In Miss Chen’s English class, we learned, “To be or not to be…” but there’s a big gray area in between.
-Chuck Palahniuk, Zombie
In his short fiction titled Zombie, Palahniuk weaves the story around a sense of despair, and a desire to escape, many of us feel. And it revolves around young people who utilize a grotesque means of resistance. Maybe this sense is not as universal as I think, maybe it mostly affects those of us who cannot not live up to the standards of living we are preached to by TV. Saying TV of course I mean the media, or the mass culture obsessed with images and image making.
We are told that if we play the game of life right we will be happy, if we work hard and play hard and reproduce the right amount we won’t feel like shit. But most of us have been suspecting for long that this happiness simply cannot exist in between the many hours of wage slavery, the moments wasted in becoming the ideal individual, or on dulling out our senses one way or another. The humans of the post-modern world, it seems, are fucked for good.
If being an adult in this mad world means to bear with disappointment, fatigue, and pain, then not being might seem like a better option. And already this is a step many young people of the developed world find themselves taking. In South Korea, where I currently live, College and Graduate School students are the second age group (after the impoverished elderly) who commit suicide. The labor market in South Korea is extremely competitive, and demanding; the starting wages are low, and furthermore the working environments are inhumane (with ridiculous hours). I myself have dealt with depression prior to graduation, in the light of the lifescape that was in front of me.
Palahniuk’s young characters face a very similar situation:
Griffin Wilson, he knew that the SATs were just the gateway to a big lifetime of bullshit. To getting married and college. To paying taxes and trying to raise a kid who’s not a school shooter. And Griffin Wilson knew drugs are only a patch. After drugs, you’re always going to need more drugs.
Griffin Wilson chooses a different path, yet he also does not pick “not being”. He wants happiness, and ceasing to exist is not exactly the same thing. Ceasing to exist wipes off the sad with its human. So Griffin pioneers a third choice. Using a defibrillator Griffin gives himself some type of electric self-lobotomy. Griffin enters a state of childlike bliss. I see Griffin’s decision as resistance in the face of a world that wants you to stay sane and strong so it can smother you longer.
His decision leads into a chain reaction in the rest of the students. Theses self-lobotomized kids are perhaps the Zombies that lend the story its title. These kids make the decision to live in this blissful state, ignorant to the rules of the society surrounding them, thrilled with the trivial joys life offers. I do not know the intentions of the author, but I find it hard to label this Zombism for there is a very hard decision involved.
Palahniuk’s Zombies find happiness in a more animalistic state. Veering away from this animal is what the main character suspects led to our unhappiness after all.
We’re basically big animals, evolved to break open shells and eat raw oysters, but now we’re expected to keep track of all three hundred Kardashian sisters and eight hundred Baldwin brothers. Seriously, at the rate they reproduce the Kardashians and the Baldwins are going to wipe out all other species of humans. The rest of us, you and me, we’re just evolutionary dead ends waiting to wink out.
We have perhaps pushed ourselves too far, hoping to hide the animal in us. But our nature nevertheless is there and limits us.
On the other hand the mentioned segment of text brings up the question of media and its role in the great misery of the post-modern times. We are all losers based on the images that the media creates and naturalizes; we can never catch up with the lives the media promote. Thanks to the neoliberal ideologies fed to us, it is our fault we are not catching up with all of the mentioned bullshit. It’s is our fault that we are not earning enough, even though we dedicate more than 40 hours of our week to our occupations. It’s our fault that we are not having magical schedules which allow us to exercise so to keep fit and healthy, engage in cultural activities and keep out minds fit, have fulfilling social relationships and create good support networks, date happy, create a family, bring up perfect kids, and age graceful. It is absolutely our fault that we do not succeed, what they media portray as success being pretty narrow, and we should feel bad about it. The normal human is a disappointing human and have no chance in winning.
However Palahniuk’s story not only does not dive dipper in this condition, it also turns a surprising turn. The narrator finds himself interested in joining the rest of his schoolmates, and self-lobotomize. But before pushing the button, he wishes to give his guardian, one last word. He decides to let his uncle know that his action in no way reflects upon the uncle’s guardianship. His uncle, upon seeing what the boy is about to do, grabs his arm and says “If you hurt yourself, you hurt me, too.” The uncle’s reaction spreads through the bystanders who grab each other’s arms and repeating the sentence. They make a chain that ends in the narrator and his uncle.
Some of the readers such as Matt Getty view read this action as a parallel this scene as a sort of zombism to that of the teenagers. That the non-lobotomized of this world are in a zombie like state as well. Some other readers have wild theories that this are all fragments of the characters already fried mind, however this second reading of the story relies on wild guesswork rather than text.
I believe that this ending was intended to be a human and felt one. I do not like this happy ending.
This certainly isn’t the happy ending I had in mind, but compared to where this story began-with Griffin Wilson in the nurse’s office putting his wallet between his teeth like a gun-Well, maybe this is not such a bad place to start.
The moment of connectedness, mass-conjoining of the observers and protesting the self-lobotomy is, in my opinion, constructed in a way to be viewed positively. The story chooses being over the bliss of being in between. And while this story never intended to search for the root of post-modern unhappiness, or give answers it leaves me with a sense of disappointment. I was not looking for answers in it anyways, but when it posits our better choice as living in the same shit, it chooses to naturalize shit.
Self-lobotomy was Griffin’s act of resistance to a world that has put heavy reins on us. Resistance and protest in the face of a word that gives us even less than two options. Griffin’s chooses to exist for satisfaction of his instant needs only. It’s not a good solution, but returning to the ordinary world of the narrator signifies acceptance of something that should not be accepted.
In my opinion the story begins with a rejection and ends with an acceptance. In this process, the resistance that is the centerpiece is rendered meaningless.