The story kicks off with 16-year-old Griffin Wilson's self-administered lobotomy via an emergency defibrillator in the high school nurse's office. By attaching the electrodes to his head and frying his temporal lobes, Griffin reaches a permanent state of childlike bliss. Palahniuk's signature knack for making the surreal resonate with insight is on full display as the narrator, Trevor, notes:
Griffin Wilson has never seemed happier. He's always giggling too loud and wiping spit off his chin with his sleeve. The special ed teachers clap their hands and heap him with praise just for using the toilet. Talk about a double standard. The rest of us are fighting tooth and nail for whatever garbage career we can get, while Griffin Wilson is going to be thrilled with penny candy and reruns of Fraggle Rock for the rest of his life.Naturally, when his classmates see Griffin's bliss, they want some of their own, and the self-administered lobotomy trend spreads through the school as quickly as Rainbow Loom bracelets. This development is reminiscent of the suicide fad that drives the plot of the seminal 1988 teen black comedy Heathers, but Palahniuk is careful to draw a fine line between killing oneself and killing one's higher mental faculties: "In Miss Chen's English class, we learned 'To be or not to be,' but there's a big gray area in between. Maybe in Shakespeare times people only had two options."
There's a lot of mileage to be had out of this premise. It gives Palahniuk plenty of opportunities to wax profound on the absurdity of contemporary life with nuggets like, "We're basically big animals, evolved to break open shells and eat raw oysters, but now we're expected to keep track of all 300 Kardashian sisters and 800 Baldwin brothers."
However, where the piece really distinguishes itself is in its second half. When Trevor attempts to "self-fry" his brain in an airport, his uncle and guardian (Trevor's parents are dead) attempts to stop him by uttering a line that veers the story in an unexpected direction: "If you hurt yourself, Trevor, you hurt me."
In the same way the lobotomy trend spread among the story's teenagers, this line spreads like the world's most viral meme among the adult population of the airport--and then the world. Everyone in the concourse joins hands and begins spouting the compassionate banality, "If you hurt yourself, you hurt me" until even TV anchors and commentators join in the chorus.
The parallel here is obvious and compelling. Initially, the "Zombie" title seems to apply to the teenagers recklessly turning themselves into zombies to avoid engaging with a flawed world. But the irony is that even those who haven't lobotomized themselves seem to have reached a zombie-like state. As they stand hand in hand spouting this platitude, the implication seems to be that perhaps this flawed world--with its constant stream of Kardashians, Baldwins, and reality-TV-inspired morality--turns everyone into zombies.
But then, something remarkable happens, and the story sloughs off all vestiges of an easily interpreted parable and careens into the realm of inscrutable wonder. After all the world joins in the "If you hurt yourself, you hurt me" refrain, a voice over the airport intercom does something completely unexpected and enigmatic:
"Whoever you are, you need to know…" says the lady voice of the white paging telephone. Everyone listens because everyone thinks she's talking only to them. From a thousand speakers she begins to sing. With that voice, she's singing the way a bird sings. Not like a parrot or an Edgar Allan Poe bird that speaks English. The sound is trills and scales the way a canary sings, notes too impossible for a mouth to conjugate into nouns and verbs. We can enjoy it without understanding it. And we can love it without knowing what it means. Connected by telephone and television, it's synchronizing everyone, worldwide. That voice so perfect, it's just singing down on us.The reader is left in the same position as the bystanders in the airport. Any attempt to read into the story, to contemplate the zombie parallel, is thwarted here. Instead, like those holding hands in the concourse, we're left baffled but completely engaged in something that is both beautiful and meaningless. Like the "trills and scales" themselves, the moment draws you in and begs you to interpret a scene that defies interpretation. In the end, your head is left wonderfully empty, humming, buzzing with a strange sense of joy that can't be too far from what Griffin achieved with the nurse's defibrillator.