Tony's Reviews > The Zero

The Zero by Jess Walter
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's review
Oct 27, 2009

really liked it
bookshelves: novels, 9-11-related, setting-nyc, unreliable-narrator

I really enjoyed Walter's first book (Citizen Vince), so I picked up this, his second, knowing absolutely nothing about it. The story revolves around New York City police officer Brian Remy, who must deal with his newly unstable memory in the weeks after 9/11. It seems that while he physically survived being at Ground Zero, the mental trauma has done all kinds of interesting things to Remy's judgment -- including leading him to possibly shoot himself in the head.

His head injury leads to irregular blackouts: Remy is in the midst of doing something and then minutes or hours later snaps to in a new situation, with no recollection of what happened during his blackout (shades of Memento). As a result, the book is told in a series of flashes -- a scene will start conventionally, unfold conventionally, and somewhere along the way just stop, as Remy has another of his blackouts. This is awfully daring storytelling, as it withholds resolution over and over and over, which can get very frustrating if you aren't prepared to simply go with the choppy flow. The main narrative problem this causes is that it makes Remy into a purely reactive character, never able to drive the story -- and this will frustrate many readers (like those in my book club). My personal suspicion/rationalization is that Remy's condition is meant to represent post 9/11 America: a country stuck in a pure reactive mode, with little ability to contextualize, influenced by secret government agencies.

Indeed, Remy's weeks following 9/11 are a kaleidoscopic satire of post-9/11 America and its response to that dark day. The main plotline concerns Remy's assignment to work for the DoD (here, the Department of Documentation), which is an obscure arm of an NSA-like government entity. The belief is that by restoring and filing every scrap of paper from Ground Zero, the terrorists will have been defeated. At the same time, some of the half-burnt scraps collected from the streets may be clues in identifying a terror cell. Remy is assigned to this potential mystery, which leads him into confusing conversations with competing FBI and CIA agents running their own operations. However, his inability to convince anyone that he's having blackouts allows for a whole line of "idiot savant" comedy, as everyone around Remy thinks he's being tougher/wiser/cannier than he is (shades of the great film Being There).

There's are a plenty of targets for Walter's satire: a Giuliani-like mayor, a national security apparatus that will invent plots if it can't find any actual ones (shades of reality there), over-the-top hero-worship of firemen and police, New York City real-estate madness, the one-upsmanship of connection to 9/11 (Remy's son tells his classmates that Remy died at Ground Zero), belief in technology, and more. Remy remains at the core of it all, swept up by larger forces, confused, literally going blind (here, the metaphor is a little too blunt), panicked, and unable to make sense of it all. He is we.
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