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Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University

“Don't Believe Your Eyes”


Author(s): Soren Forsberg
Source: Transition, No. 109, Persona (2012), pp. 131-143
Published by: Indiana University Press on behalf of the Hutchins Center for African and
African American Research at Harvard University
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2979/transition.109.131
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“Don’t Believe Your Eyes”
a review of Colson Whitehead’s Zone One (2011)

Soren Forsberg

“What does ‘apocalypse’ mean, Daddy?” wonders the main character of


Colson Whitehead’s engrossing new novel, Zone One, during one of many
childhood afternoons spent watching his father’s favorite nuclear war
movies. Pausing the VCR before responding, Daddy has just the right words
for an impressionable young mind: “It means that in the future, things will
be even worse than they are now.”
If the past few years have brought out the Jeremiah in even the merriest
among us, we might take heart in the fact that the situation is not nearly as
awful as it could have been. In Whitehead’s vision of tomorrow, for instance,
a plague has turned most people on the planet into gluttonous automatons
who do their utmost to gobble up the dwindling number of survivors. Sol-
dier narrative and zombie story in equal parts, Zone One takes us into a
future where being an American means that you’re either a freedom fighter,
or you’re fast food on the verge of being served.
There are bright sides to this universe, however, not least for the type
of political observers who hold today that Washington is “broken.” In Zone
One’s account of the early 2020s, a disciplined United States government
has taken up residence in Buffalo, NY, from where it applies its rebounding
powers to the task of maintaining survivor camps down the Eastern sea-
board, restoring supply lines, and distributing equally—imagine that—the
scarce resources among remaining citizens. Surviving CEOs are lining up
to pledge their assets and product inventories to Buffalo, while outlaws,
renegades, and libertarians team up for “American Phoenix”: the fledgling
government’s “Yes, We Can!” campaign to get the zombie-ridden nation
back on track. After the end of the world, Americans finally come together.
Zone One chronicles what is essentially a public relations project. In a move
intended to boost morale, the Buffalo government embarks on the mission of
reconquering New York City from the writhing multitude of “skels”—the nov-
el’s shorthand for the living dead. Following a skelocide of titanic proportions,
courtesy of the surprisingly able U.S. Marines, Lower Manhattan is now being
occupied by a mix of military personnel and civilian sweeper teams who take
out “stragglers,” the puzzling 1% of skels who don’t kill, but simply stand
around in a melancholy daze. Sealed off by the newly erected Canal Street

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Wall, this is “Zone One,” an area which is coterminous with the environs of
the historical Ground Zero, and the first of many high-profile areas designated
for repopulation. But if the majority of the novel’s survivors entertain some
measure of hope for resurgent civilization (spoiler alert: their hopes will be
thwarted), it’s not easy to get a read on Whitehead’s protagonist, a sweeper
known as Mark Spitz. The only thing that appears to animate this Long Island
native is his newfound ability to finally shed the geographical curse of subur-
ban living and fully embody what Jay-Z and Alicia Keys, back in our universe,
call the “Empire state of mind.”

•  •  •

Just like Colson Whitehead’s four previous novels and his non-fiction
volume The Colossus of New York (2003), Zone One reads like a love affair
with NYC, a place where Whitehead, who was born in 1969, has lived for
most of his life. Sag Harbor, from 2010, tells a story that perhaps most closely
mirrors Whitehead’s own: the novel chronicles a 1980s summer spent in
the Hamptons from the perspective of an African American Manhattanite
with his eyes set on the Ivy League and his ears attuned to the wealth of
contemporary cultural production. In this sense, Sag Harbor is a delight for
anyone who, like this reviewer, has a place in their hearts for the 1980s
aesthetic: Dayglo stickers on your skateboard, Air Jordans, checkerboard
Bermuda shorts, slasher-movie rentals, and Michael Jackson mixtapes for
your Sony Walkman. Using virtuosic dialogues of teenage trash talk to
debate things like the relationship between Afrika Bambaataa and Kraft-
werk, as well as making vivid the difficulty of balancing a public love of
hip hop with a secret taste for Tears for Fears, Sag Harbor is the portrait of
the pop-culture buff as a young man—someone likely to end up as a writer
for the Village Voice, a publication where Whitehead spent half a decade
after graduating from Harvard in 1991.
In contrast, Whitehead’s debut, the noir novel The Intuitionist, from 1999,
tells an enchantingly literal story about racial uplift. Set in a pre-Civil Rights
moment when elevator manufacturers have the economic heft of automak-
ers, The Intuitionist chronicles the travails of the African American elevator
inspector Lila Mae Watson as she finds herself in the middle of an intrigue
that involves powerful industry interests, a corrupt city government, and
the criminal underworld. In this universe, Watson calls attention to herself
not only on account of her race and gender, but especially because she’s a
follower of the doctrine of “Intuitionism” which proposes a holistic approach
to elevator inspection as opposed to the much more powerful school of
elevator inspection, the “Empiricists,” whose unimaginative members only
have eyes for the most tell-tale signs of engine malfunction. The Intuitionist
thus dramatizes a conflict over knowledge and how to best attain it, yet

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Whitehead doesn’t cast the opposition between Intuitionism and Empiricism
as one between feeling and thinking. Indeed, rather than relying on inef-
fable affective powers, Watson’s inspection method simply deprivileges the
sense of sight. “She doesn’t know what to do with her eyes,” is how White-
head introduces his main character, a person who regards proponents of
Empiricism as “slaves to what they could see.”
Whitehead’s allegory of racial uplift comes full circle once we learn that
the late founder of Intuitionism was a black man who passed for white.
Here is also where we begin to understand the value of a theory which
dismisses knowledge produced by sight. Given how ways of looking helped
to enforce the laws of segregation, a refusal
of the mode of vision can’t help but sound Zone One proves to
like an indictment of what is perhaps the be Whitehead’s most
most fundamental practice of orienting one- ambitious exploration
self in the public square. Yet despite these
allusions to the problem of racial injustice, thus far of the dubious
the distrust of the realm of the visible also relationship between what
speaks to a broader question about the we see and what we know.
vocabularies we typically use in order to
endow social relations with meaning. Indeed, much of the novel’s striking
allure has to do with how Whitehead invokes the numerous forms of inter-
action and conflict that are hard to recognize, let alone categorize, because
they cannot be seen. For the same reason, The Intuitionist doesn’t admonish us
to somehow start “seeing” things differently—quite the contrary. Watson’s
own position vis-à-vis vision is both firm and categorical: “Don’t believe
your eyes.”
As it happens, Zone One proves to be Whitehead’s most ambitious explo-
ration thus far of the dubious relationship between what we see and what
we know. “The input could not be trusted,” is how Whitehead lays out the
everyday life of tomorrow; “Surely this is not happening,” is how most
survivors respond to the transformation of the world into a terrordome.
And not only that: survivors are also betrayed by their memories of the
past: all of them suffer from what Whitehead calls PASD—Post-Apocalyptic
Stress Disorder. To make the literalization of a vanishing past complete,
Whitehead describes the “stragglers”—the plague victims who don’t hunt
and kill—as creatures who linger mindlessly “in bygone moments, entranced
by the world that no longer existed.” In the future—to paraphrase Mark
Spitz’s father—things won’t merely be “worse than they are now;” memory
will also have been transformed into a branch of pathology, leaving survi-
vors with only two modes of retrospection: mourning or melancholia.
In Zone One, then, Whitehead poses an epistemological question: how do
you mentally process a world in which all familiar frames of reference have
been rendered meaningless? The closest the novel comes to answering this
question is when Whitehead’s omniscient narrator remarks, in a concluding

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passage, that “apocalypse” doesn’t entail closure, but rather, as in the original
sense of the word, a moment of “revelation,” which is to say, disclosure:

Let the cracks between things widen until they are no


longer cracks but the new places for things. The world
wasn’t ending; it had ended and now they were in the
new place. They could not recognize it because they had
not seen it before.

Undeniably, Zone One is a novel about contending with the aggressive pres-
ence of five billion flesh-eaters. But like The Intuitionist, it is also a story
about facing new forms of meaning—“new places”—that we don’t understand
because we haven’t encountered them before.

•  •  •

Whitehead’s embrace of genre writing ought not come as a surprise to


long-time admirers of the formal inventiveness that characterizes earlier
novels like The Intuitionist, John Henry Days (2001), and Apex Hides the Hurt
(2006). Yet as scores of disgruntled readers have already pointed out in
reviews on Amazon.com, Zone One doesn’t adhere much to the gold stan-
dard 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. In lieu of a strong plot, Zone One makes vivid an atmo-
sphere of disintegration that we also find in movies like John Carpenter’s
Escape from New York (1981)—a production that Whitehead lovingly treats
the way you might treat an involuntary organ donor. For the same reason,
however, the novel also offers a refreshing contrast to the manner in which
zombies have traditionally served in popular culture as mindless followers
of disreputable ideologies, as the harbingers of social change, or simply as
exponents of certain embarrassing desires. Zone One takes a more existential
tack, we might say, bringing new meaning to the signature statement in
Jean-Paul Sartre’s one-act, No Exit, namely “l’enfer, c’est les autres.” For just
as in Sartre’s idea of hell, a skel, for Whitehead, is simply “other people.”
If Zone One has so far baffled readers who, when picking out a zombie
novel, expect to be dazzled and disgusted in equal measure, this book will
also puzzle readers who have come to expect the type of racial subplot that
Whitehead tends to weave into his stories. In fact, we wouldn’t even know
that Mark Spitz is African American were it not for the two brief para-
graphs, late in the novel, that explain why Whitehead’s main character is
nicknamed after Mark Spitz, the real-life (and Caucasian) 1972 Olympic

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Daley Fras.
Mixed Media.
99 x 73
cm. ©2010
Keegan
Simon.

swimming champion. But Whitehead’s Mark Spitz hasn’t earned his nick-
name for his swimming skills—quite the opposite: after an episode where
our protagonist faces down a throng of skels instead of seeking refuge, like
all his fellow sweepers, in a nearby river, a wisecracker in the group chris-
tens our hero “Mark Spitz” because the latter’s actions appear to confirm
the stereotype that “black people,” as the novel puts it, “can’t swim.”
What passages such as these seem to tell us is that racist beliefs, like
cockroaches, will still be around to bug us after the end of the world. “If
they could bring back paperwork,” as Mark Spitz puts it, in response to the
recrudescence of government bureaucracy under the post-apocalyptic con-
dition, “they could certainly reanimate prejudice, parking tickets, and
reruns.” And yet, we can’t help but notice that prejudice, in Zone One, rears
its ugly head only in the form of a silly schoolyard taunt—a taunt, moreover,
that Whitehead’s protagonist can’t decipher before he tracks down, with
great difficulty, a printed dictionary. For all these reasons, the performance
of bigotry by some of Zone One’s survivors begins to look akin to the routines
of zombies: types of practices which, although deadly, are distinguished
above all by a plodding comportment and a lack of imagination. “There
were plenty of things in the world that deserved to stay dead,” Whitehead
remarks, “yet they walked.”
On first glance, the notion that racist beliefs and the living dead are
basically two flappy parts of the same cretinous cadaver is as striking as it
is disgusting. As it turns out, however, the notion is also extremely

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Church and
its Disciples.
Mixed Media.
97 x 66/ 122
x 137/ 92 x
66 cm. ©2010
Keegan Simon.

timely—indeed, the University of Chicago professor Kenneth W. Warren


explores a similar idea in the volume What Was African American Literature?,
a polemic set of essays originally presented as the 2007 W. E. B. Du Bois
Lectures, and, like Zone One, published in 2011. To be sure, Warren offers
no insights on zombies; instead, he seeks to spark a debate about the way
contemporary African American fiction writers use supernatural imagery
in order to make a point about social justice. Through canny close readings
of novels such as Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987), Edward P. Jones’s The
Known World (2003), and Michael Thomas’s Man Gone Down (2007), among
several others, Warren takes issue with the aesthetic decision to represent
historical injustices, like slavery or segregation, in the form of a timeless
spectral presence, capable of haunting future generations. Drawing on the
work of the literary critic Walter Benn Michaels, Warren makes the case
that when these novelists redescribe history (what happened in the past) as
memory (what happened to you, even if you weren’t there), they are simul-
taneously advancing the politically outdated belief that the lives of indi-
vidual black Americans are “linked,” as the political scientist Michael
Dawson puts it, “to the fate of the race.”
Of course, Warren doesn’t contend that racist beliefs ceased to have an
impact in the United States after the passing of Civil Rights legislation in
the 1960s. What he insists in his book, however, is that once the laws of
segregation entered the catacombs of history, the narrative of linked fates
drifted free from the institutional context in which it was originally forged:

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the 1896 Supreme Court decision Plessy v. Ferguson which sanctioned the
policy of American apartheid. For pre-Civil Rights writers like James
Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes, or Ralph Ellison, the attention to the
lives of black Americans was also an attention to the fact that these Ameri-
cans were regarded by the law as second class citizens. In that sense, the
work of African American writers in the Jim Crow era could not help but
articulate a demand for social justice: that the laws of segregation—which
forced a common fate on Americans of African descent—be brought to an
end. Yet when writers like Morrison, Jones, or Thomas favor the narrative
of linked fates in their fiction, they implicitly help to repoliticize a narrative
that, in legal terms, is no longer in effect. What’s more, when they embrace
what Warren calls the “melancholy” aesthetic of “collecting stories and
memorializing events in a way that turns them into phenomena we must
re-experience in order to understand,” they also wage a struggle against
the ghosts of history, rather than against the economic practices that haunt
most of us today, namely the type of neoliberal legislation that favors pow-
erful corporations over individual workers.
What would be the effect of an aesthetic commitment that didn’t bring
old abominations to life, but instead gave us a new vocabulary for debating
the economic ills that beset us today? Just like Whitehead’s latest novel,
indeed, Warren’s Du Bois lectures ultimately ask us to consider what it
means to find ourselves in a new place that doesn’t look like anything we’ve
seen before. Literature is key here—though so is visual art, cinema, and
music—precisely because of the power of aesthetic ways of seeing.

•  •  •

Considering how Whitehead depicts the loss of knowledge about one’s past
as an injury—literally, in this case—to one’s sense of self, doesn’t Zone One
in fact make the types of aesthetic choices that Warren critiques? Yes, but
mostly no. Strictly speaking, Mark Spitz doesn’t suffer from an inability to
recall certain memories; like another literary fixture of Lower Manhattan,
Melville’s Bartleby, he just prefers not to. Indeed, perhaps the most original
aspect of Whitehead’s novel is that our protagonist can’t help but rejoice
once the skels make swiss cheese out of the Canal Street Wall and lay waste
to the world once more. Now, an entirely unattached Mark Spitz can hap-
pily reenter the “state of tremulous euphoria” in which there is no longer
room in his mind for his PASD or his past, but only the adrenaline rush—“a
reptilian knob at the base of his skull throbbing”—that he craves.
Why does Mark Spitz revel in a world ruled by meatsack automatons?
As it turns out, Whitehead’s protagonist “still nursed the naïve hunger for
a life of adventure” that marked his presumably boring and geeky child-
hood. As a kid. we learn, Mark Spitz spent a lot of time dreaming up

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Wood vs.
Denim.
Mixed Media.
138 x107
cm. ©2010
Keegan
Simon.

“scenarios for adulthood: to outrun a fireball, swing across the airshaft on


a wire, dismember the gargoyle army with the enchanted blade that only
he could wield.” Thanks to the end of the world, as Whitehead satirically
puts it, “Mark Spitz was living the dream!”—a dream in which there is no
past, no strings attached; but also, of course, no future to speak of.
In this sense, Zone One reads—somewhat like Sag Harbor—as a meditation
on the wonders of the immature imagination. But in his unorthodox remem-
brance of things past, Whitehead has also inadvertently written a novel which
puts into perspective the question that Warren poses in What Was African

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American Literature?, namely how, going forward, we are to study and teach
the African American experience. If our frame of mind is informed by Zone
One, we’ll note the obvious benefits of favoring a historical imagination that
doesn’t celebrate what Whitehead, in his portrayal of the “stragglers,” calls
the “world that no longer existed.” If nothing else, refusing to regard the pres-
ent through the lens of the past might keep us from fetishizing particular
historical events which, in most cases, had to filter through a lot of years and
contexts before causing an impact on our lives today. On the other hand,
however, Whitehead’s novel doesn’t exactly deliver a deadly blow to the prac-
tice of retrospection—probably no one would want to get behind Mark Spitz’s
commitment to a relentlessly presentist universe in which childhood fantasies
of superhero self-reliance can come true. Indeed, Zone One doesn’t discourage
us from looking backwards; the novel imagines—and this is one of its many
achievements—what it’s like to exist in a social reality where it doesn’t matter
whether we look back or not.
All the same, why should we believe that we’re advocating the linked-fate
narrative when we honor historical forms of African American community?
In response, Warren would probably counter that a commitment to commu-
nity is also, in one way or another, a com- In the future, things won’t
mitment to looking backwards—back to
merely be “worse than they
when the sense of community first came to
be. As he argues in a 2002 essay that com- are now;” memory will also
memorates Ellison’s Invisible Man, we may have been transformed
in fact be mistaken if we regard the loss of
historical awareness as one of the gravest into a branch of pathology.
threats to a fight for a more just society. On the contrary, he insists, “as we
work to even the odds created by a Jim Crow past, we’re working, no matter
what we tell ourselves, to make Ellison’s novel more a story of the world that
was, and less an account of the world that still is.” “Success here,” he continues,
“might be a bad thing for Invisible Man, but such a success would be a marvel-
ous thing, indeed.” Put differently, what we need, if we care about social jus-
tice, is not a better sense of where we come from. What we need is a better
vocabulary for plotting the way ahead.
The problem, of course, is that the way ahead is literally hard to see.
People who sought to indict laws like Plessy were able to rally around the
compelling vocabulary of vision—that’s the point of novels like James
Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, George Schuyler’s
Black No More, and, indeed, Ellison’s Invisible Man. But what type of vocabu-
lary lends itself to a convincing indictment of legislation like, say, the
Clinton-sponsored bill, The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Rec-
onciliation Act of 1996? Given how this piece of legislation serves to depoliti-
cize economic inequality, such questions can’t really be overstated. Consider
for instance how the Act takes focus away from how corporations over the
past forty years have made a mockery of decent jobs and the idea of the

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Yearly Fras.
Mixed Media.
138 x 107
cm. ©2010
Keegan Simon.

“living wage.” Consider also how the Act has secured institutional ground-
ing for the belief that unemployment, or an inability to make ends meet
despite holding two jobs or more, is an expression of personal failure. By
thus obfuscating how our lives are informed by particular and deliberate
policy decisions, personal responsibility advocates turn out to be the true
beneficiaries of the idea that we need to examine our heritage in order to
understand why we succeed or fail in life. Instead of speaking for higher
wages or less demeaning jobs, the ideology of personal responsibility
encourages us to appreciate who we are as individuals. In the final instance,
then, such an ideology promises to make Mark Spitzes of us all.

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W. E. B. Du Bois famously said that the “problem of the twentieth cen-
tury is the problem of the color line.” But if the problem of the color line
in the United States didn’t fall into history after the 2008 election, it has
become harder to ignore that the problem of the past quarter century has
also been the problem of the bottom line. Yet whereas the lives of minorities
have at least become more visible and subject to more respect, the spectacle
of economic production has become increasingly difficult to see. Take Mark
Spitz, who, before the end of the world, worked for a Starbucks-like corpo-
ration as a “social media consultant;” a job for which a friend declares him
“perfect,” since it “doesn’t require any skills.” As it happens, then, what
Mark Spitz has in common with other Whitehead characters—like the
freelance writer J. Sutter from the 2001 novel John Henry Days and the
nameless ad man from the 2006 novel Apex Hides the Hurt—is his line of
work: all of them are employed as producers of “content” for platforms that
are anything but solid—copy for billboards, fluff pieces for the magazines
in the seat pocket in front of you, the pop-up screens you ignore on your
computer, and the emails you delete unread.
Workers who perform such “immaterial” labor are often glamorized in the
press and in popular culture as the exponents of an entrepreneurial culture
that will put American business a step ahead of the global competition yet
Mark Spitz might as well be a greeter at Wal-Mart, a job that also requires little
in the way of skill. What such jobs require instead is a particular mood or
attitude—a commitment to service, say—which holds such importance in the politi-
cal fiction of personal responsibility. More than anything else, such jobs rely
on the ability to stay afloat, day to day, in a universe that leaves no room for
imaginative experimentation. Perhaps this is why Mark Spitz doesn’t mind
exchanging the relentlessness of social media with that of zombie attacks.
Facing skels instead of whimsical customers, at least you know where you stand.

•  •  •

I was among the audience earlier this year, when, in a Yale University lecture
course on contemporary literature, Colson Whitehead came up from New
York to take questions about Zone One. A pleasant and charismatic presence,
Whitehead spoke humorously about his work routines, his life-long interest
in gore fest fictions, and, intriguingly, about how his vision of the end of
world in Zone One owed a good deal to the stark images of Bushwick and
the South Bronx that filled TV-screens in the late 1970s. I even got the
chance to exchange a few words with him, which I probably shouldn’t have
done, since I tend to embarrass myself when chatting with people whose
work I admire.
What I found interesting during the Q and A session, however, was how
evasive Whitehead proved to be when responding to questions about why

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he choose to write a zombie novel (“I just like the genre”); why Zone One
gives such an elliptical account of Mark Spitz’s blackness (“I don’t really
write books about race”); and whether his novels are allegories of social
conflict (“I don’t really pay attention to questions of genre”). When White-
head remarked that Zone One is mostly a story “about being the type of
mediocre person that most of us, in some way, fundamentally are,” his
modesty seemed almost disingenuous—after all, Whitehead has written four
remarkable novels in only ten years, and is a recipient of a MacArthur
Genius Grant.
But it is precisely the concern with mediocrity that makes Zone One the
timely and original novel that it is. In a world without past or future, it seems
only reasonable, we might say, that individuals such as Mark Spitz—someone
How do you mentally whose “aptitude,” Whitehead explains, “lay in the
well-executed muddle”—are among those who thrive
process a world in which
and survive. More to the point, perhaps the truly won-
all familiar frames of derful thing about monster stories is that such fictions
reference have been gleefully flaunt their own mediocrity. Instead of asking
the reader to suspend her disbelief, writers of monster
rendered meaningless? stories try to come up with the most graphic, most
literal, descriptions of social relations. Instead of trying to seduce the reader
with accounts of the subtleties of self, monster fictions simply imagine people
as the ogres they really are—as monsters who, as Whitehead puts it, have
“stopped pretending.” Above all, such fictions imagine daily life as an arena
in which the “familiar” has “turned homicidal.” You may believe, for instance,
that a shifty colleague of yours is scheming to take credit for your work; but
all he really wants is to eat your brain.
By pointing to their own absurdity, monster fictions also point to the
difference between what can be seen and what can be imagined; between
what can be experienced by individuals and what can be represented by
fiction. Take David Cronenberg’s Videodrome, for example, which offers a
beautifully ham-fisted understanding of cable-TV as a source of mind con-
trol that will explode your head and mutilate your body. Or take Peter
Jackson’s Braindead, where a monkey transforms an imperious mother into
a ravenous zombie, all the while her dutiful son tries to keep her eating of
people and animals to a minimum. Just like Zone One, these movies rede-
scribe scenes of modern life in the crudest and most moronic of terms, thus
transforming questions of great complexity into occasions for fascination
and hilarity. But by making social relations grotesquely visible, such fictions
remind us of all the things we cannot usually see.
By imagining a world that offers nothing but moments of misrecognition,
Zone One ultimately pursues the same question that Kenneth Warren articu-
lates, namely how the good life might suitably be represented. Envisioning
a future world in which “the input could not be trusted” is obviously not
an answer anyone would hope for. Yet why should we think a better answer

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would be that of celebrating the forms of life we have in 2012, or, indeed,
that of revisiting the life people led in 1952? Perhaps a better response
altogether is that we rethink our range of aesthetic choices. What would be
the result of an aesthetic commitment that didn’t affirm familiar ways of
seeing, but instead brought attention to the forms of meaning, relations,
and injustices that are fading from sight? Although Zone One doesn’t provide
us with a final answer, Colson Whitehead’s new novel makes us wise to the
importance of such questions.

Forsberg • “Don’t Believe Your Eyes” 143


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