Not in recent memory have I read a book so enthralling, heartbreaking and with such deadpan humor.
In what he calls his “9/12” novel, Jess Walter’s The Zero follows “hero cop” Brian Remy, who is trying to make sense of the world while also suffering from memory lapses. His journey is at once bewildering and mournful, and though I’m not one to go on about perfect first lines, Walter had me at the outset:
They burst into the sky, every bird in creation, angry and agitated, awakened by the same primary thought, erupting in a white feathered cloudburst, anxious and graceful, angling in ever-tightening circles toward the ground, drifting close enough to touch, and then close enough to see that it wasn’t a flock of birds at all — it was paper.
Is it a long first sentence? Yes. Does it matter? Absolutely not.
Remy also suffers from macular degeneration and vitreous detachment, causing “flashers” and “floaters” to move across his sight, distorting everything he sees. Between the memory loss and his escalating eye problems, he has a hard time understanding his new position. Placed on retirement from the police department, he discovers that he is instead working for a new mysterious government agency. Though he doesn’t know how he came to this point or why, he finds himself the boss of an anti-terrorism squad concerned with finding the whereabouts of key “cell members.”
And through it all, he still can’t shake the feeling of “that day,” even if he can’t recall the specifics:
The smell never left him now. It lived in the lining of his nose and the fibers of his lungs — his whole body seemed to smell, as if the odor were working through his pores, the fine grey dust: pungent, flour of the dead.
Part existential crisis, part satire, The Zero also presents some of the ridiculousness of government during this time. There’s talk of “evildoers” and an entire agency dedicated to collecting all those scraps of paper, The Department of Documentation. “Things will be better when all the paper has been cleaned up.” Cops and firefighters are getting agents and their faces on cereal boxes; tourists pose for photos by the wreckage. Even in the event of a national tragedy, capitalism and consumerism worm their way into the larger discussion.
In an interview with Playboy reprinted at the back of the paperback edition, Walter says, “We have responded to an increasingly serious world by becoming surreally superficial. We live in a world that could have only been dreamed up by Graham Greene and Franz Kafka on a weekend bender, with George Orwell along to write slogans.”
Still, the story isn’t all serious. Occasionally, there are moments of relief and outright comedy. Consider this exchange between Remy and his girlfriend, April, after they’ve holed up in a San Francisco hotel room:
“Were you going for some kind of endurance record? Or just seeing if you could make me taller?”
“I was distracted,” he said. “Sorry.”
“No, it was nice,” she said. “I always wondered what it would be like to have sex with an oil derrick.”
Remy stood next to the bed.
“Go get me a wheelchair and we’ll go to dinner.”
Walter has a gift for description, ways of setting a scene and arranging its contents that never feel forced. Instead of being aware of literary devices — “Oh look. Another grand metaphor.” — the words just fit. Beyond that, the paragraph structure fits the mood. When Remy or anyone else is lost in thought, the sentences and paragraphs become long and fluid, stretching out for half a page or more. Everyone wants to share their story of that day, to feel as though they weren’t alone, and so they talk at length. It never feels like author-preaching or concept-over-character — In short, Jess Walter knows what he is doing.
And it hit me. This is a hard place. God, it’s a hard place. But it wakes up every morning. No matter what you do to it the night before, it wakes up. [ . . . ] You can’t tear this place apart. Not this city. We’ve been doing it to ourselves for three hundred years. The goddamn thing always grows back.
The Zero is more psychological than political, and though politics do inform the story, it’s the sense of “What now?” that propels the action forward. What matters? Will all we’ve worked for be taken away? What if we were never there at all? There are big thoughts to consider here, and it all makes for an immensely satisfying read.