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The Zero: A Novel (P.S.) Paperback – August 7, 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Walter's darkly satiric and surprisingly poignant novel about heroic policeman Brian Remy's nightmare journey through a post- 9/11 New York City, is given a flawless rendition by Graybill. Key to his success is the voice he has selected for the hapless, mind- and body-damaged Remy, who awakes from a failed suicide attempt with a head wound, a shattered memory and the slowly growing understanding that he's involved in a political plot as evil as it is bizarre. Walter's prose keeps Remy drifting from confusion to self-doubt, guilt and, eventually, outrage—and Graybill hits all the right notes as he adds the dimension of sound. He's just as effective in delineating the fragile otherworldly wistfulness of Remy's girlfriend, his boss's bombast, the self-absorbed nattering of his motor-mouth ex-partner-turned-TV-pitchman and an assortment of accents and attitudes from a cadre of sycophantic, sinister, sadistic and generally smarmy secret agents—both American and Middle Eastern. It's a brilliant teaming of the right narrator to the right material.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
*Starred Review* Numerous thrillers have drawn on 9/11, but most have used those all-too-horrific events only as a frame. Walter digs deeper. This discombobulating but remarkably imaginative novel never names bin Laden or even the date, but we know where we are. Bits of paper from the explosions continue to rain down from the sky, and rescue workers continue to look for bodies at Ground Zero (or, the Zero, as the cops and firefighters who were there refer to it). One of those cops, Brian Remy, opens the novel by shooting himself in the head. But, minutes later, he can't remember doing it. Remy suffers from what he calls "gaps"--memory lapses in which he has no idea why he is doing what he's doing. These gaps are the main narrative device in the novel, and they take some getting used to, as the reader is every bit as affected by the blackouts as Remy. Gradually, both character and reader begin to piece things together: Remy has been hired by the "Boss" to lead a secret "documentation recovery" effort aimed at finding a link between the terrorists and a woman working in one of the towers. But to what end? Even in his lucid moments, Remy doesn't understand his assignment, which seems to have something to do with "applying models of randomness to the patterns in paper burns." There is plenty of stinging political satire here, but beyond that, Walter has taken the terrorist thriller into new territory, mixing the surreal cityscape of Blade Runner with a touch of Kafka and coming up with what may be the perfect metaphor for the way we experience today's world. Like Remy, we suffer from gaps whenever we watch the news or try to make sense of international affairs: randomness reigns. This isn't a perfect novel, but it takes a game shot at re-creating the emotional reality of the post-9/11 world. Bill Ott
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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That is, "most." This novel is his dud, and what a dud it is. The novel follows alcoholic policeman and possible government spy Brian Remy around as he struggles to locate himself temporally and psychologically after 9/11. The Zero doesn't editorialize 9/11 from either a hawk's or dove's perspective, and bless it for that. But it doesn't do much else either.
The problem here is that the whole book is a series of blips. Nearly every scene ends with a sudden em dash and we're off to the next thing, in place and time, no conclusion, no connection. This creates a sympathetic disorienting effect, sure, but it does not create a plot, and so it just becomes a tedious, overused gimmick. We follow Brian as he knows nothing and we know nothing and the events just happen, no central fabric, no plot, no forward momentum, no suspense. Just a big jumble. This may mimic life (especially PTSD life), but it does not make a story. After 300 pages of it, it seems less like a strategy and more like a copout. Like an impressionist painting viewed too closely (or a Magic Eye poster), it may be scattered at first, but it has to come together to mean anything.
The Zero refers to Ground Zero, but it more accurately refers to Remy, who's a cipher. We don't know anything about his internal life, thoughts, wants, struggles, emotions, anything. All we know is he's blind, drunk, and confused. Get ready to read descriptions of the floaters and phosphenes in front of his eyes about a hundred million times. Conversations are "Who's on first?" routines as everyone around Remy assumes he's being coy when he asks them what they mean ("Did you take down the operative?" "Which operative?" "Ah, very good"). This is a joke (I guess) that's not funny the first time, much less the hundredth, and yet here we have it again and again. The book would lose 100 pages if you took out the times Remy says "What?"
This is maddening because Walter is usually very funny. The Financial Lives of the Poets is hilarious through and through. But here he swings and misses repeatedly.
Then there are the secondary characters. Well, they certainly aren't characters. The book feels like a casting audition, where Brooklyn hardboiled cop, Type A realtor, Dorky surgeon, Scolding harridan, Lovable hard-of-hearing elderly man, Cryptic bearded sage, and other roles get a chance to read some lines and then exit stage left. They're authentically written, absolutely, but they're just voices, disconnected to any persons speaking. We learn nothing about them. Instead, a general, generic sadness over THAT DAY is wielded as emotive truth. The dialogues themselves are just as scatterbrained and miscellaneous. So much of them seem like asides Walter has scribbled down in a notebook and doesn't know what else to do with. (We can't really "race against time," can we?, etc.) Added to the already disjointed structure of the book, it makes the whole book a big heap.
The novel may have some coherent thread woven deeply into it, but here's the thing: Such an interpretation isn't worth sussing out. Deep undercurrents have to have a likable base to be worth researching.
Why two stars? Well, this is one of the most readable bad books I've ever read. Walter still knows how to make the prose move, and I did make it to the end, and at the end, well, at least something happens (and it isn't, thank all available heavens, that it's all a dream). Walter also doesn't satirize a jingoistic newscaster or anyone else for that matter. But he doesn't fill that vacuum with anything else.
In short, go read ANY of Walter's other books. This one is very much the exception.
It was immediately refreshing to be a mile from crime/action cliché, and the stereotypes of, for example, the most recent crime novel I’d come across in the laughably juvenile ‘1st to Die’ by James Patterson, which somehow dumbed down an already simple formula. And while ‘The Zero’ treats its audience with a world more respect, and the writing is in a different league, there are still a few stereotypical characters from a less well travelled but still established satirical genre. Walter openly acknowledges his debt to writers like Kafka and Heller (and in googling a little for this review I was reminded of Hasek’s ‘Good Soldier Svjek’ – something I haven’t read in years and am currently enjoying on a reread, and other reviewers picked up on how the movie ‘Being There’ – perhaps more successfully and with less repetition – picked up on the gag of ignorance being mistaken for profundity or cynicism), and I found the treatment of the FBI/CIA game playing down the line for images parodying particularly US government and intelligence. We’ve been here many times before in films too, right back to ‘Doctor Strangelove’, up to something more recent like ‘Burn After Reading’. Sure these government agents are such targets because of the massive gulf between their Dudley Do Right rhetoric (and popular NCIS type nonsense), and the reality of how they function. And maybe Walter felt more compelled to pen this reaction than I did to read it because I’m at more of a distance over here in Australia. Maybe that’s the trick – a good book, but aimed more at a US audience. While he handled this deftly, I was more struck with how familiar it felt than by stinging new insights.
The format of a main character with all these memory lapses was interesting, but, again, not new to me. It reminded me of Gene Wolfe’s Soldier of the Mist, although I must say I found each of Walter’s episodes more gripping. The whole deal of Remy’s fears that in his lapses he was a monster just felt straight out of ‘Fight Club’ (and other reviewers cite ‘Memento’ – which I haven’t seen).
I’m not saying what Walter did was easy, or that it’s some sort of carbon of previous books. Some of the exchanges between Remy and his partner are up there with Hellar’s best. He gives his enigmatic middle-eastern man some trenchant lines. We feel for Remy with his appalling son, and for the tortured ‘March’. The satire of PR slogans and the grief industry within the media is effectively biting. But I am saying that by about half-way through the book it wasn’t enough for me that this book wasn’t like so many. Perhaps because it was too like some others.