Five years after, Jess Walter, author of the competent but overrated Citizen Vince, has given us The Zero, which, the publisher tells us, is “a novel of September 11th.” (The title refers to Ground Zero, where 2,749 people died in a terrorist attack.) This tale weaves together grim depictions of World Trade Plaza wreckage with suspense and damning satire. The formula may not work completely, but makes for a compelling, and often fun, read.
NYC cop Brian Remy wakes up from a botched suicide attempt shortly after the WTC attacks. He helps clean up the remains of the towers and its victims. Walters’ telling of the clean-up is, by itself, a worthy reason to read the novel:
At night, The Zero was lit like a stage. Or a surgery… A line of windows facing The Zero was blasted open; black fangs hung from the frames… At the edges, the rubble was dark, a black tangle of shadowed forms, but the center was spotlighted bright; it was like coming across a high school football game in the middle of a bomb crater. American flags hung everywhere.
The Ground Zero ruin is not just a spectacle but a source of true grief. We meet a victim’s father who is so reluctantly distraught that he “wipe[s] at [tears] like they were mosquitoes he could kill.” Remy is soon impressed into service by a cloak-and-dagger cabal investigating a possible connection between al Qaeda terrorists and a WTC office worker.
In the second of the novel’s three parts, Walters veers into genre fiction. There are many noir-ish elements here: a hard-drinking PI, a Mystery Woman, and competing investigators vying for leads. Add to these a central conceit: the self-snuffing effort described on page one has busted Remy’s short-term memory.
The Zero is problematic in a number of ways. The memory-loss devise is nothing we haven’t seen in Hollywood (Memento especially, not to mention Total Recall or even Fifty First Dates). Criticism of nine eleven exploitation and satire of the post-nine eleven world are nothing we haven’t seen in Todd Gitlin’s non-fiction Media Unlimited and William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition. Also, the last-second twist in the final five pages is frustrating and superfluous.
As the novel races its way into a Spook/G-Man endgame, social criticism leaks out. Officials curse the “raghead motherfuckers.” An NYC cop cashes in on the glory of his newfound hero status, commercializing himself in the most crass of ways. A victim’s spouse applies for a six-figure compensation she knows she doesn’t need. And a highly-ranked opportunist (based upon a quite prominent, real-life politician) fights tooth and nail for huge National Security contracts. These condemnations would be downright blasphemous if The Zero were a big-studio film, but Walter has pulled them off subversively through written fiction. He even takes his message one step further by delving into po-mo, DeLillo territory. The post-nine eleven world, to Remy, is “a dream… the cyclic repetition of events on cable news, waves of natural disasters, scientists announcing the same discoveries over and over… wildly famous people who no one could recall becoming famous, the sudden emergence and disappearance of epidemics,” a list of recurring, popular incongruities growing ever after.
It is tempting to dismiss The Zero outright because so many plot elements feel borrowed or played out. In the end, though, Walters’ descriptive abilities, popcorn-worthy suspense, and conscience are definitely worthy of attention.