The Story Is the Concepts: Philosophizing with Ryan Ruby
Ryan Ruby’s The Zero and the One follows two friends at Oxford—Owen, a wide-eyed working-class Brit, and Zach, a worldly, wealthy American—on a dark, intoxicating intellectual quest. Their pursuit of the meaning of life involves all of the philosophizing, women, and travel to be expected of bright young men eager to gain experience; and yet it ends in suicide. Ruby gradually divulges the circumstances and tendencies that drive the characters to their extremes, letting the reader piece together this tale of corruption at a slow yet scintillating pace. (As a Publisher’s Weekly review noted “The novel’s trick is that none of the characters are especially in the know at any given point—each has a blind spot.”)
This dexterous plotting shows regard for the tradition of the novel, as well as a knack for the nuts and bolts of the craft. But Ruby also makes some daring stylistic choices—the author is himself an American but the novel is narrated in British English; furthermore, woven into the story are aphorisms by an invented philosopher whose work lies at the heart of the book. I talked to Ryan Ruby about the allure and difficulties of these traditional and unorthodox elements, and how what emerged is both a story of a tormented friendship and a parable of Anglo-American relations that plays out at the sentence level.
The Rumpus: There’s something very classic about your plotting, the way each development reveals a bit more of the intrigue—tell me a bit about the challenges of writing such a tightly plotted book.
Ryan Ruby: From a very practical point of view, plot is the most obvious way to get from A to Z. Writing a first draft is sort of like getting yourself stuck in a labyrinth of your own making. You want a number of things to happen—narratively, stylistically, thematically—and you try to come up with a structure that will enable you to have them all, but inevitably these desires start to contradict each other and you find yourself lost in the dark and having to discard things you feel attached to if you want to get out and go forward again. In the process of doing this I discovered that, far from being the simple addition of events, plot poses certain interesting formal challenges of its own and that the tendency to put form and content in opposition to each other, rather than finding a way for them to entail one another, is more easily justified in theory than in practice.
Rumpus: Your prose style is quite crystalline and upright, almost old-fashioned, and I think you use it to great effect in terms of pacing and control. Was the voice of the novel clear to you from the outset?
Ruby: That’s kind of you to say. Owen has two similar but not identical voices, the one that narrates the New York chapters in the present tense and the one that narrates the Oxford chapters in the past tense. Once I had differentiated the chapters spatially and temporally, it was important to differentiate them in terms of their style and mood as well. First person present is a pretty common perspectival technique by now—there was a kerfuffle about its overuse not so long ago if I remember correctly. I drew my use of it from the nouveau roman, where the point is not so much to convey the immediacy of action, that is, to reproduce the gaze of the camera lens, but to confront both the character and the reader with a sense of the limitations of their knowledge. The resulting mood, I hope, is one of fragmentation and dread, of Owen’s being blown about by forces beyond his understanding and control. In the past tense chapters, the prose style is indeed much more “old-fashioned” as you put it, much more indebted to the lyrical realism of the ancient roman. My agent calls it “book voice” and it came much more naturally to me than the other one did. In the past tense Oxford chapters, I aimed to use a voice that was not only setting-appropriate, but would allow for Owen to analyze and reflect in a mood of, let’s call it, elegiac nostalgia. The idea was that, although the two paths for the novel had diverged in a yellow wood, there was still a way to take them both.
Rumpus: A fictional book of philosophical aphorisms plays a central role in story, and there’s quite a bit of philosophy woven into the plot itself. How did you go about balancing the conceptual and narrative aspects of the book?
Ruby: Hans Abendroth’s The Zero and the One, that is, the book within the book, was probably the must fun thing to write. I figured I might as well use the freedom I have as a novelist to invent a philosopher to suit my purposes. After all, the advantage of the form is that it can integrate multiple voices, multiple discursive forms, and multiple genres of writing—what Bahktin, in his book on Dostoevsky, called polyphony—into a single whole. Inventing Abendroth gave me the opportunity to do something I have always wanted to do but could never have done if I followed through on my plans to get a PhD in philosophy, namely, to write a book of aphorisms, which is anyway a genre that now belongs almost entirely to poets.
When I describe my book to people as a “philosophical novel” or a “novel of ideas” it sounds somewhat old fashioned. The people who enjoy reading philosophy and the people who enjoy reading novels aren’t generally the same people anymore. Many editors, especially the ones who were expecting a page-turner, passed on the book because they felt that the philosophy slowed the narrative down, or they thought that the aphorisms were incidental and therefore expendable. While there’s no reason to expect interpretive charity from people who have to make snap decisions about whether or not to put money behind a manuscript by a largely unknown writer, I still think it’s important to tell readers that, although my book can be blazed through in a single sitting, the details are important. Every line in the book, especially the aphorisms that head each chapter, is there for a reason, and bears on the work as a whole, and these relations are to me the substance of the entire work. The concepts are the story and the story is the concepts. Whether or not people want to give my book the kind of attention that is necessary in order to see this is of course up to them, but I think it’s the only way to get the full experience.
Rumpus: I thought it was quite daring of you as an American author to take on a British accent—did it seem like a risk to you?
Ruby: It did. If there was one thing I was truly apprehensive about in the writing of the book, this was it. The book is set in Oxford because that’s where I happened to be when I began writing it, but early on I decided for thematic reasons that, even though it was going to be an American’s story, it would have to be told from on outsider’s perspective. These two factors gave me the idea of telling the story from an English person’s point of view, and this in turn committed me to narrating in British English. It’s an old joke that America and England are two countries separated by a common language, but beyond the basic differences in spelling, vocabulary, slang, the usages of past participles and certain prepositional phrases, and the way it’s oh-so-English to turn a statement into a question, innit?—there were still a number of difficulties involved.
Rumpus: Like what?
Ruby: Well, for one thing, British English is highly sensitive to the class register of your diction: whether or not you call a thing a couch, a sofa, or a settee, for example, or whether you call it a living room or a sitting room or a lounge will locate you on a very specific rung of the British class hierarchy. But it’s not even that simple. In the last fifty years or so, middle class Britons have begun to ape speech patterns they associate with the upper class, while at the same time the upper class have self-effacingly adopted formerly down class usages to distinguish themselves from upwardly mobile pretenders. Then you add the global influence of Hollywood and Americanization into the mix and things can get very unstable and imprecise. And a character like Owen is something of a moving target: he’s self-consciously transitioning from one class position to another and the language he uses has to reflect this, too. The worry was that, for American readers, his aspirational up class usages would sound archaic and pretentious, or even Southern, whereas for British readers, his down-class usages will read, ironically, as American, and that the mixture of the two will just sound like the author’s being sloppy.
Rumpus: How did you approach it?
Ruby: Fieldwork, research, and lots of proofreading. Whenever I was around British people—whether they were friends or people I was eavesdropping on at cafés or bars—I’d make an assessment about their probable class background and pay very close attention to their word choices. If they said something that sounded strange to my ear I’d write it down. I have tons of iPhone notes that are just lists of English locutions and their American equivalents. I did the same thing when I listened to the BBC or read British newspapers, with special attention to the comments sections. For research on classed usages I turned to Nancy Mitford’s seminal essay on “U and Non-U” (that is, upper and non-upper class) English and Kate Fox’s update in her excellent book Watching the English. I also was a regular reader of a blog called Separated by a Common Language by Lynne Murphy, an American linguist at the University of Sussex, which is devoted to the subtle differences between BE and AE. Finally, I had my publisher use a British proofreader—who caught some pretty embarrassing errors pretty late in the game—to check my math.
Rumpus: There’s something to be said here about America and England, an allegory of incest and codependent friendship—would you care to elaborate a bit on this layer of the text?
Ruby: Absolutely. One of the classic American narratives is the “innocents abroad” narrative or the “international theme” as it’s sometimes known. Think The Portrait of a Lady or Tender Is the Night or The Sheltering Sky or more recent expat novels like Caleb Crain’s Necessary Errors and Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You. A good-natured, independent, freethinking, but perhaps a little naïve American goes abroad, traditionally to Europe, where he or she overestimates the universality of American values and is corrupted or otherwise laid low by the slightly cynical, been-around-the-bend natives of the country he or she is visiting.
This was a story that no longer seemed possible to tell in the twenty-first century. America is a global center and an almost unrivaled imperial superpower, whose politics, culture, and military influence and impact every square foot of the globe. These are the foundations for the noticeable privileges Americans citizens enjoy around the world, so, however naïve and ill-informed they may still appear to the people whose countries they are visiting, they cannot in good faith be described as innocents. To write that story today, it seemed to me, the terms of the international theme would have to be reversed. America, the so-called New World, would actually be the “abroad” to which an innocent would go and get corrupted.
Obviously there are any number of places where this innocent could have come from, but the “special relationship” between the US and the UK really drives the theme of imperial reversal home. America, after all, is a former British colony, perhaps the first post-colonial society, and so much of its early identity was predicated on not being like England. But in the end, like a rebellious teenager who swears he’ll never become his father, the US became an empire just like Britain had been. This suggests Oedipal sexuality rather than the schizoincest that is portrayed for other reasons in The Zero and the One, but I think that the codependency of the relationship has been pretty marked in the twenty-first century.
The Zero and the One is set in 2000 and 2001, which I believe historians will come to regard as the apex of the American empire and the beginning of its unraveling. When I wrote it, I had 9/11 in mind and what Bush and Blair were about to do in Iraq, so the book is steeped in foreboding and dread for what is just over the horizon. But if anything, the fraying of the Anglo-American “special relationship” has become more pronounced since then. I sent off my final proofs to the publisher the week after Brexit and the book is going to be published in Trump’s America. The Zero and the One allegorizes the Bush-Blair alliance in Iraq as a kind of bi-national suicide pact; the same could probably be done for Farage and Trump. It’s not yet clear whether these two pairings are even discrete events or part of a larger historical process, but what is clear is that we’re hearing the death rattle of the Anglosphere.
Author photograph © Camille Blake.