Sunday, July 3, 2011

"Last Night" (excerpt from Zone One) by Colson Whitehead

I've been writing a little about the early buzz and lead-up to the publication of Colson Whitehead's newest book Zone One, a zombie apocalypse novel set in New York City, which will be officially published in October.

Advanced Reader Copies have already been released (I'm hoping to get one). And, Publishers Weekly, a leading news source in the publishing industry, has run  a starred review of Whitehead's novel, noting that Zone One "succeeds brilliantly with a fresh take on survival, grief, 9/11, AIDS, global warming, nuclear holocaust, Katrina, Abu Ghraib, Pol Pot's Year Zero, Missouri tornadoes, and the many other disasters both natural and not that keep a stranglehold on our fears and dreams."

The July issue of Harper's Magazine includes "Last Night," a short excerpt from Whitehead's novel. The Publishers Weekly review noted that the events related to the zombie apocalypse are referred to as "Last Night" throughout Whitehead's novel.

In the excerpt, we meet the protagonist Mark Spitz as he spends leisure time with his friend Kyle at a casino in Atlantic City. Throughout the piece, there's foreshadowing that suggests something quite troubling happened "last night."

Notably, while the troubling events in the city were unfolding, Mark Spitz and Kyle were at the casino where they "did not watch the news, nor receive news from the outside." As they drove home and encountered a traffic jam, they remained oblivious that something sinister was developing. That early obliviousness, of course, is a hallmark of the zombie genre.

The safety of being unaware, however, falls apart in the closing sentences of the story as Mark Spitz walks into his parents' bedroom and witnesses a "grisly" scene, which "was the start of his Last Night story."

The appearance of Whitehead's story in Harper's Magazine operates as a preview or narrative trailer in fact for Zone One. The closing of "Last Night" is a cliffhanger that will likely motivate readers to get the book in order to see what happens next.

Back in December 2008, The New Yorker published "The Gangsters," an excerpt from Whitehead's Sag Harbor (2009). Like "Last Night," Whitehead's "The Gangsters" prepared and helped build buzz for the upcoming novel.

Publishing previews in those high-profile literary venues definitely raises Whitehead's visibility and interest in his works. At the same time, Harper's Magazine and The New Yorker have something to gain by publishing a novelist with Whitehead's prestige and popularity. Their ability to publish Colson Whitehead reminds readers (and their magazine competitors) that they are capable of attracting and showcasing new material by a leading literary figure.  

There are a couple of side-bars published with Whitehead's "Last Night" that are worth noting. In one side-bar alongside the story, there's a a paragraph or abstract from "When Zombies Attack!: Mathematical Modeling of an Outbreak of Zombie Infection," by Philip Munz, Ioan Hudea, Joe Imad, and Robert J. Smith, mathematicians who recently published their article in Infectious Disease Modelling Research Progress. The presentation of formal research on zombies next to Whitehead's fiction about zombies indicates an interesting scientific and artistic interplay.

A painting entitled "Comedian" by Martin Mull appears at the top of the concluding page of Whitehead's story. The image shows a man sitting in a chair watching a television while someone else lies in bed attempting to shield their eyes from the glare of the television or morning sunlight or both. The image could correspond to Whitehead's reference to "the flicker of the television" toward the end of his story. (Coincidentally perhaps, Mull's painting is entitled "Comedian," and Whitehead has a short story "The Comedian," which appeared in Electric Literature in Autumn 2009).

Ultimately, the presentation of a scientific article about zombies and a painting that highlights a flickering television complement Whitehead's story and reveals the editors and design and layout professionals at Harper's Magazine having fun, or better, building suspense.

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