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Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Zero: Walter's Novel of 9/12

Brian Remy is a New York City cop. He was on the scene when the towers collapsed on 9/11, narrowly escaping himself (even though his son is telling people he died). And Remy has just shot himself in the head — but he can't remember whether he did it on purpose, or accidentally. Indeed, he can't remember much of anything — he sort of "wakes up" between gaps in his memory and has to piece together what he's been up to. Conscious Remy is good, "unconscious," off-the-page Remy is bad.

So the story revolves around the fact that he's in a constant struggle to figure out what he's up to — helping a government agency infiltrate a terrorist cell? tracking down a woman who may or may not have died in the attacks? — and we're as much in the dark as Good Remyis. "...and Remy found that he was smiling, not exactly remembering, but wanting to, and thinking there's not much difference, that the best memories might be those you don't remember."

Much, much more than just a study of a fascinating character, though, Jess Walter's novel The Zero looks at the absurdity of the culture and paranoia in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, and how frequently the focus was removed from the victims and their families — for selfish gain, for politics, or for any other reason. Remy's affable partner Paul explains, even though he knows he shouldn't mention it, how awesome it is that 9/11 happened because he is treated as a hero and gets to show celebrities around Ground Zero. Paul even gets to appear on a box of cereal — "My agent says I was lucky to get the marshmallows," he tells Remy.

Remy and his struggle with his fractured memory are really a symbol of the underlying post-9/11 fractured culture (even though 9/11 appeared on the surface to be a unifying event). "Maybe this was not some condition he had, but a life, and maybe every life is lived moment to moment. Doesn't everyone react to the world as it presents itself?"

Remy's enduring memory from the day — described bone-chillingly in the opening paragraph — is of paper, fluttering to the ground. And it's an image Walter returns to frequently. Example: "He remembered smoke and he remembered standing alone while a billion sheets of paper fluttered to the ground. Like notes without bottles on the ocean, a billion pleas and wishes sent out on the wind."

But for all that seriousness, the novel's often cleverly and subtly funny. At one point, Remy writes himself a note that says "Don't hurt anybody." But then bad self responds, "Grow up." A scene near the beginning of the novel in which Walter has Remy's son Edgar explain why he's telling people Remy's dead is, in a word, genius. And other details are so sad they're funny — like lawyers for 9/11 victims' families charging an increased fee in the settlement negotiations with the government, because "these are difficult cases...emotionally" for the lawyers.

I loved this novel — for its imagery, its comedy (and ability to toe the line between funny and appropriately respectful), and its inventiveness. It's alternately chill-inducing and laugh-out-loud funny. And it's only when you get to the end, that you realize just how smart and well-put-together this novel is. Highly, highly recommended!

(The Zero was a finalist for the 2006 National Book Award, the year Richard Powers' The Echo Maker won. I've read that book. It's solid, but this MUCH better.) 

14 comments:

  1. Yes! Now do you see why this is so much better than Financial Lives? So glad you enjoyed it!

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    1. It's very good, yes, but I actually still like Financial Lives more.

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    2. You're crazy. But I'm still glad you liked it. Have you seen the info on Walter's new book? It comes out in June, I think.

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    3. Yep - Beautiful Ruins, June 12.

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  2. Wow...this looks...really cool! Had no idea about this novel. Thanks, Greg.

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    1. You would love this book - there are some noirish elements to it...

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    2. That's the vibe you're giving from your review. I can dig non-noir too, but you know. It's like I can drink any beer, but Alexander Keith's is still my favorite :P

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  3. Finally someone else who read this book. Read it when it came out, loved it, but never found any friends who read and\or enjoyed it as well.

    This is also a good reminder to dig up The Financial Lives of Poets! Thanks!

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    1. Yeah, I don't know too many people who have read this either - glad I did. Financial Lives is fantastic, too!

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  4. Great synthesis of The Zero, Greg. I read it shortly after it was announced as a finalist for the NBA, and loved it. IMHO, it's still the best "9/11" book written. Another of his books, Citizen Vince, is great... it won the 2005 Edgar for best novel from the Mystery Writers of America, so different from The Zero, but equally clever and witty. I liked his last book, The Financial Lives of Poets, but not nearly as much as The Zero. He's got a new book coming out this Fall titled Beautiful Ruins that is getting great reviews. I was at a book reading featuring Pulitzer winner Richard Russo and NBA winner Pete Dexter, and an audience member asked Russo what the best book he'd read recently was, and he said Beautiful Ruins, and Dexter jumped in and called Jess Walter the most underrated writer in America!

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    1. Thanks for the comment, Mike - love the anecdote about the Russo and Dexter signing. Beautiful Ruins is actually out in less than a month (June 12)- can't wait!

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  5. I loved Financial Lives of Poets and am looking forward to the author's newest book but don't think I can read The Zero. I was in NYC on 9/11 and still find it hard to read novels or see movies set around the event.

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  6. This book was just too dark for my taste. I really didn't like it. I read it for my book club and I was supposed to be the facilitator for the discussion. That was difficult since I disliked the book, but we did have some good discussion about it once we all got together.

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