September 2006

Picking up the pieces

By Jess Walter
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In the wake of 9/11, Brian Remy's consciousness is as thoroughly shattered as his country's confidence. The New York policeman wakes up a few days after the terrorist attacks, having apparently shot himself in the head, and it kind of goes downhill from there. His partner, Paul, can't stop talking about things that shouldn't be discussed out loud—like his involuntary pleasure at being a sudden celebrity, or like certain body parts they've found amid the rubble at the scene. Remy's having memory gaps, so he can't figure out precisely who the boyish-faced man in the suit he seems to be working for is and what, exactly, he's supposed to be doing. And his son is pretending Remy died in the attacks.

In 2005's Citizen Vince, Jess Walter described a tough guy caught off-guard by finding himself displaced from his normal gangster environment. In The Zero, it's another kind of disorientation altogether. The tough guy finds himself in foreign surroundings, but he hasn't moved anywhere—it's the world that's changed, or maybe it's his perception of the world. Suddenly, nothing makes sense. Between the gaps, Remy comes to in a series of situations he can't remember getting himself into: a torture scene, a conversation with his ex-wife, a meeting with a mysterious figure who hands him an envelope, a vast paperwork-filing warehouse, his girlfriend's bed. These flashes are usually accompanied by significant quantities of whiskey, which, along with his brooding silence, his inferred toughness and other people's failure to take his questions seriously, helps Remy skate along with his memory loss undetected.

The structure of the novel calls to mind works like Memento or Fight Club, in which the disjointed plot must be pieced together based on mostly faulty evidence. How much of what Remy remembers is real? Why can't he remember the rest is it 9/11 trauma, or merely horror at the kind of person he's become? And how did he (and implicitly, we) get to this point? The answers might not be clear, but the questions raised by Walter's perceptive, ingenious satire are both fascinating and important.

Becky Ohlsen writes from Portland, Oregon.


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The Zero

The Zero

By Jess Walter
ISBN 9780060898656

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