Some Thoughts on Katniss Everdeen and Female Emotion

Originally published on Big Tall Words, January 5, 2015

*Spoiler warning for The Hunger Games trilogy*

Oh, the tears.

There are probably reasons why these novels and films hit me so hard. I just finished a class about happiness (or the lack thereof) in Romantic literature led by a professor who feels so acutely that many members in the class tear up at his words. (No, really. The man has some kind of aura around him. I thought it was just me, but he has this effect on many.) Trauma, sadness, pain, and depression figured largely in the class; we read a lot of psychoanalysis and novels about characters who waste away and/or commit suicide. Needless to say, the class was not all that uplifting at times, and it has certainly had an effect on my own state of mind.

I tried to remember this while sobbing my way through the novels. I tried to remind myself that I was reading too much into the novels by thinking of them as stories about recovering from trauma. I tried to remind myself that there was going to be a happy ending because there often is in post-apocalyptic fiction, especially young adult post-apocalyptic fiction. When all this failed, I tried to tell myself: GAWD IT’S JUST A BOOK GET A GRIP! (It didn’t work.)

The thing is, I don’t think I am reading too much into the novels to say that they are about recovering from trauma. Katniss’s world is a damaging place where the odds are never “in your favour”, where bad things happen to good people, where death is often hasty and meaningless. Though she survives this world, she cannot (and does not) emerge unscathed.

At the beginning of The Hunger Games, Katniss’s father has died, and the burden of ensuring her family doesn’t starve to death has fallen on her shoulders. She has grown up too fast, learned too quickly that death is inevitable, that the price of survival is almost never too high. Take Buttercup, for instance. On the very first page of the first novel, Katniss tells us matter-of-factly: “He hates me. Or at least distrusts me. Even though it was years ago, I think he still remembers how I tried to drown him in a bucket when Prim brought him home. Scrawny kitten, belly swollen with worms, crawling with fleas. The last thing I needed was another mouth to feed” (3). How many 16-year-olds would be so cavalier about the need to drown a kitten — the very picture of innocence — because they understand that the resources of the household cannot stretch to accommodate it? This is a young woman hardened too soon by too much trauma.

Prim, of course, can afford to be innocent. She can beg and cry to keep the kitten because she doesn’t know its true cost. And Katniss works very hard to let Prim keep the cat, though she has no love for the creature herself. In fact, Katniss’s description of her own relationship with the cat sounds to me like she is incapable of the innocence that loving it would demand: “Sometimes, when I clean a kill, I feed Buttercup the entrails. He has stopped hissing at me. Entrails. No hissing. This is closest we will come to love” (4). Prim is about the only person she trusts enough to love; she feels shame that Peeta’s act of kindness gave her hope when she was younger, and anger at her mother’s grief.

These early passages make it clear to me that Katniss has dealt with trauma long before she steps into the arena for the Hunger Games. Afterwards, of course, she is a shell of who she was, and terrified to trust another enough for love to develop. In Catching Fire, when Gale confesses his love for her, she replies, “I can’t think about anyone that way now. All I can think about, every day, every waking minute since they drew Prim’s name at the reaping is how afraid I am. And there doesn’t seem to be room for anything else. If we could get somewhere safe, maybe I could be different. I don’t know” (97). Here we have Katniss confronting the unknowability of the future; the uncertainty as to whether she will ever be able to move past the trauma (the loss, the hardship, the adversity) that has plagued her.

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In Mockingjay, the final novel, Katniss’s grief comes to a head. Like Haymitch, she becomes addicted to a painkiller; like Annie, she acts like a lunatic, screaming and throwing fits and blacking out. This part of the novel made me wish for an exterior narrator. But the fragmented present tense captured something of the raw emotion Katniss deals with after everything she’s been through. Her home has been destroyed; she is constantly a pawn in a larger game, the rules and players of which she may never fully grasp; her closest companion has grown into a ruthless military tactician; the cause she tries to support resembles l’Ancien Regime more and more each day; her mother shuts her out again; and worst of all, Prim is killed, possibly in one of Gale’s engineered bombings. Of course she murders Coin. Of course she becomes a morphine addict. Of course she shuts everyone out. Who wouldn’t?

What I love about the series and its final installment is what some readers really hate about it. It goes to dark places. Katniss suffers. Good people die for no reason. Some readers (particularly Goodreads reviewers) claim that certain characters “deserved better” or that the final novel’s epilogue feels tacked on. Some (again, Goodreads reviewers) protest that Katniss isn’t strong anymore, she isn’t in control in the final novel, she’s messed up and no one wants to read about that. Movie Bob from The Escapist said something similar in his review of the latest film, stating sarcastically that everyone wanted to see the characters “moping around” for two hours.

Sigh.

The Hunger Games is based on a philosophical problem as old as humanity itself: why do bad things happen to good people? The simple answer is because we are not in control. We live in an absurd world where chaos reigns. Katniss is never “in control” at any point in the series. Even when she’s kicking ass, she’s doing it because she is a cog in a larger machine. Anyone who thinks that she was strong early in the series and weak later must have fallen for her propos because she was never as strong as she seemed; she only had people watching her for signs of weakness. Katniss is a hunter. She knows that weakness means death, and strength means survival. So she performs for the cameras. But, more than any of the other novels and films, Mockingjay shows us Katniss away from the cameras. And yes, she cries. Yes, she faints and vomits and hides and blacks out and panics. She suffers. Mockingjay shows us that no one can live in the world without suffering, though some may be better at putting up a brave face.

So why is it that, when Katniss starts to visibly suffer, people accuse her of being weak? Or they accuse the series of losing its appeal because its main character is just “moping around”?

Because Katniss is a woman.

In his review of Mockingjay Part 1, Movie Bob claimed to understand how significant Katniss is as a female protagonist. He claimed that she is an excellent role model for young women (better, he states, than Bella Swan, though that’s saying very, very little). He claimed that he understood why people loved her and loved the books, and loved the series, but he — poor defenceless film critic as he is — just wants to know why they can’t make a better movie, why the final installment had to be divided in two even though it means that the first film is filled with the characters moping around.

I would reply that Movie Bob understands jack about shit when it comes to Katniss as a female protagonist, and he wasn’t watching the film very closely to conclude that it is useless because she was “moping around” the whole time.

In the latest Hunger Games film, President Coin is played by Julianne Moore. I thought this was a bizarre casting choice, since I read Coin as a very hard woman, and Moore is, well, soft. (At least, I always thought so.) The filmmakers added a scene, however, that justifies their decision. In this scene, Katniss breaks away from the crowd, and Coin finds her. The two converse a little, and there is an unprecedented moment of connection between them. Katniss is grieving her losses, and Coin opens up a little about her family being murdered by the Capitol. She concludes by telling Katniss that in difficult times, people like the two of them find something inside that pushes them onward. It is an emotional moment, and both actors give the scene the emotional gravitas that it deserves. I was quite impressed. Here was the film justifying its own focus upon the emotional deterioration of Katniss Everdeen. What I got from the scene was that Coin was telling Katniss, it’s okay to be an emotional wreck; you can be both strong and emotional.

A great woman once said, “My emotions give me power.” This great woman suffered hardship: saddled with responsibility beyond her years, willing to give her life multiple times for the ones she loved, she sacrificed everything for her younger sister, lost a parent before she felt capable of being on her own in the world, became a brick wall that shut out those who loved her, and cried when no one was looking. This great woman also said, “The hardest thing in this world is to live in it.”

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And people called her whiny.

Too frequently, I think, texts with female protagonists rely on their leads embodying so-called masculine traits to be “strong” (i.e. physical strength/ stamina, leadership, assertiveness, independence/cutting emotional ties, a tactical mind, technical mastery of a skill or weapon, etc.). Katniss fulfills many of these traits; ironically, Movie Bob pointed this out in a different video, claiming that the reason she is strong is because she is hardly perceived as “female.” Though this may be true of the first installment of the series, as it develops, the weight of Katniss’s trauma becomes greater, and she becomes more visibly emotional (which is, of course a stereotypical female trait). Catching Fire and Mockingjay show us a Katniss who is suffering, who is both emotional and strong, perhaps even strong because she is emotional. This is an unusual stance, and I think very highly of The Hunger Games for taking it.

I know why it is unusual for texts to take this stance: to do so risks being associated with essentialist thinking that claims that women are emotional while men are not. Even what I wrote above may approach the essentialism line. But I think it is possible to say that women are emotional because they are socialized to be able to show emotion more than men because they are expected to be weaker, and emotion is a sign of weakness. Therefore, to have a female protagonist who draws strength from perceived signs of weakness is an accomplishment, in my mind.

Yes, Katniss spends some of the movies and books “moping.” But I encourage those who criticize her for it to think of the Careers — the tributes brought up to fight in the Games. They don’t “mope,” but they are also ruthless human beings, capable of murder and torture. Katniss remains human, which is why she gave Rue such a moving send-off and wanted to save the wounded in the burning hospital. As readers and viewers, we should be pleased that Katniss can feel, that she draws strength from those feelings, that she can heal, rather than complain about having to go with her through the slow and painful healing process.

The beauty of Mockingjay is that Katniss does heal. Slowly. Painfully. Imperfectly. Some readers hated the novel’s epilogue, claiming that she settled for a certain way of life, but I loved it. I thought it was a movingly simple coda: the continuation of life in the face of ongoing hardship. In the novel’s conclusion, Katniss becomes the mockingjay: “A mockingjay is a creature the Capitol never intended to exist. They hadn’t counted on the highly controlled jabberjay having the brains to adapt to the wild, to pass on its genetic code, to thrive in a new form. They hadn’t anticipated its will to live” (Catching Fire 92). In the final novel’s epilogue, we see this symbolism embodied (though it’s admittedly on-the-nose). She has adapted to the wild; she has healed, passed on her genetic code, and survived (though I would not say thrived) in a new form. She still has nightmares; Peeta still has flashbacks. They still suffer. But they survive. The world has become a better place, but pain lingers.

Here is a woman who manages to be strong while still in touch with her emotions despite unspeakable hardships. Here is a heroine.

Oh, and P.S. The Hunger Games is NOT about a love triangle. It never was. (Anyone who thinks that the tension of the first two novels was driven by Katniss’s choice of boyfriend needs to go back to the Twilight fandom where they belong. I’m looking at you, Goodreads reviewers.) I have many, many more thoughts on the misreadings of the series, and when I’m not busy writing for my MA, maybe I’ll share them here.

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“If you can read this, LEAVE!!!” Storytelling in Left 4 Dead and Zone One

Originally published on Big Tall Words, December 22, 2014

Post-apocalyptic fiction continually attempts to project itself into the future by resisting endings; each ending becomes instead an opportunity for continuation. Storytelling is the main method by which post-apocalyptic fiction attempts to resist closure, and this method can be traced back to the roots of the genre itself. Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, published in 1826, was “the first major work of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction” (Lovegrove 98). Shelley’s novel is written as a memoir and claims to be a translation of ancient writings (Lovegrove 99). As such, it projects itself into the future “for the benefit of posterity (not that anyone remains to read it)” (Lovegrove 99). Even though the memoir ends, it continually hopes to be read anew, subscribing to the “oxymoronic premise that the apocalypse has a future” (Sorensen 563). The narrative, then, sees the “apocalypse [as] a disaster but also an opportunity. It allows humankind to make a fresh start” (Lovegrove 99). In this scenario, the apocalypse is a temporary setback, an event that humans can conquer and recover from; in this scenario, the return to normalcy is inevitable.

Zombie narratives are excellent examples of post-apocalyptic fiction’s resistance to closure. These stories literally embody the belief that human survivors can get through the end of the world intact, believing that “the apocalypse is an object on which humanity can act, not an irresistible force that acts on humanity” (Sorensen 566). As the American Phoenix project heads would say, humanity must merely survive the “interregnum” (Whitehead 54). Max Brooks’s World War Z, written as a series of stories reflecting upon the zombie apocalypse, offers this perspective as well, “assur[ing] the reader that the apocalyptic scenario that it describes will not only end but also become knowable as an event that can be subsumed into human history” (Sorensen 567).

The goal of my discussion here is to examine this paradoxical belief in the end of the end of the world as it manifests in storytelling in two works of post-apocalyptic zombie fiction, a videogame entitled Left 4 Dead and Colson Whitehead’s novel Zone One. I will begin by discussing embedded stories in Left 4 Dead that present this belief, before moving on to how the larger environmental narrative justifies the violence required to guarantee humanity’s survival. At this point, I will shift my discussion to Zone One, highlighting the ways the novel’s embedded stories also uphold this hope for the future, but demonstrating that the novel ultimately resists this reading. My discussion will conclude that although typical post-apocalyptic zombie fiction like Left 4 Dead is more uplifting, the bleaker vision of Zone One is a more realistic, Anthropocenic narrative of the end of the world.

Released into the horde of all things zombie in 2008, Valve’s videogame Left 4 Dead carries with it the tendency of post-apocalyptic fiction to look ahead — in this case to a time when humanity will eradicate the zombie threat. It is a First-Person Shooter (FPS) survival horror game; the story, such as it is, finds four strangers travelling together two weeks after the zombie infection started spreading (Valve Corporation). The game has four independent campaigns, “No Mercy,” “Death Toll,” “Dead Air,” and “Blood Harvest,” that each trace the survivors’ progression towards an evacuation point. The locations of these end-points range from urban (the rooftop of a city hospital) to rural (an abandoned farmhouse). Assuming they can hold off waves of the undead, the survivors are rescued by a civilian or military vehicle. There is no mention of what might come after this rescue, but it is hopeful. In “Blood Harvest,” we even get a glimpse of the sunrise before the screen fades to black. The words “The survivors have escaped!” appear, and heroic music swells (see Fig. 1). If one or more of the survivors perish before they reach the escape vehicle, a memorial message comes up on the screen, offering consolation but hope. These visual and auditory signs tell the player that the story is moving on to a hopeful future.

Fig. 1. “Blood Harvest” Escape Sequence (Valve Corporation)

Fig. 1. “Blood Harvest” Escape Sequence (Valve Corporation)

Aside from its hopeful conclusion, Left 4 Dead relies on storytelling to uphold the view that the apocalypse will end. Stories in Left 4 Dead appear throughout the game in the form of graffiti. As survivors head toward the evacuation point, they stop in what are called “safe rooms” or “safe houses” (Valve Corporation). These are zombie-proof rooms stocked with supplies such as first aid kits and ammunition. Though we never meet another team of survivors in the game, these rooms are frequented by others, as we can see from the abundance of writing on the walls. Most of these notes are addressed to loved ones (see Fig. 2). They update the addressee on the status of family members, like Kat’s message to Lars and El’s note to Lisa, or they apologize for being unable to wait for them, like Krista’s message to Kevin and Kate’s two notes to Peter. The larger writing of Kate’s second note speaks to her panic at the thought of leaving him behind, while Kat and El’s matter-of-fact tone sounds numb from so much tragedy. In one memorable case, an unsigned writer expresses anger, telling Claude Huggins that he is a coward. These messages resemble the “oral history” recounted in World War Z in that they offer retrospection (Sorensen 566) or at least the hope thereof. They narrate an experience, looking ahead to a time when they may have to account for their actions. Like The Last Man’s memoirs, they project themselves into the future, assuming or hoping that someone (the addressee or otherwise) will read them.

Fig. 2. Notes to Loved Ones on Safe Room Walls (Valve Corporation)

Fig. 2. Notes to Loved Ones on Safe Room Walls (Valve Corporation)

Other notes offer observations of the zombie threat, theorizing as to its causes and offering solutions or advice to others based on what they’ve seen. The above note, “If you can read this, LEAVE!!!” is the most simplistic of these, but there are others (see Fig. 3).

These as well resist closure, expressing the futuristic hope that their theories will be proven correct one day, or that they can be of assistance to others later.

In many cases, as we can clearly see in Fig. 2 and 3, the notes invite marginalia, as later survivors comment on what others have written, providing the player with insight into the minds of those living through the apocalypse. The comments are sometimes as enlightening and uplifting as YouTube users’ comments (see Fig. 4), but these moronic statements also present a narrative, that of one person’s reaction to another, and its implicit hope of a future readership.

Fig. 3. Theories and Advice (Valve Corporation)

Fig. 3. Theories and Advice (Valve Corporation)

Graffiti that seems like nothing more than social media updates (see Fig. 5) presents this narrative as well. The subtext of these stories is, quite simply, “I was here.” These graffitists anticipate that someone will want to know what they were doing, thinking, saying, feeling, or, in the case of the brief obituaries, whom they were remembering. These memories are stories too, as they record the present for posterity; as such, they further the forward trajectory of Left 4 Dead as a whole, which anticipates the end of the end of the world.

Fig. 4. Post-Apocalyptic Comments Sections (Valve Corporation)

Fig. 4. Post-Apocalyptic Comments Sections (Valve Corporation)

Fig. 5. “I was here.” (Valve Corporation)

Fig. 5. “I was here.” (Valve Corporation)

Some videogame critics, known as ludologists, would probably view the preceding analysis of Left 4 Dead as problematic, since I have chosen to look more closely at aspects of the game that surround gameplay rather than the gameplay itself. A player can, after all, get through an entire campaign without carefully reading any of the graffiti that I have noted above. My examining Left 4 Dead in conjunction with a novel and considering it as a part of a larger canon of post-apocalyptic fiction would probably also irk ludologists, since they argue that videogames are “a whole new medium, […] whose foundation is not in looking and reading but in the instigation of material change through action” (Galloway 4). According to this logic, videogames cannot and should not be analyzed using the same tools as literary or filmic interpretation (Galloway 4).

Ludologists would especially regard my analysis with suspicion given that Left 4 Dead is a First-Person Shooter. In a FPS like Left 4 Dead, “the player controls the actions of an in-game protagonist from a first-person perspective” (Atkins 55). As a result, “the player gets a strong sense of ‘being there’ herself, as no mediating character is brought to the centre of attention” (Mäyrä 107). Indeed, Left 4 Dead has been praised for this very feature: “Upon its release, it was called the first true zombie apocalypse game because it actually created the feel of a zombie apocalypse” (Swain). In a review of its sequel, one writer made a similar observation: “You know that scene in a zombie movie where the pilot turns into a zombie and the vehicle runs wild?  That happens [in Left 4 Dead 2], but you don’t have to watch it because this isn’t a movie.[…] Instead, the characters hop in a helicopter at the end of one campaign and talk about the horrible helicopter crash at the beginning of the next one” (Dunston). Given these features, ludologists would likely argue that Left 4 Dead must only be analyzed via the actions of the player-characters.

To be blunt, I disagree with the ludologists’ standpoint because the actions of the player-character only make sense in the context created by the game using visual and textual signs. Eric Wolpaw, one of the lead writers of Left 4 Dead, calls the combination of these signs “the environmental story” (qtd. in Graft). Galloway may be correct in saying that videogames are not based on “looking and reading” (4), but what he fails to mention is the ways that the action of a videogame relies on its environmental story. Players therefore read as much as play games. The literacy involved in reading the environmental story differs from that involved in reading a novel or film, but it is still an act of reading.

Without the environmental story, the actions of the player-character would be meaningless. This is especially the case in a FPS, where the environmental story “acts to guarantee that the violence that is at the heart of the game is internally justified as a response to the world of the text” (Atkins 61-2). As Brendan Keogh maintains, “The affordances and constraints of videogame play, what the player can or cannot ‘do’, only make sense in relation to the audiovisually constructed fictional world of the game” (6). Thus, ludologists’ sole focus on player action underestimates the player as a reader of signs.

As Barry Atkins notes, “game fictions might communicate their meanings and construct narrative without any dependence on the mediation of language” (58). Therefore, to read the environmental story of Left 4 Dead requires sensory literacy — interpreting visual, auditory and tactile signs to make meaning — and a kind of pop culture literacy, as well, that can recognize signs that connect the game to other media. Many, if not most of these signs are read subconsciously, especially if a player is familiar with the semiotics of videogames: “players effortlessly draw together in the same sentence thumb sticks, virtual characters and environments, living rooms, fingers, laser rifles, loading screens, save points, and the end of the world” (Keogh 2). Just because they may be reading subconsciously, however, does not mean they are not reading.

Left 4 Dead uses visual signs borrowed from film to evoke “a thick atmosphere, unrelenting tension, [and] a sense of danger” (Swain) that justify the game’s ceaseless violence. The game’s level design features narrow, dimly-lit alleyways between ruined, empty buildings. Navigating these areas evokes fear and tension: pathways sometimes lead to dead ends, and it is often hard to see what may be waiting down a chosen path. Lighting is also a major component of crafting the game fiction. In the streets, the majority of the lighting is provided only by the headlights of abandoned cars; in interior spaces, the light often comes from the player-character’s flashlight alone. Safe rooms, however, are well-lit with warm light (see Fig. 6). The jarring contrast between these areas tells the player that the world is short on safe places, furthering the tense atmosphere.

Fig. 7. “No Mercy” Load Screen and End Credits (Valve Corporation)

Fig. 6. Lighting in “Death Toll” (Valve Corporation).

Left 4 Dead also makes conscious reference to classic horror and slasher films, meaning that a kind of pop cultural literacy is required. This game expects a player to recognize “codes and conventions of popular culture” in order to interpret the game “as an extended text rather than a sequence of unconnected fragments in which all one does is move the gunsight and press the fire button” (Atkins 61). In Left 4 Dead, these codes and conventions take the form of allusions to low-budget monster movies. Before the game begins in earnest, a loading screen imitates a movie poster, complete with a cheesy tagline, and after the campaign is complete, credits featuring gameplay statistics roll (see Fig. 7).

Fig. 7. “No Mercy” Load Screen and End Credits (Valve Corporation)

Fig. 7. “No Mercy” Load Screen and End Credits (Valve Corporation)

Auditory signs, such as the game’s minimal dialogue, also reference film media. One of the playable characters, Zoey, quotes Aliens in one part of the “No Mercy” campaign, shouting, “Game over, man! Game over!” (Valve Corporation). On a similar note, the game’s musical score resembles that of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. The game also uses subtle musical cues to signal the arrival of particularly challenging zombie foes. This combination of auditory signs creates an environmental story that resembles being in a zombie movie more so than creating “the feel of a zombie apocalypse” (Swain). But sensory signs can also stand alone as signifiers of meaning. Tactile signs, such as haptic feedback from the controller, signal to the player that a large and dangerous enemy is approaching, again building an environmental story in which a hair trigger is permissible.

Thus the environmental story of Left 4 Dead, which players read while gaming, justifies its extreme violence, since it posits that violence is the only way to survive the apocalypse. As such, the game becomes a grander narrative of continuation, one that upholds the same proleptic tendency as its embedded stories written in the form of graffiti. The game’s larger narrative puts the player into the role of the sole human survivor who must and will live on, even if only in memory. If one survivor falls, a memorial message appears before the credits roll; if all the survivors are killed or incapacitated, players must re-start the chapter — the game literally cannot end without at least one human alive. Sorensen notes that in Romero’s films, the survivors always end up dying, but “the reiteration of the plot in each film makes the apocalypse a cyclical, rather than a singular event” (568), and Left 4 Dead does the same. It was designed to be played multiple times: “The thing with Left 4 Dead is that it’s replayable,” states Valve writer Eric Wolpaw. “It’s designed for people to play it 20, 30, and 40 times” (qtd. in Graft). Thus the survival narrative gets repeated ad infinitum, replicating the same trope as Zone One’s American Phoenix: humans can and must and will survive the apocalypse.

The extreme violence, though justified by the game’s environmental story, also shapes the way that we view and read the apocalypse. As seen in most of the images used in this paper, the crosshairs of a gun define the way that players view the end of the world and any stories told therein. With humanity now living the Anthropocene, facing the real possibility of extinction (though probably not because of zombies), stories like Left 4 Dead suggest that the only way to deal with an apocalypse is by seeing it through the crosshairs, that is to say, to be armed and violent in response to its threat. Players in Left 4 Dead can never not be armed; they cannot choose to requisition a vehicle and use it to transport other survivors to safety, or loot grocery stores to hide out in a bomb shelter, or break down and cry. The stories within Left 4 Dead and the larger environmental story of Left 4 Dead as a videogame present this view: to get to the anterior future, the time without violence, we have to adopt the violence of the interregnum to look ahead and live through it.

Embedded stories in Colson Whitehead’s Zone One embody a similar desire and hope in humanity’s ability to get past the apocalypse, though the novel ultimately suggests this aspiration is futile. Storytelling figures largely among the survivors of the plague and the sweepers in Zone One, where everyone has a “Last Night story” (Whitehead 88). It is a means of finding and maintaining an identity and a means of connecting to others: “If you chose to hook up for a time, eventually you traded Last Night stories” (Whitehead 137). Gary’s involves his brief foray as a deputy, while Kaitlyn “never saw her parents again after she departed on her trip” to Pennsylvania (Whitehead 126-7). Mim shares the horror of being separated from her children on Last Night (Whitehead 160), and Margie retrospectively praises her offhand decision to leave Cape Cod on Monday instead of Sunday when the plague first descended (Whitehead 216). These stories, like Left 4 Dead’s safe room wall reflections, employ the retrospection of World War Z’s “historiography as a mode of containment” (Sorensen 567), looking back to see Last Night as one more event in the past.

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Survivors also tell stories of the future. For example, Gary, “a true pheenie,” talks a lot of his plans, from moving to an island to devising a machine to trap zombies (Whitehead 78). He is certain that his “skel-catcher, or You-Grab-It, or Lasso, whatever,” will make him rich, and he is “undeterred” despite Kaitlyn and Mark Spitz’s criticisms (Whitehead 77-8). Gary’s optimism and other survivors’ hopes are often for an anterior future, alluding to a time when they can look backwards. They hope to remember and be remembered, to get “it all down for some calm, distant day when you were long disappeared and a stranger took the time to say your name” (Whitehead 139). While trapped in an old farmhouse, Tad plans his next project: a soon-to-be hit videogame based on humanity’s battle with the plague: “‘It’ll move a million copies,’ he said. ‘Those old World War II games still sell’” (Whitehead 222). Likewise, Mark Spitz’s former comrade, the Quiet Storm, arranges cars on the interstate to write “herself into the future […]. To Anyone Who Can Read This: Stay Away. Please Help. Remember Me” (Whitehead 290).

While the Quiet Storm’s message seems more personal, Tad’s plan can be classified on the same scale as the American Phoenix project. Both Tad and Buffalo view the zombie apocalypse as a temporary challenge and predict humanity’s victory. Each decision made by the American Phoenix keeps this optimism in mind, from prohibiting the sweepers’ breaking glass windows — “Buffalo wanted the city habitable for the new tenants” (Whitehead 75) — to devising a theme song for the eventual filmic dramatization, “Stop! Can You Hear the Eagle Roar? (Theme from Reconstruction)” (Whitehead 135). Ms. Macy summarizes this futuristic attitude in her description of wall art to hang in an apartment building lobby: “I’m thinking kids […]. They’re the future, after all. That’s what this whole thing is about, the future” (Whitehead 207). Ms. Macy’s focus is on rebranding, creating a narrative from the apocalypse; she, too, is telling stories.

Ronald Soetaert, Jeroen Bourgonjon, and Kris Rutten, in “Video Games as Equipment for Living,” offer a possible explanation for the survivors’ and the American Phoenix’s dependence upon storytelling: to tell a story is a human act. Using Kenneth Burke’s theory of symbolic action, they argue that human life consists of drama, which can be described as the combination and variation of five elements: act, agent, scene, agency, and purpose (Soetaert, Bourgonjon, and Rutten). These aspects define how we tell and interpret drama — which is to say, stories. This theory posits that humans are “story telling animals” (Soetaert, Bourgonjon, and Rutten). Alasdair MacIntyre puts it another way: “[A human] is not essentially, but becomes through his history, a teller of stories that aspire to truth. […] We can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’” (qtd. in Soetaert, Bourgonjon, and Rutten). When we look at storytelling in this light, it makes sense that zombie fiction would feature so many stories. In both Left 4 Dead and Zone One, zombies cannot speak, though humans in the midst of transforming into zombies still can (see Fig. 8). The act of telling stories, then, contains something unmistakeably human in zombie narratives, and hence it is used as a means of setting us apart from the horde.

Fig. 8. “Got bit but…” (Valve Corporation)

Fig. 8. “Got bit but…” (Valve Corporation)

Though Zone One contains many characters who subscribe to the view that storytelling will carry humanity into the future, the novel strives to resist this narrative, as Leif Sorensen outlines in his article “Against the Post-Apocalyptic.” The most obvious face of this resistance is Mark Spitz himself, who calls hope a “gateway drug” (Whitehead 222) and “assumes that all refuges are temporary” (Sorensen 561). Mark Spitz is not “like the rest of them, the other sweepers, […]. You never heard Mark Spitz say ‘When this is all over’ or ‘Once things get back to normal’ […] because he refused them” (Whitehead 32). Sorensen argues that,

Mark Spitz’s account of the zombie plague opposes the American Phoenix’s narrative of rebirth. In his narrative, the disruption brought on by the apocalypse is permanent, not reversible. Consequently, Mark Spitz’s narrative does not hinge on a moment in which society can return to its previous heights. It is a narrative of becoming, in which humanity must adapt to a hostile, potentially post-human world. (561)

I agree with Sorensen that Mark’s Spitz’s becoming opposes that of the American Phoenix project, but I think it is important not to lose sight of the fact that his methods are the same. Sorensen’s language here echoes MacIntyre’s description of how human beings understand themselves and the world, through a continuing narrative of becoming. Though the novel attempts to distance itself from the a proleptic tendency of post-apocalyptic fiction, Mark Spitz is always using narrative to situate himself in the present, which is not especially different from Left 4 Dead’s “I was here”

Mark Spitz’s Last Night story epitomizes his use of narrative to define his past and present (though not his future). The tale comes up, as many of his stories do, incidentally: while dropping off bodies for disposal, he feels the rain, which triggers a memory of swimming at his cousin’s house, which prompts him to ruminate over the near-pristine state of the street, which leads him to reflect on how normal his childhood home had looked from the outside on Last Night (Whitehead 79-81). This meandering route leads him to retell the story, seemingly to himself. Later, in a similarly tangential thread, he catches sight of movement across the street, which triggers a reflection on his way of life before coming to work as a sweeper in Zone One. At this point, he reveals that he had refined his Last Night story into three versions. The Silhouette was for survivors he wasn’t going to travel with for long […]. He offered the Anecdote, robust and carrying more on its ribs, to those he might hole up with for a night […]. The Obituary, although refined over the months and not without a rehearsed air, was nonetheless heartfelt, glancing off his true self more than once. (Whitehead 138-9)

From this description, the reader presumes that the story found earlier is the Obituary, but there is some unresolved ambiguity. He mentioned nothing of these categories before, which leads to confusion, but even more unclear is the wording found at the end of the Last Night story when it first appears: “That was the start of his Last Night story” (Whitehead 88, emphasis added). To further complicate things, when Mark Spitz begins to outline the three versions of his Last Night story, he puzzlingly states, “Each retelling of one’s Last Night story was a step toward another fantastic refuge, that of truth” (138). This too echoes MacIntyre’s vision of the human as “a teller of stories that aspire to truth” (qtd. in Soetaert, Bourgonjon, and Rutten). In light of these two obfuscating details, I would conclude that Mark Spitz is struggling throughout the novel to understand his place in the world via narrative. This revelation shows that Mark Spitz is as interested in rebranding as the American Phoenix, though with an eye to the past rather than the future or the future past.

Mark Spitz’s wandering mind and internal storytelling is supposedly due to his suffering from Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder (or PASD), a common ailment among the surviving population (Whitehead 67). His PASD is first triggered when he is confronted with the mystery of the zombie woman in the gorilla suit. Mark Spitz cannot stop “sleuthing” (Whitehead 64). He wonders ruefully,

Was she the spouse, an employee or former employee, and if so, what about this place shouldered its way into her mentality, past the plague, summoning her here? Then there was the suit. […] Perhaps the explanation of her outfit and how she made it to this spot was plausible in the context of her former life. But there was no one to tell her story. (Whitehead 65)

This utter lack of an explanation leads to the attack of his PASD: “He didn’t find her clothes, or any clues, and the next moment he was weeping” (Whitehead 66). In a world where telling stories determines one’s humanity, Mark Spitz struggles with the fact that this person’s story will never be told.

From this point in time — not in the novel, since when it begins Kaitlyn had “picked up on Mark Spitz’s aversion [to ID collection] grids ago” (Whitehead 63) — Mark Spitz’s PASD serves as another narrative with which he defines himself. It is a useful means for the reader to define him as well:

He had nerve damage: input could not penetrate. The world stalled out at his edges. Sometimes he had trouble speaking to other people, rummaging for language, and it seemed to him that an invisible layer divided him from the rest of the world, a membrane of emotional surface tension. He was not alone. ‘Survivors are slow or incapable of forming new attachments.’ (Whitehead 66)

To the reader, this description seems apt for Mark Spitz. Mentally, he never seems to lack for language; his meandering mental narration takes up pages, but his vocalized dialogue is scarce. This uneven ratio creates the impression that his interior space, crowded with names and stories from the past, does not mix with his exterior space; instead, the two seem juxtaposed, suspended in constant tension. One of the few places in the novel where there is an indication that Mark Spitz’s interior monologue is being dictated to the exterior world is when he tells Gary the story of how he acquired his nickname (Whitehead 166-83). This lengthy passage is not delivered using quotation marks to indicate speech, instead relying on interruptions from Gary to create the impression that it is being spoken aloud. Gary’s interruptions, such as “You haven’t got to the Mark Spitz part yet,” “What do you mean?” and “Not following,” suggest that Mark Spitz may be “rummaging for language,” struggling to tell the story, or to tell it properly (Whitehead 174, 176, 177, 66). The wandering narration that characterizes Mark Spitz’s internal storytelling seems ill-equipped for the setting, since Gary may not have much time left. Regardless, in an attempt to comfort himself and his friend, he tells the story of behind his identity.

This is the only place where the novel acknowledges that Mark Spitz is narrating aloud, which I find significant in view of Whitehead’s overall resistance to the proleptic purpose of storytelling in post-apocalypse and zombie fiction. As I discussed above, we know that he has told his Last Night story to other survivors (and, I assume, to Kaitlyn and Gary), but it is unclear as to whether Mark Spitz tells Kaitlyn and Gary any of his other stories. According to Sorensen, Mark Spitz accepts narrative closure and “fully realize[s] himself” (580) at the end of the novel, when he recognizes that his time in Zone One has been but “a breather before the recommitment to annihilation” (Whitehead 318). With this realization in mind, I think it is significant that Mark Spitz tells his story only to Gary, who will die very soon: “It was just the two of them, as Kaitlyn worried over the comm in the front room” (Whitehead 166). Does he choose this moment to share his internal narration because Gary is dying? Given that his commitment to finality comes only slightly after he tells his story to Gary, I see his sharing of this story as a further testament to his resistance of a view of storytelling that anticipates future readership. In this moment, then, he is not interested in impressing himself upon the memories of others as he and the other survivors used to when they told their Last Night stories, or as the unseen letter writers and graffitists do in Left 4 Dead. Instead, his telling of the story here is an expression of his understanding and acceptance that stories, his or humanity’s, will have no future.

Sorensen argues that Mark Spitz is able to rearrange his narrative “into a coherent story of an individual’s exceptional survival,” and, in doing so, he adopts the same “open-ended model of apocalyptic time” as other zombie apocalypse fictions, which the novel then forbids (569). I would agree with Sorensen but for the fact that Mark Spitz does not seem to tell the stories that identify him as exceptional to anyone except Gary, whom he knows will soon die. As such, I think that Mark Spitz does not use his narrative to project himself into the future so much as to trust himself in the present. I would argue that even in his last thought, “Fuck it, […] have to learn how to swim sometime,” there is no “When this is all over;” rather, it is the sense of “Got him this far” that remains (Whitehead 322, 32, 11).

Left 4 Dead may seem to embody the same sentiment of surviving moment by moment instead of looking ahead, but the larger environmental story undercuts the similarity between the two texts. The game’s embedded stories that look ahead to the end of the end of the world, its filmic aspects that uphold the belief in human exceptionalism, and the game’s mandatory hopeful ending combine to present the “irrepressible pheenie anthem” that the apocalypse has a future, and humanity can, must, and will survive to see it (Whitehead 135). The post-apocalyptic genre may write itself into the future and resist closure, but Zone One seems to capture the more likely scenario of an apocalypse: complete ending, with only a very few futile acts of heroics.

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