It was late in the literary reception, the cheese tray depleted, the room just starting to empty—the small, high-ceilinged room, warm with breath and bodies—when a poet said to me, “You write about science. Should we be worried about this coronavirus thing?”
I disavowed expertise, as I always do: My wife is the scientist, I know nothing about viruses, and so on. I said that from what little I’d read, it seemed to make a big difference what we did. That our behavior mattered.
I want to put masks on everyone in the memory, to strip the rented tablecloths, to clear away the disposables, the plates and cocktail napkins and plastic cups abandoned around the room, like PPE after a code. Like possessions left behind in a hurry. It was February 19, 2020. In a few weeks, my hands would be cracked and raw, and the car would smell like hand sanitizer. In a few weeks the great blur would begin.
There was a simple answer to the poet’s question: Yes. We should be worried. We should not even be here, and a year from now, millions will be dead. But we didn’t know that then. We were still catching up to what was already true.
This essay is about reading a plague novel during a plague. The novel is Colson Whitehead’s Zone One, a literary horror novel featuring zombies and a collapsed America. Though I read my way through the pandemic, only Zone One—violent, self-referential, hilarious—seemed equal to the strangeness of the time. There were no zombies roving the streets, and I did not sleep in trees or scavenge for unexpired canned goods or watch from hiding as fellow citizens were devoured alive, but the book seemed realistic in a way that soberly reported nonfiction did not. Only a fictional pandemic seemed adequate to the real one, to an America suddenly ruled by contagion and trauma. It was an escape true to the present’s depths, a narrative form that defied and encapsulated monotonous routine: it had a shape, unlike our shapeless and open-ended lives.
For this reason, the novel was useful. Not useful like an mRNA vaccine, or a voter’s information pamphlet, or a dissection of the government’s failed coronavirus response, but useful in the way literature can be: It helped me, as it helps me now, to name my experience. The book captured the ability to embrace a new survival routine in an upended world, bearing the trauma along. To keep working. To tell a story or consider the story you might tell.
I began writing about Zone One soon after things shut down. It was a way to write something, but it also helped me think about my unthinkable world.
In zone one, a viral plague has turned humans into infectious, flesh-eating undead. The book’s main action occurs over three days, set in the barricaded tip of Lower Manhattan: Zone One. It’s now “the interregnum,” months after the outbreak, and the world is overrun with two kinds of zombies: “skels,” the fast ones (which chase down the living and eat them), and “stragglers” (which just stand there). America has been reduced to a few walled camps, with rebuilding efforts directed from the new capital in Buffalo. The main character, Mark Spitz, is a Black man from Long Island, so nicknamed after a battle with skels early in the pandemic. (He refuses to jump from a bridge and swim to safety.) His story is told in flashbacks: having survived the Last Night, when the zombies took over, he’s spent traumatic months in the wasteland before finally making his way to Zone One, where he’s one of a three-person team of “sweepers.” The sweepers work their way through the Zone’s grid, block by block, exterminating stray undead, leaving the remains in the street for disposal teams to collect and incinerate.
Holed up that spring, reading Zone One, I kept noticing parallels between life and art. It was more than the viral plague, or the stories about characters who were holed up too. It was Whitehead’s portrait of Americans under crisis, the characters’ various recombinations of trauma and fear and denial, the way they clung to new routines and mourned a vanished normal or joined apocalyptic cults or fell apart completely. There were political parallels, too. The government, in Buffalo, is heavily militarized and corporation-friendly; its main priority is rebooting the economy for the benefit of the wealthy. Their slogans—“We Make the Future,” “The American Phoenix”—are printed on hats and T-shirts, a promise to make the country great again, to rise from carnage and ashes. In one weirdly specific coincidence, Buffalo is especially focused on real estate and luxury New York hotels. There’s also a giant wall, the heavily militarized barricade at the northern end of Zone One, protecting its remnant of American civilization. It was impossible not to think of the wall at the southern border, sold as a barrier to marauding Others (and also, for the most part, imaginary). That Zone One was published in 2011 only added to the strangeness.
I don’t mean to make too much of this. A plague was going to happen, and plague novels were going to be relevant, and where there are analogies to find, the brain will find them. Writers stuck indoors will especially find them. Still, it felt uncanny, as if Whitehead had predicted the future, shattered the prediction with a hammer, and reassembled the pieces into a novel.
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GEORGE ESTREICH’s publications include a book of poems, Textbook Illustrations of the Human Body, which won the Gorsline Prize from Cloudbank Books (2003); the Oregon Book Award–winning memoir The Shape of the Eye (2011); and Fables and Futures: Biotechnology, Disability, and the Stories we Tell Ourselves (2019), which NPR’s Science Friday named a Best Science Book of 2019. He’s also the coeditor, with Rachel Adams, of Alison Piepmeier’s posthumously published book, Unexpected: Parenting, Prenatal Testing, and Down Syndrome (NYU, 2021). Estreich has published prose in the New York Times, Salon, the American Medical Association Journal of Ethics, Tin House, Essay Daily, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. He lives in Corvallis, Oregon, where he teaches in the MFA program at Oregon State University.