“The Zero” by Jess Walter Review

zero

The Zero

Author:  Jess Walter

Published:  2006

Jess Walter is one of the funniest writer’s I’ve read, though his books aren’t outright comedies. I’m sitll looking for a book by him I enjoyed as much as the first book of his I read, The Financial Lives of the Poets his other books have all been decent and always entertaining. The Zero is more of a concept book than a plot book. The concept is that the protagonist has gaps in his memory, and goes from scene to scene unaware of how he got there, who he’s talking to, or what his role is in everything.

That’s not to say there isn’t a plot, there is one but it’s definitely secondary to the moments of Brian Remy reacting to the different situations he finds himself in. ****I’m doing a spoiler warning for the entire discussion of plot in this book, as a lot of the fun is in discovering things along with the protagonist**** The book starts off with Brian having just shot himself in the head. As we get a few pages in, we realize he’s a police man who was working on 9/11 in New York City. He’s leaving the force for some reason, and possibly investigating documents recovered at Ground Zero.

The path that Remy takes through there will entangle him in terrorist cells, government bureaucracy, an intimate relationship and a frequent penchant for wasabi roasted duck. One of the frequent revelations is that the person Remy is when we’re not present and he doesn’t remember is a pretty bad guy. It makes for interesting reading where the person other characters expect Remy to be is clearly not the person/personality that is present.

As a concept it’s pretty interesting but as a full length novel it could get a bit tedious. The obvious point of comparison is the movie Memento by Christopher Nolan. I thought of that movie a lot while reading this book, and while the device isn’t exactly the same it’s pretty similar. Unfortunately for The Zero, that movie handled some of these same situations and did so a bit more convincingly. In particular, I was reminded of the scene from the movie where Guy Pierce’s characater is evaluating somebody with a similar mental condition and trying to determine if he’s faking it or not. He decides that the man in question is faking it because he seems to recognize him when he returns to the scene.

The revelation by Pierce’s character was the people start to fake recognition even if they don’t remember the person because it’s easier to do so. Throughout the book, Remy never gets any better at faking his way through situations. He continues to respond to things with “I don’t know,” or “I honest have no idea,” and the rest of the characters plug that into their scenarios as sarcasm or tough negotiating and continue to advance their directives. I get it, but having Remy develop into a more active character instead of a place holder hardly reacting to all the craziness around him would have made the second half of the book more interesting than how it ended up reading.

There were still a lot of fun elements to the book that if not outweighing the problematic issues, at least kept me invested until the end. In addition the memory issues, there were some definite Lynchian elements that added some creep factor to the book. Recurring motifs of food, a son telling others his father is dead, and the idea of being followed had me wondering if there was an M. Night Shyamalan style twist coming at some point. The actual ending was ambiguous enough to leave a few question unanswered as to where everybody ended up. However, it also fit the tone of the story and was much more satisfying than the other book I finished this weekend.

3 star

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