Jess Walters’s 2006 National Book Award finalist, The Zero, was a really tough book to read as a subway riding New Yorker.
The first section of the novel is set in the days after 9/11, and despite that the events and sub-narratives of that day are something that almost everyone is pretty familiar with, there are plenty of new and stark images that Walter imparts for readers here about what life was like for New Yorkers in general (and police officers specifically) in the immediate aftermath of the attack on the World Trade Center. I read most of it on the subway. It gave me day-mares.
I should say that this is the second Jess Walter novel I’ve read, the first being his latest, Beautiful Ruins, which was just fabulous. A good friend of mine recommended The Zero, and gave me a copy of it, and I’m glad I finally got around to reading it.
Now, the protagonist of The Zero, Brian Remy, is a 9/11 “hero,” an NYPD officer who survived. The novel’s plot has all the action and suspense of a Hollywood espionage film, but there’s one particular feature that both frustrates and astounds the reader, in my opinion. Remy is suffering from “gaps” in his memory. So the novel consists of numerous scenes, each of which begins with our protagonist trying to figure out where he is and what he’s doing, and each of which ends quite suddenly. As a reader, it’s hard to get a grip on the action at first, but after a while, one begins to be able to string together the scenes and plot twists almost better than Remy himself is able to. It’s an odd and interesting and brilliant technique Walter has used, and it produces something of a statement about what it was like for Americans in general after 9/11. As Walter himself explained in an interview about the novel, “There was a real conflation of hero and victim in the wake of 9/11, in our perverse desire to create a triumphant myth out of pure tragedy. I wanted Brian Remy to be an unwilling hero, blinded in every way, to his own acts and to the motivations of others. Most of all, though, I wanted him to feel what I think most of us feel: confused and frightened, a helpless man of the very best intentions.”
I also want to mention that the dialogue here is some of the sharpest and snappiest I’ve ever read, often bringing me to out-loud chuckles on the train. Here’s one example, though I could provide plenty. At one point, Remy’s only friend in the book is talking with Remy, and he says, “Don’t you think deer are kind of sexy? For an animal? I do. Not…you know, for me, specifically. I’m not saying I’d necessarily want to have sex with a deer. But just the way they’re put together, big asses and long legs, they’re kind of like people. And those cute little faces. Shoot, I’d do a deer. I mean, if I was a deer.”
I’ll leave you with this quote from one of the characters, who I won’t say more about so as not to be a spoiler. He’s speaking here to Remy, about Americans in general:
You’re always convincing yourself that the world isn’t what it is, that no one’s reality matters except your own. That’s why you make such poor victims. You can’t truly know suffering if you know nothing about rage. And you can’t feel genuine rage if you won’t acknowledge loss. That’s what happens when a nation becomes a public relations firm. You forget the truth. Everything is the Alamo. You claim victory in every loss, life in every death. Declare war when there is no war, and when you are at war, pretend you aren’t. The rest of the world wails and vows revenge and buries its dead and you turn on the television. Go to the cinema. Entertainment is the singular thing you produce now. And it is just another propaganda, the most insidious, greatest propaganda ever devised, and this is your only export now—your coffee and tobacco, your gunpowder and your wheat. And while people elsewhere die questioning the propaganda of tyrants and royals, you crave yours. You demand the propaganda of distraction and triviality, and it has become your religion, your national faith. In this faith you are grave and backward fundamentalists, not so different from the grave and backward fundamentalists you presume to battle. If they are barbarians knocking at the gates with stories of beautiful virgins in the afterlife, then aren’t you barbarians too, wrapping the world in cables full of happy-ever-after stories of fleshy blondes and animated fish and talking cars?