It always amuses me when I seem to have missed entirely some notable voice in contemporary literature. And then I reflect on the hubris it must take to presume - even for a moment - that I should be keeping up with all the developments in American publishing (not to mention the amazing output of the global community!), and I forgive myself both the oversight and the unintentional pomposity (isn't that a pompous word in itself? It cracks me up). Still, when a friend asked if I'd read any Jess Walter, and I had to admit to having never heard of the author, I felt the need to address such a lack. After a quick glance in the University library catalog, I found and brought home The Zero, and I am really, really glad the hubris won out here.
The Zero recounts the surreal experience of Remy, a former police officer - one of the first responders - during the weeks immediately following the events of 9/11. In the book, Remy is trying to make sense of his life in the aftermath, where everything has changed, and he doesn't even know who he is anymore. Lest you think this is a sentimental slog into "life after the attacks," allow me to offer a few more bits of information.
Remy is suffering from what he calls "gaps" - breaks in his consciousness where he doesn't know what he has been doing or where he has been. He is also losing his eyesight and has been discharged from police service on a trumped up back injury. He is doing some sort of important work (national security? espionage?), but he can't figure out what because of the gaps. He will "wake up" just as he approaches a man in a trench coat in the park, for instance, and have no idea where he is or why he is there. The dialogue between Remy and these characters who know more about his life and intentions than he does is fascinating and terribly well-done. The way they would assume whatever they wanted to assume from his questions was hilarious. In fact, there were several very funny moments in the book. It wasn't unusual for me to actually laugh or at least grimace a bit at the satirical pokes Walter would make and the skill with which he would make them. But it is not just funny. The Zero has the intrigue of a psychological thriller and the intellect of literary fiction, which is exactly what it is. I highly encourage you to check it out (or perhaps Walter's latest, The Financial Lives of the Poets, which is now high on my TBR list).
After complaining about Diaz's fragmented writing style (see here for more), my friend warned me that I probably wouldn't like the fragmented world Walter creates here, but what Diaz breaks apart at the sentence level, Walter cracks open conceptually, and for me, the distinction is paramount. The former annoys me and makes me too aware of my inner editor; the latter intrigues and captivates me. Walter maintains his focus on art and craft within a fragmented reality. For example:
I love the contrast of the long, fluid, connected sentence with the terse declarative one at the end. Such good writing. And of course the politics fed my peculiar hunger for such things. See here:This is a life, he thought, smooth skipping stones bounding across the surfaces of time, with brief moments of deepened consciousness as you hit the water before going airborne again, flying across the carpool lane, over weeks at a desk, enjoying yourself when the skipping stopped, and spending the rest of your life in a kind of drifting contentment, slipped consciousness, lost weekends, the glow from television sets warming placid faces, smile lines growing in the glare of the screen. He drained his wine. (163)
That's what happens when a nation becomes a public relations firm. You forget the truth. Everything is the Alamo. You claim victory in every loss, life in every death. Declare war when there is no war, and when you are at war, pretend you aren't. The rest of the world wails and vows revenge and buries its dead and you turn on the television. Go to the cinema. (222)That excerpt is so difficult to swallow because so true. When I teach my students about consumerism and inform them that our national response to 9/11 included urgings to go shopping, to Disneyworld, and to the movies, they don't fully believe me. But they are absorbed by that machinery all the same. Walter does not focus primarily on the political issues or the national security issues or even the psychological issues; he somehow manages to handle them all skillfully and artfully, and he has written a 9/11 novel that both helps us to understand and complicates things at the same time. It is the complication that is most real, and I'm glad for this muddying of the waters. Glad to have read it, to have been challenged by it, and glad to recommend that challenge to others.
If you've read The Zero, please let me know, and I'll be glad to post a link to your thoughts here.