An Elegy for New York: Zone One

Maybe it was just a matter of the timing of my read because the tenth anniversary was last week, but I feel like this book was a 9/11 novel. I don’t mean to be reductive – there’s certainly other stuff here – but there’s this thinly morose elegy for New York going on, cut with something less combative than sarcasm and more emotional than irony. I spent the fortnight leading up to 9/11/11 – a stutter of a date – narrowly avoiding public commentary, while committing a series of glancing asides with friends. Where were you? 9/11 in public has been rendered cinematic, that famous long-shot of the towers burning is maybe too restrained for Michael Bay, but it certainly lacks the ashy situated experience of the day, all phone calls and slowly dawning horror. One thing that kept popping up in my conversations of rememory was the almost whispered question – do you remember the people jumping, falling from the towers? Do you remember the reports of the smack of their bodies hitting the ground? Do you remember the footage? It’s gotta be out there somewhere, not that I want to see it again, but it’s been collectively wiped from our retinas, an eye rub that seeks to dislodge the sleep-ash of the nightmare. But it’s been ten years. We’ve stuttered into our new normal, the uneasy and easy everyday of a world walking on. 

 Zone One by Colson Whitehead follows with an intimate third person a character called Mark Spitz. He’s not the Olympian Mark Spitz, his name instead a post-armageddon macabre joke about his relentless averageness. Whitehead tosses off a lot of incisive, tending towards over-wrought descriptions of other characters and places, but his lead is so blank, so lacking in affect that you feel the chill of loss despite the semicoloned literary style. The action of the book takes place over three tight days, but the true incidents are lappingly recounting in flashback, the scum of the blood-tide peeled back layer by dried layer. Much of the supporting cast could dissolve into quirk-fests if it weren’t for constant reminders of the sources of these quirks, the almost laughingly named disorder PASD – Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder. PASD when spoken aloud sounds like “past”, a sometimes funny, always awful double entendre. 

Mark Spitz – and this name is never familiarized to Mark, nor do we ever learn his given name – begins the book cleaning out “stragglers” from the titular Zone One, which is a section of Manhattan barricaded from the rest of the island by the reforming government of the US and cleared of the more active skels. (This set-up is not dissimilar to the set-up for 28 Weeks Later, though the colonial and family psychodrama aspects are much more understated.) The zombies are Romerian (Romeroian? Both of these are ugly adjectives; I apologize) – shambling, biting, unintelligent and relentless – but for a small percentage of stragglers – the undead frozen in tableau, unmoving, unblinking. Mark Spitz and his sweeper team work through the grids of this zone building by building, opening the closets, shooting the active skels and casually trying to divine the mysteries of the stragglers. Why here, bent over a copy machine? Why in a field flying a downed kite? Are these the actions that defined their lives, or just a burp of a recording set to pause at a random frame?

The social rules of survivors recounting the trauma of Last Night are meticulously cataloged by Mark Spitz. There’s the Silhouette, for those to whom no connection was felt; the Anecdote, suitable for large groups and the more long-term of the short-term traveling companions; then there is the Obituary, told only to the intimate, though not without rehearsal. This declension of the narratives of trauma reminded of my fortnight of 9/11 recountings this year. I was getting ready for work when I got a call from my sister in Midtown after the first plane but before the second, and then a gush of extraneous details; a friend tells of the ash beginning to fall on Brooklyn; another relating only the tersest of details. I don’t know if I’m allowed to quote from the bound galley I have, so please know that this may not be in the final draft, but, “At their core, Last Night stories were all the same: They came, we died, I started running.” The towers were hit, and then they fell, and where we were at the time is both intimate and immaterial. 

Then there is the New Yorkiness of this book, a resident recounting his mixed irritation and affection for the cityest of American cities, carefully prodding nostalgia that at any moment might stir and bite. And when it does, put it down with a bullet. There’s a lot of that insular provincialism found in any person writing about their hometown – a running gag where Mark Spitz refers to Connecticut, where he spent a bad part of the interregnum, always with a damning adjective: damned Connecticut, hated Connecticut, abhorrent Connecticut; or a one-line dismissal of the Midwest which had me both laughing and bridling. Critically elegiac, the love/hate of the before that did not prepare for the after. Sometimes this doesn’t work, and I found myself boring through a description of the family eatery, its essayish tone slipping to droning, too many meanings, too much memory. But I see your point. 

There’s the stink of the inevitable all over this story, and if you’re paying attention at all, you will know how this three days in Zone One is going to end. This is not a spoiler, but a statistic: 100% of people have died, except for the living, who will likely succumb to statistics just like the rest of history eventually. Despite the zombies, this is not a genre exercise, not really. There are no hat-tips to conventions of the zombie narrative, no attempt to science up the zombies or ruminate on causes. Ten years later, it’s just a done deal, something to recount while picking through the mess, the carrion body of historical fact. Even then, zombies carry with them certain inexorable truths in their rotten bones into this literary landscape. Reflection is a sad, useless business, self-serving in the abstract and distracting in the specific. But reflection is also compulsive and necessary in our human states: silhouette, anecdote or obituary. What does it matter where I was? It simply matters that I was. We pick up and shamble on.

(An ARC of this book was provided to me free of charge by the publisher, but no conditions were put on my review. Fyi.)

Blueprints of the Afterlife. No, Seriously.

It’s possible I’ll append the original review to this here new shiny one I’m writing, but that may not happen. The future’s not written, right? It’s something I can affect? Well, we’ll see either way.

I seriously don’t mean to disappear up my own reviewing asshole, but the first attempt I made to review I was in this just painfully emotional place, and it embarrasses me, because that’s not really what this book is about. Blueprints of the Afterlife is – and I don’t mean this statement to be reductive – just a mordantly funny genre exercise that’s got its cool philosophical fingerprints around the throat of popular culture, futurism, and the American tendency towards apocalypse. The plot is…nothing that can be encapsulated with ease, more a series of very interrelated vignettes that stack themselves up into a, what?, Venn diagram? Something squishier? Our societal and metafictional guts? Then it knocks them all down and starts over again. 

It’s coughcough years into the future – more than 50 but less than 150 – a futuristic period that seems to be a fallow area for science fiction writers at the moment. Even my main man William Gibson who used to write in this period has decamped to closer futures (i.e. the Bigend trilogy). On the other side, there’s a ton of dudes (mostly dudes) writing in the far-future post-human expanses of space and ti-ee-eye-eee-ime. Some of this is the post-post-apocalyptic bent of this novel – this is not a survivalist’s manifesto, one of those musings about the order of society in crisis and whatnot, not the Individual’s Search for Meaning in an Age of Fucked Up Shit – but about our tendency to imagine Fucked Up Shit as a future in the first place. 

But then also a ton of other stuff. The science fictional ideas/commentary/whatever of this book are tossed off with a frequency and casualness that belie their fucking awesomeness, and there are at least a half dozen ideas here that could warrant their own freaking novel. I don’t mean to imply that Boudinot is giving anything short shrift here though – these ideas are all of a piece, and they fit together like one of those boxes of shapes you get from the Science Museum, and there’s 20 little flashcards of the way those shapes might make a larger pattern, and you flip over the card and go! Put it together! Now take it apart! Go! Make a different shape! Go go go! 

This review is turning into the same godamn mess my first one was, only different. Which is perfect in a way. If you split a hologram in half, you get two perfect holograms, like an earthworm, but more technological. I can’t even pretend to understand how that works – both the hologram and the earthworm. The central metaphor here is blueprints, those imaginings of the future written on a scaled, engineered map which may or may not give rise to the fact of buildings, in whose habitable spaces we may, or may not, live out our lives. It’s’s just the godamn shit to read when you’re a cracked and leaking emotional disaster – as I was when I read this, not to make it about you– this elegant, beautifully written puzzle that contemplated the ends beyond the ends, or the middles beyond the middles, or all permutations of continuation and cease. Which, fuck yeah. 

And in the spirit of fuck yeah, I’m going to post the original review, but I’m not proud of it, and it (as I said before) kinda embarrasses me. Not because my emotional vulnerability is an embarrassment, but because I don’t think it does this book justice. The earlier review was dealing with the hard edge of grief, the emotions I feel as I can see the end coming. That’s not what this book is about, and I don’t want to mischaracterize. This is 50 to 150 years past that fucked up shit, which is just one of the reasons I loved it so. The end is still coming, but I’m still in the middle of the middle, still. 


Original review:

I don’t even mean to be like one of those cryptic facebook updates that people drop when they are looking for attention, but emotionally I am in no place to review this. Which might be the perfect place to be emotionally to review this? My beloved grandmother is dying. I read this fast like fever in the car to and from emotional upheavals that I haven’t even begun to sort into something resembling sense. 

So yeah, this is one of those reviews. Be warned. 

I picked this up because of Josh’s tumescent review. And because – I can be honest about my shallowness – this is just a fantastic cover. After I finished my read, I popped back onto Goodreads to reread Josh’s review with knowing eyes. I was bolted to the floor when I saw he references Lars von Trier’s Melancholia in the first few sentences. 

Before I left for my visit with Grandma who is dying, on a slow Saturday, my husband pulled me down onto the couch and made me watch that film. Not all. In sections as I ran the dishwasher or packed that forgotten thing or talking on the phone to a distraught family member, imagining the family ugliness that is inevitable once she’s gone. We’re all considering the end, mapping out alternate futures of the end and after her end. I’ve had my problems with von Trier in the past that aren’t worth getting into, but Melancholia was a series of images that burned me quietly, this end of the world that is both metaphor and fact. Science fiction stories can be a lot of different things, but the ones that get me scrying my own overturned guts are the ones about our personal universes as alien planets, the hard gravities of our emotions and what we tell ourselves are our emotions. The way Melancholia ran this apocalypse through a series of family connections, bright loosely connected images, the hovering close-ups and near-static tableaus – ah ah ah ah. 

I spent the weekend trying to be present, trying to feel Grandma’s lips when I kiss her, or her hands in mine, watching my step-mom write a list on a napkin. Presence is a difficult thing, and I’m no Taoist; my mind does not let things run as they are. My mind chews on the future. I prognosticate, therefore I am. There’s a certain philosophical aridity that appeals to my presence-avoiding mind in these pages, though I admit I have close to zero interest or background in straight philosophy. Arid is maybe the wrong word. As is philosophy.

Folklore of the future? 

I’m not sure that this plot can be spoiled, dealing as it does with a roving glacier of various time periods, persons, non-persons, and battling visions of the future. Sad as I am, superimposed as I am between present and future, this story, this collection of elegant, funny, wigged out, careful sentences washed me over and washed over me. I could read this forever. This could go on and on, but it ends. If I were less emotional and messy, I could catalog the influences and hat-tips, from the obvious PKD and Gibson, to the more muted Star Wars and UKL. When I talked about this with my husband, he asked what it would be like to be someone other than George Orr in The Lathe Of Heaven: A Novel, someone changed subtly or largely in someone else’s sleep. It will be hours before I know she’s gone – this is the way of things; the phone-tree is long and branching – and in those hours will she continue as if that end hadn’t happened? Will she be gone in those hours? There’s questions like that everywhere here.

This book probably deserves a less sloppy reader, one that isn’t leaking at the seams. My dad did all the sodoku puzzles from the last two weeks of the paper; I read this. I was fully absorbed in the intellectual puzzle of end-times and the after-end, a game of futures. I can’t unbind my emotions from the end of it all, the end of her all. But the blueprints lay down blue and bloodless. They make me think. They make me wonder – in that old school awestruck sense. And I know that absolutely none of this makes sense, which is why it is such a comfort. 

Scraping at the Skin: A Review of Palimpsest

There are whole cities of me who could have hated Palimpsestby Catherynne Valente, or been indifferent, or been casually affectionate, and then left the next morning – or even just as it ended – and then called four days later and been polite but firm that it was over. Books can be – they are – often like lovers. We hold them in our hands – or if the lights are off and we cannot see – they whisper in our ears, and it raises gooseflesh all over our bodies. Sometimes our teeth clank, or they are too rough, or not rough enough. Sometimes they fill us up. Sometimes the same lover is all of those things: teeth-clanking, giggling, shuttering, and perfect – but you met them on the wrong day, in the wrong mood, and its fumbling and awful. I met this book on the right day, the right days, and I loved it. 

I don’t listen to audio books that often. My mind makes sounds when I read, and when other people are making the sounds, my mind is left to wander like a horse that has pulled its picket. But I found myself on a ride north with no other adult to talk to, with this book sounding out in my ears, my restless mind penned into watching the road and the landscape. This is a novel of cities – of a city, Palimpsest – a sexually transmitted city. A contagious city, a city that enters into the body like a drug, and leaves its absence as surely as any withdrawal. 

Four people – Sei, Ludovico, November and Oleg, each from their own countries – enter into Palimpsest through their own lovers and madnesses – and are bound by a frog goddess through lines of experience and string. There’s something Narnian about it, but only as a departure point – the wardrobe full of mother’s furs wearing its subtext as text. The language is aggressively adjectival and allusive, the plot not so much action as experience and the uncovering of memory. Even the sections that take place in the cities I can point to on a map – Rome, New York, Kyoto – had the too-vivid feeling of a fairy tale, or a dream. The characters are strange, bejeweled creatures who cannot live in this world. I don’t know about anyone else, but I don’t dream in black and white. That I do, or should, is one of the strangest things people tell me with credulity, so I understand these bee-loud almost-people. 

There’s a place in me that grows weary of the adjective, that prefers the unornamented. That place was out the window – the nodding scrub and twisted near-spring branches of the landscape was the stage this city grew onto. It was perfect. Palimpsest can only be returned to for the characters by sex with strangers – strangers who have the maps of neighborhoods tattooed on their skin by their own entrances and addictions. It’s somewhere between erotic and disgusting the way it works, all this flesh and skin, and the leap to ecstasy and alarm that finds them once again in Palimpsest. 

I’ve been with the same person for sixteen years, we finally counted out one of the evenings this week, and I still dream of sex with others, usually the dream-faceless, but occasionally, with upset, someone I know. Invariably, as I feel and move, I remember within the dream who I am, whom I have made my bed and life and children with, and I panic in the dream. The dreams don’t spin to nightmare often, but it is disquieting to be someone else, to be somewhere else, in a city of dreams, and then wake up – but not often truly wake – and remember who I am. When I have nightmares where I fall and fall I often wake with the sensation that I have hit the bed. Or I run from monsters until I wake up with a charley horse and clutch my leg and writhe. That’s this book. 

I had to switch to paper after the rides north and back were completed – my house is loud and busy, and audio has no place in that – and I would fall into naps and dream the city, Palimpsest. However often my waking brain would bother itself with one too many description of smell or sound or touch, it would curl around those descriptions and play them out. For a city predicated on the vellum of monks stripped layer by layer and rewritten, leaving the trails on the skin on the eye, it was perfect. 

One last thing: this book is an intertext with The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. Though that story was referenced here, it was written after, and September and her Green Wind – good God – what a thing. I’m just shivering with what Valente did with children’s stories and retrospective adulthood and the stories we tell and are told and all of those devices, those devices that whir in our brains like damp clockwork, like maps to ourselves and others. I kept thinking of Autobiography of Red, where Anne Carson spoke of the magic of the adjective that reorders the noun, the place, and Valente’s heavy adjectives do just that. Perfect for these bones, for this skin, for this grey brain. I put out my hands to touch. Lover, come to bed.