Realism with Benefits: Of Zombies and Commuters

What’s ordinary these days in fiction (at least Anglo-American fiction) is the lives and loves of two or three school chums, what happens to them as they wander out into the post-school world, what ...

What’s ordinary these days in fiction (at least Anglo-American fiction) is the lives and loves of two or three school chums, what happens to them as they wander out into the post-school world, what secrets emerge and how their relationships get rearranged. You’ve seen this pattern recently (think The Sense of an Ending), maybe more than once in the last twelve months (think The Marriage Plot). It’s often very readable, especially if you’ve gone to the same sort of school. But given the state of the world, greater ambitions could be imagined. There’s a case to be made, therefore, for serious novelists dipping down into low-budget genres, like fantasy for Haruki Murakami and the post-apocalyptic for Colson Whitehead and Anna North, if only as a way of Asking For More.

Murakami’s fans seem convinced that he gives them a lot More—that he leads them perilously deep into the abyss of the psyche or to some other distant place that can’t be reached by public transport. That is also how he presents himself. Interviewed in a recent New York Times Magazine, Murakami says that “when he’s not writing he is an absolutely ordinary man.” The modesty is charming, but somewhat misleading. At least from the perspective of style, Murakami is most absolutely ordinary when he is writing. Consider: “Most people in this world are not aware that the time flow has been switched?” “Correct. To most people, this is just the plain old everyday world they’ve always known.” Surveying the science fiction disaster films of the 1950s, Susan Sontag noted the unintentional hilarity produced by much of their dialogue, like “Come quickly, there’s a monster in my bathtub,” or, before a last-ditch attempt to save the planet from destruction, “I hope this works!” Murakami’s 1Q84 is not science fiction, nor (despite the title) a work of Orwellian dystopia, but it contains a lot of sentences that are almost impossible not to read as camp.

Murakami seems never to have installed that literary alarm system that beeps when there’s a dangerous build-up of clichés. He says he writes in a kind of trance, and I can believe it. His appetite for platitudes seems insatiable. “Unless you die once, you won’t be reborn.” “I wasn’t brought here by chance… I’m here because I’m supposed to be.” It’s as if, trying to keep his readers as entranced as he is himself, he worried that the slightest flutter of verbal vitality might break the spell. His writing is weary, flat, and stale, though not at all unprofitable. It feels written for translation, to take up Rebecca Walkowitz’s useful concept—aimed at filtering out any interesting phrases that might be hard to translate in order to get into global circulation as quickly as possible.

If Murakami’s prose is all too ordinary, the same holds, alas, for much of his fantasy.

If Murakami’s prose is all too ordinary, the same holds, alas, for much of his fantasy. It’s not eccentric or excessive enough. Yes, its parallel-but-mysteriously-intersecting worlds include mischievous Little People emerging single-file from the mouth of a dead goat and chanting “ho ho ho” while weaving a chrysalis. But 1) this will remind you of something familiar, and 2) the point of conjuring up the seven dwarves and the cheery “off to work we go” that accompanies their morning commute seems to be that work itself is only a fairy tale. But for Murakami, what isn’t a fairy tale? To quote the old song that Murakami takes for his epigraph, it’s a Barnum and Bailey world, just as phony as it can be. “It’s Only a Paper Moon” is very catchy—during the extended period it took to finish 1Q84, I spent many hours compulsively humming it. (Writing this sentence caused a relapse.) But “It wouldn’t be make-believe/ If you believed in me” does not articulate an interesting theory of love that is also an interesting theory of knowledge. According to Murakami, love demands shared disbelief in the laws governing the physical universe. “We have to get out of this world. To do that I have to believe, from the bottom of my heart, that these stairs will lead to the expressway.” Sure, the stairway will be there if you believe it is. I don’t see any philosophical improvement here over children clapping for Tinker Bell.

School-friend realism makes for untroubled if pleasant reading because it takes for granted the majority of the ground rules accepted by the majority of novel readers—for example, people’s tendency to socialize only within their own class. Fantasy and post-apocalypse have the right to ignore this gentle confinement. They are generically authorized to take unrealistic premises and pursue them more or less realistically, thereby producing a sort of realism with benefits, an instructive estrangement from everyday reality that also keeps the everyday clearly in view. But the authors of fantasy fiction don’t always exercise that right. Murakami offers an example of an easier way out: ignoring the social world altogether by presenting it as a mere figment of the imagination. In an era of neoliberalism, what could be more banal than imagining, as Margaret Thatcher memorably put it, that society doesn’t exist?

Defenders of Murakami (a club I joined after reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, but from which I’m afraid I may now have to resign) could well say that the ordinariness of the social order is exactly what he is most eager to depict. And they would have a point. Nothing is more characteristic of his novels than attention to the banal rhythms of isolated individual lives. The question is what to make both of the repetition and of the isolation. Do they stand for the deep truth of the social order, or on the contrary do they amount to a sort of ascetic rite of refusal?

Murakami describes solitary, disaffected urban dwellers, uprooted from family and tradition. He watches them shop, cook, and eat alone. He itemizes their shopping lists: “On his way home from the station Tengo stopped by a supermarket and bought some vegetables, eggs, milk, and fish.” Is the routine purchase of these groceries the sign of an empty, zombie-like life? Or are these mundane objects transfigured by Tengo’s practice of some unnamed spiritual discipline? Both options seem possible. Still, you can’t help but notice that they are both asocial options. What’s missing from the picture is any image of life lived together with others.

A demonic fee collector knocks loudly from time to time. He would seem to personify society. If he does, then Murakami thinks society is scary, obnoxious, persistent, unfair, and uncannily omniscient about what’s happening on the other side of the door, but probably only a hallucination. Aside from the fee collector, the closest the novel comes to the representation of social life is commuters. Murakami’s lonely protagonists (one male and one female, gradually converging across alternating chapters) are called ordinary, but unlike most people they work free-lance and part-time. This means that, like a procrastinating novelist, they can be shown standing still while daily streams of commuters flow past their windows. The commuters stand for Murakami’s other, perhaps more revealing idea of ordinary life: not static loneliness, but a perpetual transit to and from an unimagined workplace, via trains and roads that exist thanks to processes left similarly unimagined. The novel contains a signature Murakami tableau: the creepy detective Ushikawa, alone on a stakeout, looking through a telephoto lens at morning and evening rush hours. His job isolates him. But the unconnected masses of commuters don’t seem worth joining. Is it really possible to escape solitude by entering their ranks? Do commuters count as a form of companionship?

This question points toward two possible readings of the novel. The commuters might represent a normal world of love, marriage, and family from which the astonishingly loveless protagonists have been excluded by their symmetrically traumatic childhoods. If so, the business of the novel would presumably be to maneuver the protagonists into ultimately pairing off, thereby achieving something like social integration. Murakami would have written a sort of slacker romance, though at over 900 pages an outrageously protracted one. But he seems at least equally committed to the idea of the commuters as zombies, mechanically going through the motions wherever they happen to be. From this perspective the protagonists’ loneliness would count as a loose sort of social critique (we don’t want to be automatons like them), and the novel would be saying that genuine love and life are to be obtained by refusing to be carried off by the commuter tide. Instead, one must survive a series of esoteric ordeals and thus enter into a love that seems less than genuine, given that it is sealed with a more or less supernatural bond. What sort of final belonging have you arrived at if the terminus is defined by you (male) listening to your beloved’s story of how she got pregnant—an immaculate conception, no less—and instantly affirming your unconditional belief that it happened as she says it did and yes, the baby is yours?

The plague is thus a kind of judgment on our ordinariness, which for Whitehead is less a matter of habit, as for Murakami, than a norm of unrecognized ethical monstrosity.

The allusion to Mary and Joseph is not crude allegory, but it is not casual, either. For if society doesn’t exist, then the most plausible candidate to fill the emptiness and loneliness it has left behind is religion. The lonely young woman protagonist, Aomame, is a physical trainer who uses her skills to assassinate men who brutalize women. When she arrives in a hotel room to kill a cult leader who has been performing statutory rape on the female children of cult members, he shows her what she’s up against by reading her mind and levitating a nearby clock. The cult functions as the novel’s villain, but Murakami won’t let the cult pay the price for its bad behavior. He never queries anything said or done by the charismatic leader, who has destroyed the uterus of a ten-year-old girl. The Little People, who are the cult’s gods, kill a dog; its blank-eyed thugs threaten the protagonists with murder. Yet the novel refuses any sense that significant wrong is occurring. Perhaps, it hints, the raped children were not really human. This softening toward the cult follows logically from Murakami’s premises. Unable to see any point in ordinary social life, he has nothing to put in its place but a hodgepodge of vacuous spiritual motifs. If your choice is between the cult and the commuters, you may well end up very close to choosing the cult.

Like Murakami, Colson Whitehead has a thing about commuters. In The Colossus of New York (2003) he imagined subway riders as monsters. In Zone One he imagines zombies as subway riders. This imagining of zombies in everyday terms is part of the genre’s stock-in-trade, from George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978), set in a mall, to Cuba’s first zombie film, Juan of the Dead (2011). A casually brilliant writer, Whitehead upholds the tradition with style: “To Mark Spitz, the dead were his neighbors, the people he saw every day, as he might on a subway car, the fantastic metropolitan array…. The townspeople, of course, were the real monsters. It was the business of the plague to reveal our family members, friends, and neighbors as the creatures they had always been.” The plague is thus a kind of judgment on our ordinariness, which for Whitehead is less a matter of habit, as for Murakami, than a norm of unrecognized ethical monstrosity, as in the pre-plague Mark Spitz “making his girlfriends into things that were less than human.”

What’s surprising is that what seems like a wholly negative judgment yields a more positive view, in hindsight, of the ordinary bureaucratic glue of social life. Mark Spitz (so called because of “the black-people-can’t-swim thing”) remembers not being able to get his first paycheck processed because he couldn’t find his Social Security card. He was told he wasn’t “in the system.” Like a magic helper, the plague takes revenge on his behalf. “Where was the System now, after the calamity?” The system is infuriating, maybe even unbearable; you want to tear it down. Then the novel realizes your desire. The system crumbles. And lo and behold, retrospect makes it look better. Whitehead remembers that the subway was already “a great leveler,” allowing straphangers to taste what it would mean if differences of race and class were to disappear. Yes, the old commute was a transit, but for Whitehead it was also a kind of social event, the site of an intermittent collective life for which (perhaps because history includes pasts that were much worse, and not so long ago) he has not only nostalgia but also a certain respect.

In Murakami’s commuters we see, a century later, The Waste Land’s ghoul-like crowd still flowing over London Bridge: “I had not thought death had undone so many.” Whitehead jokes about the zombies as the bridge-and-tunnel crowd, but he also pays homage to actual bridges and tunnels. For him the life this urban infrastructure made possible is not, pace Eliot, the modern hell of “mass” society. He can at least imagine, in the act of indulging the wish for society’s disappearance, that this is a wish we may ultimately not desire to see fulfilled.

When the post-apocalyptic genre answers the question of what exactly went wrong with modern society, it tends to go for overkill. It rages against the city, technology, rationality, secularism—against modernity as such. In some of these novels, Benjamin Kunkel writes in Dissent magazine, it’s “as if the destruction of contemporary civilization were embryonically present in the first smelting of iron ore or the Wright brothers were of Mohammed Atta’s party without knowing it.” Whitehead doesn’t go in for such rants. He doesn’t blame the plague on civilization. And he is remarkably uninterested in the genre’s back-to-basics impulse, its hint that we may yet be saved by a combination of God and self-reliant individualism.

This scrupulousness may seem misplaced in a zombie novel, but it makes perfect sense in terms of Whitehead’s trajectory. In The Intuitionist (1999), he rediscovered the elevator as a neglected but civilizing piece of infrastructure, a product of human labor that also had to be maintained by human labor—in the days of elevator operators, largely by African American labor, and since then by safety inspectors, hired under federal non-discrimination policy and paid with your tax dollars, like the novel’s protagonist. In John Henry Days (2001), he expressed a similar kind of devious reverence for the railroad and the labor that went into it. In both novels, the fact that these once-innovative technological conveniences are showing their age is an occasion to insist that they do not deserve their neglect or invisibility, their status as mere obstruction or laughable object of misplaced civic pride. Making these things, Whitehead suggests, also helped make what we value in ourselves.

Taking up the zombie genre allows Whitehead to continue this stubbornly old-fashioned appreciation for the practico-inert from another angle. In zombieland, elevators and trains, like other infrastructure, have ceased to function. There are excruciating descriptions of how it feels to climb the stairs of a Manhattan high-rise in full battle armor. The plague suddenly subtracts these achievements from the world, and it thus reveals them as the ordinary miracle they always already were. Attention must be paid, the moral goes—to elevators and trains, and to the lives that were both their causes and their effects.

Whitehead is anything but a simpleminded fan of technology, bureaucracy, or the other legitimizing appurtenances of the social order. He is very funny about the new society’s newspeak and its clumsy cover-ups. He locates its capital, cruelly, in Buffalo. And he is clear that the new zombie-killing society feeds on known, unsavory aspects of the old society. For one character their targets are the “proper citizens who had stymied and condemned him and his brothers all his life.” To another, they are “the rabble who nibbled at the edge of her dream: the weak-willed smokers, deadbeat dads and welfare cheats, single moms incessantly breeding.” The new society is fueled by old resentments, and if it survives, it’s possible it will come to express nothing else.

On the other hand, Whitehead also insists dialectically that there is some potential in the new society’s newness. The plague has performed a bit of class warfare, allowing “mediocre specimens such as himself to move up a notch.” It is not a matter of indifference that the new order has erased many or most of the old differences, including (without complaint from him) Mark Spitz’s blackness. Of course, it could do so only because the one difference that now counts is between zombie and non-zombie. “There was a single Us now, reviling a single them.” Perhaps, the novel murmurs, an inexpungible ugliness taints the dynamics of all social membership; perhaps no social line ever gets erased without another being drawn. Mark Spitz has scruples about the new order. He sometimes hesitates dangerously in his zombie-eradication duties, recognizing in his targets resemblances to those he has loved. He tells us that he has a knack for apocalypse; there’s a side of him that likes the do-it-yourself micro-communities that congeal in self-defense when society itself collapses. But what he seems to like most is the moment when the barriers fall. That’s the closest I can safely come to a plot summary.

Zombie stories permit the uninhibited, even joyous massacre, in the old imperialist style, of barbaric enemies who do not count as fully human. Yet they also encourage an awkward recognition that there may be no line between civilization and barbarism that makes any moral sense whatsoever. We kill the masses of the undead, and we do so in self-defense, yet at the same time we are aware that there is no real difference between us except that they are on one side of the wall and we are on the other—we are ourselves and they are not. Whitehead doesn’t let us feel good about it.

Why the conventions of post-apocalyptic narrative should be necessary these days in order to write from the perspective of the working class is a bit of a conundrum, but North takes full advantage of them.

Anna North’s subtle and inventive America Pacifica is more of a feel-good novel, but in its way it is even tougher-minded. Here the apocalypse has happened decades earlier, by means of climate change rather than zombies. A society of sorts has been rebuilt on a Pacific island, and (no surprise) the new society has physical walls to separate its haves from its much more numerous have-nots. The protagonist, an eighteen-year-old woman named Darcy, belongs to the latter group: she is underpaid, undernourished kitchen staff in an old people’s home. In the first chapter we watch her try to steal a steak. That same day her mother, a diver, fails to come home from work. In trying to solve the mystery of her mother’s disappearance, the protagonist will find out a lot about how the new social order came into being, whom it serves, and the forces gathering against it—all that big historical stuff that fails to interest either Murakami or well-made school-chum realism.

The new society’s acute inequality is North’s point of departure. Her island of survivors makes Whitehead’s zombie-filled Manhattan look like Woody Allen’s. In an artful estrangement, she presents the ecological disaster as having only intensified a familiar urban squalor of drugs and unemployment and no medical care. “Try watching your baby die from a disease they didn’t even have when you were growing up, while five miles away other kids get to take medicine and not even miss school.” Why the conventions of post-apocalyptic narrative should be necessary these days in order to write from the perspective of the working class is a bit of a conundrum, but North takes full advantage of them. In her social landscape people suffer from outbreaks of parrot fever and use the same questionable substance for food, fuel, and a cheap high, but the old truths of exploitation emerge with the freshness of new discovery.

The prospect of something like a revolution emerges here, though North does not simply embrace it. When she describes “Men and women and children… crammed up against the gate in the Zone wall, screaming,” she takes some trouble not to let those at the wall become zombies, but her protagonist Darcy is a model of mixed feelings, simultaneously telling the guards not to shoot and hoping the crowd will not storm the privileged Zone. As she makes her own escape, she focuses on “those so lame and pockmarked and drained of all human power that no revolution would want them, every crowd would push them to its outskirts, and no new order would ever lift them aloft. Darcy… felt for them as she had not thought to feel for such people, but the feeling was impotent and worthless and she ran on, even as they grabbed for her…” This is Darcy’s version of Mark Spitz’s ambivalence. Darcy feels for the lame and pockmarked, but she judges her feeling to be impotent and worthless, so she keeps running. She would like to join, but if she did she would be grabbed and devoured. You have to pinch yourself to remember that this is not a zombie novel.

Class is always a presence in zombie novels. As Mark McGurl suggests in a recent issue of n+1, popular culture has of late been the scene of an undeclared class war between vampires, who are charmingly individualized and aristocratic, and zombies, who are slow, dim-witted, a crowd: in short, proletarian stereotypes. The threat of the slow-moving zombies always lies in their numbers. The exponential speed with which cannibalism and contagion swell those numbers is inversely proportional to the zombies’ physical sluggishness, and this is so suspiciously neat that it seems allegorical. They do their damage by numerical proliferation, as if acting out a First World fantasy of being relentlessly out-reproduced by the hungry hordes outside.

If it is true that our collective unconscious is now preoccupied with the division between what used to be called First and Third Worlds, that would help explain why, as Kunkel notes, post-apocalyptic narratives these days are rarely “stories of joining or founding political communities dedicated to averting or surviving civilization’s collapse.” It is difficult even to imagine political community on a global scale, let alone to set about fashioning one. The mind runs instead to small tribes, each cut off from the others, facing a common threat from without but doing so by scrounging independently among globalization’s leftovers. Zombies themselves are not readily thought of as forming a political community. When we imagine them, we do not imagine the world as seen from their perspective. North is unusual in viewing the world through the eyes of the working class, and she does so very powerfully. But as you can see from the sentences quoted above, her protagonist is not convinced she really belongs to the somewhat zombie-like crowd. She is meant to be a leader, and it’s not clear that this means being their leader. When she gets a salute from a would-be revolutionary, she says “Thanks” and then feels stupid.

North is clearly tempted to usher her heroine into the position of governance that beckons when the old leadership is swept away. Just as clearly, she is unable to free herself from that tritest of maxims about power corrupting: “Everything Ansel said now was for an audience, his every word an instrument to consolidate or extend his power.” Darcy, his ally, worries that “It’ll be the same thing all over again.” On the other hand, she also asks, “How can we keep that from happening?” Pressed for advice about how things might be different, she is laconic and self-effacing. Rather than play the role of idealized surrogate parent, she prefers to go in quest of one whom she herself can consult. But she already knows the parent’s answer, and she tells it to the children around her: “Probably no more refineries. No more cars. No more steak, no more strawberries, no more apples. No more trying to make the island like the mainland used to be.” To this a small boy replies, “What’s an apple?”

“What’s an apple?” catches something characteristic about North’s understated method. The question evokes the scarcity of a particular future where resources will be strained so the few can savor a vanished way of life. But it also hints that Darcy herself, who has not been one of the few, is already in danger of forgetting the experience of the many; thus it repeats Darcy’s own warning about the new order. At the same time this sentence recalls an icon of past and present deprivation: the proverbial inner-city child stumped by an exam question because it turned out he had never seen an orange. It’s a lot to accomplish with three words, and more than many school-chum realists ever attempt. But North clearly has nothing against realism as such: she gives her heroine the name of a Jane Austen hero, and her vision of the end of the world also works neatly as a young woman’s coming-of-age story. Hopefully generic innovators of all sorts will be encouraged by her subtle success and, like her, will find new strategies for bringing down the walls. icon