The Zero by Jess Walter. Harper Perennial, 2006. 9780061189432.
Sarah: Yeah, and I’ve been sort of rationing his books out because a novelist can only write so fast and I was reluctant to run out of them. Reading this, I realize I need to stop being reluctant and just gobble the rest of them up.
G: What was your favorite? The one where you were in love with the protagonist?
S: Citizen Vince. I was in love with Vince. The Zero is really… I’m going to say it’s different plot-wise, but the stuff that I love about Jess Walter is that he writes the kinds of sentences that make you stop and just appreciate how good they are.
S: So I feel like I don’t care what genre he writes in, I don’t care what the plot is, I just want to read his writing. But I am glad that I went into this book without reading the back of it, I didn’t know anything about it except I thought it was a mystery. And it does use bits of the genre — elements of noir and of mystery — but it’s not really in it.
G: You think it was noir? It didn’t feel very noir to me. It was kind of a detective book though. Give me the pitch.
S: The first page, a guy opens his eyes, he sees an empty bottle of booze on its side, and the carpet looks like the treeline of a forest. He starts with this description of what this guy on the floor is seeing and the guy eventually gets that his head hurts and he’s bleeding. He figures out that he shot himself. Possibly on purpose, possibly not. He left a note for himself that said, “et cetera.” This sets the tone of the book. This guy is losing chunks of time.
G: Right, he’s unstuck in his life, like Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse Five.
S: Exactly. He’s only going forward, though. He’s still himself, or a version of himself, during the lost times, but he can’t control any of it.
G: He’s a cop and it’s right after 9/11 and he’s at Ground Zero all the time helping to clean up. So it’s gruesome. Then he’s recruited by a government agency, a secret-secret government agency…
S: Double secret. Super super secret.
G: …to find a woman that they suspect didn’t die on 9/11, who may have been part of the conspiracy. And the evidence for that is completely stupid.
S: So ridiculous!
G: There’s a warehouse where people are collecting pieces of paper that blew around after the buildings collapsed — I have no idea if that was a real thing. Little burned up pieces of paper, one of which looks like Australia. Just segments of stuff that indicate that she maybe had contact with somebody who was involved with the plot and got a warning to get out of her office in the World Trade Center just before the planes hit.
S: Yeah. And it makes no sense, throughout the whole book.
G: It doesn’t even make sense to him. And then another agency hires him to spy on that secret agency, and he’s really not clear on what’s up as he pops in and out of his life, what’s happening in the time we aren’t seeing. He’s as unclear as we are, even as he tries to do the right thing in situations where he seems to have agreed to do the wrong thing. And no matter what, he does the wrong thing. He’s out of control of his own life.
S: There was a scene later in the book where he writes on a piece of paper, “Don’t hurt anyone” and then when he comes back the next time, the piece of paper has written underneath it — in his own handwriting — “Grow up.”
S: It was chilling! He was his own enemy! And that plays into the whole book, how you can turn into your own enemy, how you can become this thing you hate.
G: The part where I started loving the book was when he goes to talk about his ex-wife about his son, and his son is pretending that his dad died on 9/11.
S: Oh, my god, that was so good!
G: Yeah, and terrible? And his son is like, “Yeah, I know you’re alive, but I have a right to mourn my father.”
S: Yeah, “Grief is healthy!” “But I’m alive.” “That doesn’t matter.”
G: And it continues throughout. It’s so crazy. The kid wants to be a part of that grief so much. Or…
G: Or something else!
S: It’s not clear! So he stalks his own child.
G: Trying to figure out what he’s up to. All these secret agent people keep popping in and out, and people who may or may not be involved in a terrorist conspiracy that he may be investigating (or may not be). And that girl may be alive, or not. It all just comes to this crazy conspiracy-theory-ish head at the end.
G: Which I liked, because there was plot. I loved this book, I’m so glad you got me to read something by Walter because I will now read everything else. But this book was so hard to read. Because he’s such a good writer, he’d suck me in, and it was so disorienting, like I was losing my mind. I read it in chunks, I would read it before bed, and I had a cold for the last few weeks.
G: So I would take some meds, then I would read eight pages. And when I got back to it, I would ask “What the hell is going on?” and that’s exactly what the narrator is feeling. But then I would try to power through more pages and it wouldn’t work, because I would be so disoriented. It took me six weeks to finish it. Maybe that’s the way to read it? On cold meds, half out of your mind, but with it just enough to love the writing.
S: I think it is.
G: I felt like I was there. It was so powerfully crazy. I was sucked into his worldview, and I didn’t know what was happening, and I was really attached to his life, to when he’s trying to do well and then failing. I mean, I have that feeling as a parent!
G: I have that sense about things. You can have great intentions and still, you’re just part of the plot against everybody, including yourself. It was so disturbingly hard to read the book and then I fell into it and just powered through. I think at the end there’s a part where it just takes off and I read the rest in a couple of hours.
S: Yeah, that’s what I did, too. The end, I had to just sit and read it.
G: I was just about to a place where I thought “Oh, my god, I don’t know if I can take this anymore,” it’s so good but I’m so disoriented, then part three absolutely took off.
S: Where the pieces start coming together in more and more disturbing ways.
G: You have a sense that he’s got more continuity. He’s found someone to spy on him.
S: Yes! He tells his best friend to spy on him.
G: His best friend’s a cop, too.
S: Yeah, he’s terrible. He can’t keep his mouth shut. I love that. They were made to give tours of Ground Zero, that’s how the book opens, and his partner says the absolute worst things, the things that people are wondering about, he calls people out on their worst shit. He talks about how people will say “Oh, the people that jumped, what was that like?” and he will totally fuck with them, and make it obvious how awful they’re being. And not on purpose, but because he’s a fucking idiot.
G: There’s so much in this book to like. I guess that’s my pitch, if you want something literary, with amazing sentences, that might take you two months to read…
S: Yet is so compelling.
G: You won’t stop thinking of it the entire time. Those descriptions of Ground Zero were just… gah, the smell.
S: The smell that would never leave his nose. I got the paperback of The Zero from Harper Perennial, it comes with the extra stuff at the back, there’s an interview with Walter, and excerpts from his writing diary which was really cool. This took him five years to write. It started when he was assigned by his newspaper to cover Ground Zero. He interviewed people… It’s interesting, because in his diary, he’ll say something like, “I just saw this and it looked like this,” and he’s come up with a great idea, something he uses in the book. He talks about how he changed the name of the book a ton of times. I really liked seeing some of the process. The book felt like this perfect crystallization, but he took a really long time to hammer it out. There’s a comment in here, that because I haven’t read a lot of literary fiction, I haven’t read the classics, I wouldn’t have twigged… but the names of all of his eye doctors… he’s got this terrible eye problem, he’s got a retina detaching, the other eye is filled with floaters and flashers, his vision is completely compromised… all of this doctors were named for writers and characters. “Dr. Destouches is the real name of Céline; Dr. Rieux is the protagonist of Camus’s The Plague; Dr. Huld is the lawyer in Kafka’s The Trial.” All of these literary nods. And Walter includes a bibliography, which is really cool, of stuff that he read that inspired him.
G: Slaughterhouse Five! And J. G. Ballard’s Concrete Island. I’m so glad you made me read this book.
S: I’m so glad I had an excuse to finish it.