol. 7, no. 4, 1970, pp. 33–35.

Osmond, Andrew. “In the Hot Zone.” Cinefantastique, June-July 2003, pp. 38–40.

Pettman, Dominic. Infinite Distraction: Paying Attention to Social Media. Wiley, 2016.

Pochmara Anna. “‘I Don’t Think I Have an Attention Span for Real Life Anymore’: Excessive Stimulation, Sense of Meaninglessness, and Boredom in Sam Levinson’s Euphoria.European Journal of American Studies, vol. 17, no. 4, 2022.

Romero, George A., dir. Night of the Living Dead. Walter Reade Organization, 1968.

---, dir. Dawn of the Dead. Laurel Group, 1978.

Romero, George, and Daniel Kraus. The Living Dead. Tom Doherty Associates, 2020.

Rosenfeld, Everett. “CDC to America: There is No Zombie Apocalypse.” Time, 4 Jun. 2012, Accessed 15 Nov. 2021.

Saldívar, Ramón. “The Second Elevation of the Novel: Race, Form, and the Postrace Aesthetic in Contemporary Narrative.” Narrative, vol. 21, no. 1, 2013, pp. 1–18.

Sanders, Linley. “14% of Americans Have a Zombie Apocalypse Plan.” YouGovAmerica, 1 Oct. 2019, Accessed 15 Nov. 2021.

Sollazzo, Erica. “‘The Dead City’: Corporate Anxiety and the Post-Apocalyptic Vision in Colson Whitehead’s Zone One.” Law & Literature, vol. 29, no. 3, 2017, pp. 457–83.

Shrieves, Linda. “Yada, Yada, Yada—Our Favorite Phrase of the Moment Has Been Around Longer Than You Know.” Orlando Sentinel, 14 Jun. 1997, p. E2. NewsBank: America’s News, Accessed 15 Nov. 2021.

Spacks, Patricia Meyer. Boredom: The Literary History of a State of Mind. U of Chicago P, 1995.

Swanson, Carl Joseph. “‘The Only Metaphor Left’: Colson Whitehead’s Zone One and Zombie Narrative Form.” Genre, vol. 47, no. 3, 2014, pp. 379–405.

Thompson, Richard F., and William A. Spencer. “Habituation: A Model Phenomenon for the Study of Neuronal Substrates of Behavior.” Psychological Review, vol. 73, no. 1, 1966, pp. 16–43.

Whitehead, Colson. The Underground Railroad. Doubleday, 2016.

---. Zone One. Anchor Books, 2012.

Williams, Evan Calder. Combined and Uneven Apocalypse. Zero Books, 2011.

Zimbardo, Zara. “It Is Easier to Imagine the Zombie Apocalypse than to Imagine the End of Capitalism.” Censored 2015: Inspiring We the People; The Top Censored Stories and Media Analysis of 2013–2014, edited by Mickey Huff and Andy Lee Roth, Seven Stories Press, 2014, pp. 269–94.

Top of page


1 I recognize that, for genre purists, to call the infected horde of Boyle’s film “zombies” is incorrect since they are not dead and yet animate, i.e., undead but rather living vectors for a disease. The term “zombie” comes up frequently enough in connection to 28 Days Later… (e.g., Osmond; Kaltenbach), however, that my usage here is forgivable.

2 Soren Forsberg’s review elucidates Zone One’s dashing of readerly expectations: “As scores of disgruntled readers have already pointed out in reviews on, Zone One doesn’t adhere much to the gold standard of zombie stories, failing to deliver, as these readers contend, the sort of plot that will whiten your knuckles and grease up your paws. These readers are right” (134).

3 My deep thanks to Mitchell Breitweiser of the University of California at Berkeley for illuminating this idea for me many years ago.

4 As Hannah Arendt writes in On Violence, “Only in a world in which nothing of importance ever happens could the futurologists’ dream come true” (7).

5 For a discussion of montage and boredom in this issue, see Anna Pochmara, “‘I Don’t Think I Have an Attention Span for Real Life Anymore’: Excessive Stimulation, Sense of Meaninglessness, and Boredom in Sam Levinson’s Euphoria.

6 On the closing of the futural horizon in the zombie genre more generally, see Jaffe 105.

7 For a thoroughgoing consideration of this habituating process in the context of literature, see Clune, especially ch. 1.

8 Perhaps the clearest example of this quasi-verisimilitude is the central address of part 1, 135 Duane Street in Manhattan. In the world of the novel, this is a towering office building, where Mark Spitz encounters the Marge of Human Resources, who nearly kills him; in our world, at the time of this writing, it appears to be a Greek restaurant. It is precisely this kind of pseudo-reference—a recognizable address easily searched on Google Maps, and yet utterly different from that depicted in the novel—that comprises the quasi-reality effect I am trying to document here.

9 The German word Unheimlichkeit captures this sense of uncanniness. For a well-known reading of Unheimlichkeit in terms of doubling, uncertainty, and indecidability, see Jentsch. For the figure of the zombie in relation to uncanniness, see Mori.

10 The distinction I am aiming for here is more clearly captured in a language like French, where l’imparfait functions for the narration of repeated action, instead of the passé simple of discrete events. I am contending that most of the narration in Zone One would have the modality of the imperfect, even when recounting singular events that should belong in the passé simple.

11 The style I am observing here is similar to what Genette finds in Proust’s use of intrusive memories, which are both recounted (diegesis) and yet impinging on Marcel’s consciousness in the narrative present (mimesis). Genette finds in this technique a subversion of the diegesis/mimesis distinction:

Nothing is more intense than this vision of the father, ‘an immense figure in his white nightshirt, crowned with the pink and violet scarf of Indian cashmere in which... he used to tie up his head,’ candle in hand, with his fantastic reflection on the wall of the staircase, and the child's sobs, so long suppressed, bursting out when he is alone once more with his mother. But at the same time nothing is more explicitly mediated, avouched as memory, and as memory both very old and very recent, perceptible anew after years of oblivion, now that ‘life is more quiet’ around a narrator on the threshold of death. It cannot be said that this narrator here lets the story tell itself, and it would be too little to say that he tells it without any care to efface himself before it: what we are dealing with is not the story, but the story’s ‘image,’ its trace in a memory. But this trace, so delayed, so remote so indirect, is also the presence itself. In this mediated intensity is a paradox which, quite obviously, is such only according to the norms of mimetic theory: a decisive transgression, a rejection pure and simple—as we watch—of the millennial opposition between diegesis and mimesis. (167–68)

12 I have in mind some particularly harrowing passages from The Underground Railroad (2016), where horrific events are narrated with a flat, matter-of-fact tone that renders them ordinary, expected, part of the routinized trauma of slavery. To wit:

On the second day a band of visitors arrived in a carriage, august souls from Atlanta and Savannah. Swell ladies and gentlemen that Terrance had met on his travels, as well as a newspaperman from London come to report on the American scene. They ate at a table set up on the lawn, savoring Alice’s turtle soup and mutton and devising compliments for the cook, who would never receive them. Big Anthony was whipped for the duration of their meal, and they ate slow. The newspaperman scribbled on paper between bites. Dessert came and the revelers moved inside to be free of the mosquitoes while Big Anthony’s punishment continued.
On the third day, just after lunch, the hands were recalled from the fields, the washwomen and cooks and stable hands interrupted from their tasks, the house staff diverted from its maintenance. They gathered on the front lawn. Randall’s visitors sipped spiced rum as Big Anthony was doused with oil and roasted. The witnesses were spared his screams, as his manhood had been cut off on the first day, stuffed in his mouth, and sewn in. The stocks smoked, charred, and burned, the figures in the wood twisting in the flames as if alive. (46–47)

Here, the spectacle of Big Anthony’s torture and murder are related without commentary or even evaluative description. Even as the narrative voice presumes the perspective of the slave Cora, it also assumes the interpellation of her subjugation so that the event is made quotidian. Whitehead’s Stimmung of boredom is palpable even in this most tension-laden of moments.

13 Admittedly, there are analogues for the straggler elsewhere in popular zombie mythology. Romero makes them central to Survival of the Dead (2009), in which a group of survivors encounter a small community where the dead are very much still performing routine tasks. This could be seen as an elaboration of Peter’s famous explanation for zombies migrating to the shopping mall in Dawn of the Dead: “Some kind of instinct. Memory of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives.” They also show up in the last section of Romero and Kraus’s The Living Dead, where a zombie known as The Chief sits predictably atop a mailbox (520-522). In Kirkman’s The Walking Dead, they are also attested as “lurkers,” but they make only occasional appearances throughout the series.

Top of page


Electronic reference

Mark Pedretti, Tedium and Terror: Dreading Narration in Colson Whitehead’s Zone OneEuropean journal of American studies [Online], 17-4 | 2022, Online since 26 December 2022, connection on 21 February 2024. URL:; DOI:

Top of page

About the author

Mark Pedretti

Mark Pedretti is an Assistant Professor of English at Providence College based in Providence, Rhode Island. Previously, he taught at Case Western Reserve University and directed the writing program at Claremont Graduate University. He has published on Zombies, the works of Doris Lessing, and academic writing programs.

Top of page



The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

Top of page
Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search