Synopses & Reviews
is a groundbreaking novel, a darkly comic snapshot of our times that is already being compared to the works of Franz Kafka and Joseph Heller.
From its opening pages—when hero cop Brian Remy wakes up to find he's shot himself in the head—novelist Jess Walter takes us on a harrowing tour of a city and a country shuddering through the aftershocks of a devastating terrorist attack. As the smoke slowly clears, Remy finds that his memory is skipping, lurching between moments of lucidity and days when he doesn't seem to be living his own life at all. The landscape around him is at once fractured and oddly familiar: a world dominated by a Machiavellian mayor known as "The Boss," and peopled by gawking celebrities, anguished policemen peddling First Responder cereal, and pink real estate divas hyping the spoils of tragedy. Remy himself has a new girlfriend he doesn't know, a son who pretends he's dead, and an unsettling new job chasing a trail of paper scraps for a shadowy intelligence agency known as the Department of Documentation. Whether that trail will lead Remy to an elusive terror cell—or send him circling back to himself—is only one of the questions posed by this provocative yet deeply human novel.
From a novelist of astounding talent, The Zero is an extraordinary story of how our trials become our transgressions, of how we forgive ourselves and whether or not we should.
"A deliriously mordant political satire, Walter's follow-up to 2005's critically acclaimed Citizen Vince begins moments after New York City cop Brian Remy shoots himself in the head. He isn't seriously wounded, and he can't remember doing it. It's less than a week after 9/11, and Brian serves as an official guide for celebrities who want a tour of 'The Zero.' With stitches still in his scalp, Brian is tapped for a job with the Documentation Department, a shadowy subagency of the Office of Liberty and Recovery, which is charged with scrutinizing every confetti scrap of paper blown across the city when the towers fell. As he learns the truth about his new employer's mission (think: recent NSA-related headlines) and becomes enmeshed in a sinister government plot, he finds an unseemly benefactor in 'The Boss,' the unnamed mayor who cashes in on his sudden national prominence. Meanwhile, Brian's cop and firemen colleagues shill for 'First Responder' cereal, his rebellious teenage son acts as if Brian died in the attack and the president provides comic background sound bites ('draw your strength from the collective courage and resilientness'). Walter's Helleresque take on a traumatic time may be too much too soon for some, but he carries off his dark and hilarious narrative with a grandly grotesque imagination. 100,000 announced first printing; 12-city author tour. (Sept.)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"This book's heightened paranoia invites the asking of more questions, from why cellphones need to take pictures to why a piece of cake is so much more than its component parts." Janet Maslin, New York Times
"[F]or a corrosive black comedy about how politicians have manipulated genuine grief and fear, count on Zero." USA Today
"The Zero has far broader appeal than most mockery of the current administration. Comedy is funny when it's true, and the ragged conspiracy theories of jesters from Michael Moore on down aren't funny because they aren't true. Mr. Walter's comic exaggerations are, like those in Joseph Heller's Catch-22, true on some level." Wall Street Journal
"A strange, surreal novel that is part thriller, part romance and part Kafkaesque farce." Oregonian
"The book's individual scenes are aesthetically appealing, but the reader can't get a grip on the plot's larger issues....Despite this weakness, I was still won over. Walter is an immensely talented writer." Washington Post
"The last thing Americans need, at this point in history, is another sanctification of the horrors of 9/11. What they need...are books that expose the fresh horrors this sanctification has wrought." Los Angeles Times
Praise for Land of the Blind:“Absorbing… Walter renders his blind land with clear-eyed, compassionate wisdom.” Kirkus Reviews
Praise for Over Tumbled Graves:“Riveting… An outstanding mystery debut.” Washington Post Book World
Praise for Citizen Vince:“Entertaining… refreshing… [with] very wry precision and expert timing.” New York Times
“Aa satire/tragedy that Franz Kafka and Kurt Vonnegut Jr. might appreciate.” USA Today
“Perceptive, ingenious satire…fascinating and important” BookPage
Praise for Citizen Vince:“Wonderfully written… compelling.” Los Angeles Times
“Exquisitely written . . . Like a paranoid Being There, The Zero is suspenseful, satisfying and unforgettable.” & #8220;Galley Talk & #8221; Publishers Weekly
“A brilliant tourdeforce thats as heartrending as it is harrowing…the breakout novel of a brave and talented young writer.” Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“A ridiculously talented writer.” New York Times
Praise for Over Tumbled Graves:“Suspenseful, challenging and intelligently written.” Dallas Morning News
Praise for Land of the Blind:“Walter is at his incisive best. …hypnotically compelling.” Publishers Weekly
“This is political satire at its best: scathing, funny, dark.
Praise for Citizen Vince:“Citizen Vince is fast, tough, thoughtful and funny. I loved this novel.” Nick Hornby, author of High Fidelity and A Long Way Down
What's left of a place when you take the ground away?
Answer: The Zero.
Brian Remy has no idea how he got here. It's been only five days since his city was attacked, and Remy is experiencing gaps in his life as if he were a stone skipping across water. He has a self-inflicted gunshot wound he doesn't remember inflicting. His son wears a black armband and refuses to acknowledge that Remy is still alive. He seems to be going blind. He has a beautiful new girlfriend whose name he doesn't know. And his old partner in the police department, who may well be the only person crazier than Remy, has just gotten his picture on a box of First Responder cereal.
And these are the good things in Brian Remy's life. While smoke still hangs over the city, Remy is recruited by a mysterious government agency that is assigned to gather all of the paper that was scattered in the attacks. As he slowly begins to realize that he's working for a shadowy operation, Remy stumbles across a dangerous plot, and soon realizes he's got to track down the most elusive target of them all himself. And the only way to do that is to return to that place where everything started falling apart.
From a young novelist of astounding talent, The Zero is an extraordinary story of searing humor and sublime horror, of blindness, bewilderment, and that achingly familiar feeling that the world has suddenly stopped making sense.
is a groundbreaking novel, a darkly comic snapshot of our times that is already being compared to the works of Franz Kafka and Joseph Heller.
From its opening pages—when hero cop Brian Remy wakes up to find he's shot himself in the head—novelist Jess Walter takes us on a harrowing tour of a city and a country shuddering through the aftershocks of a devastating terrorist attack. As the smoke slowly clears, Remy finds that his memory is skipping, lurching between moments of lucidity and days when he doesn't seem to be living his own life at all. The landscape around him is at once fractured and oddly familiar: a world dominated by a Machiavellian mayor known as "The Boss," and peopled by ns
About the Author
Jess Walter is the author of Citizen Vince, a novel named as one of the years best by the Washington Post, NPRs Fresh Air, and many others, and the winner of the Edgar Award for best novel. His other novels include Land of the Blind and Over Tumbled Graves, a New York Times Notable Book. Walter lives in Spokane, Washington, with his family.
What was the inspiration behind this book? Obviously, the terrorist attacks
of September 11th, but did you have any personal connection to the terrible events
of that day that informed this story?
I spent a few months in 2001 working in New York. Five days after the attacks
I came back ( I was there as a ghost, helping Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik
polish his memoir.) During that week, I wandered around Ground Zero like a lot
of other well-meaning people, trying to help. I wrote a version of the opening
paragraph of the novel that first week.
The book began to form in my mind when I returned home to Washington State
in October and saw how, outside New York, these attacks were an abstraction,
certainly terrifying, but not personal the way they were in New York and Washington,
D.C. I grew more and more upset as I saw politicians and corporations use the
attacks and our fears to further agendas or to make money (sometimes both).
Worst of all, we were a party to this propaganda. As a culture we punished
dissension and hid behind a kind of commercial nationalism (If we don't drink
Sprite the terrorists have won) as we drifted toward war. None of it made sense.
Our stunted grief was like the dissociative reaction I describe in the book.
I grew fascinated with our reaction to these events (think of it as a 9/12 novel).
I recall vividly the moment the book began to form in my mind: I had just arrived
home from New York and was driving in my car and saw a sign that read, "God
Bless America. New Furniture Arriving Every Day." I began The
Zero that day.
What do you think of the debate over whether it's "too soon" to tell such
stories-to write books and movies-about the terrorist attacks of 9/11?
Five years after Pearl Harbor, America had defeated Nazism and Japanese imperialism.
Five years after 9/11, two-thirds of Americans believe we're in worse shape.
We were attacked by lunatics hoping to ignite a war in the Middle East, and
in response, we ignited a war in the Middle East. Maybe we NEED to write and
talk and see movies about 9/11 and about Iraq and about WMD and about torture.
Maybe we need to sacrifice and serve and suffer and grieve and rant and howl
with inappropriate laughter. Maybe we need to wake up.
The Zero is about the
aftermath of an unnamed tragedy in an unnamed city, in part because I wanted
to acknowledge the unspeakable tragedy of the real Ground Zero. And yet this
is not a glancing portrait in which the events of 9/11 exist merely as a backdrop
("The cocktail parties were especially grim that season.") It's about how we
allowed ourselves to be anesthetized by pop culture and the real estate boom
and the recovery of our 401Ks and sleep walked through the last five years.
I hope that, in its surreal, darkly funny way, the novel reflects our irrational
reaction to events that will define our generation.
What type of access or research into the experiences of police officers
and officials at Ground Zero did you have? And what about with federal agencies
such as the CIA and FBI? (The book is a pretty damning indictment of their "blind
leading the blind" performance.)
I had fly-on-the-wall access to an incredible swath of New York in those weeks
afterward, listening in on meetings between city and federal officials, watching
crews look for bodies, seeing cops mourn in bars, listening to victims' families
search for answers, and watching everyday people try to do something
As for intelligence agencies and their turf wars, screw-ups and cover-ups, that's
been the history of American intelligence, up to and after 9/11 (something I
saw researching my first book, Ruby Ridge). We're not likely to find out what's
been done by these agencies for years but if history teaches us anything, it's
that we'll find out that the tools used to battle terrorism have been misused
elsewhere (electronic surveillance, anyone?) Remember, the FBI used many of
the same methods against the KKK and Martin Luther King.
But it's important to remember this book is not reporting. It's a satirical
novel whose rules are its own. It's not about our leaders or our government
or the NSA or even the Department of Documentation. It's about us.
The idea of memory and how we choose to give context to our memories plays
a huge role in this book. Why did you want Remy to suffer from the partial loss
of his memory? Why is it that he can't remember the parts of his life where
he's actually doing the dirty work of his job?
Remy's mysterious "condition" is a version of what I felt the last five years,
lurching along, constantly wondering how events came to pass and worrying about
what seemed to be happening on my behalf. He experiences gaps, and if he doesn't
remember "the dirty work," it does pose an interesting question about his role
in all this, whether he's willfully forgetting the awful things he does. As
I began to write a novel in which the protagonist skips from scene to scene-besides
thinking it felt funny and fresh-I began to think of the remote-control nature
of our attention span now. We watch one thing and then, when it bores us, we
turn the channel, or we surf to another website. After 9/11, we watched terrorism
on TV for a while, but then we turned to American Idol.
Do you see Remy as an archetypal figure for all Americans in the aftermath
of the September 11th attacks (a sort of present day Yossarian)? If so, why
does Remy never recover from his ailments?
For me, Remy is archetypal, although I'm not sure any one character can represent
all Americans. But he definitely reflects what I felt in the last few years:
a constant sense of "How did we get here?" I have to think others have felt
that way, too. As for his recovery, as the novel progressed, I began to see
that Remy had no good choices, that no matter what he did, events rolled inexorably
downhill. This seems to be what we face, beginning with our decision over what
to do in Iraq. And there will be more impossible choices like this. Can Remy
recover? I guess that remains to be seen.
There is an almost romantic appreciation for the mundane details of everyday
life in this book - the world of "pink real estate agents," the idea of the
city that rises up every day to collect its garbage, transport its residents,
etc. Do you think that the stuff of "normal life" is the key to our recovery
or just an illusion that we create for ourselves?
Both! There is certainly something romantic about the recovery of normalcy.
We all woke up on September 12 and realized suddenly how good we had it two
days earlier. Instant nostalgia. Part of that romance, for me, is with the city
of New York itself, which has shown itself to be so amazingly resilient. The
"normal life" has been our salvation but, as such, it is a beautiful illusion.
Real estate-with its self-serving optimism-is a clean representation of the
world in which we've taken refuge. This is why the real estate agent in The
Zero uses the same language as George W. Bush. And why I wonder if our sense
of security in the last couple of years isn't just another bubble of irrational
Throughout the book, the wreckage and debris piled up at "The Zero," as
well as the pervasive smell it gives off, gradually disappears and, with it,
whatever remained of all those lives that were lost in the attacks. Do you think
that, over the last five years, we have lost touch with the real human losses
from that terrible day, now that the actual site has been wiped clean?
I was stunned when I returned to Ground Zero a few years afterward. Of course
it had to be cleaned up. But other than those people who lost someone they loved,
I do think the rest of us lost touch with the human cost of that day, just as
the families of soldiers lost in Iraq have to bear the brunt of that war while
the rest of us have sacrificed almost nothing (again, unlike the World War II
generation.) In the novel the cleanup represents that papering-over of our grief
and responsibility. Remy's vision is that we've turned this painful, visceral
place into just another construction site, the future home of a business park.
Five years later, it's sad to see the squabbling over the site and proper balance
between returning commerce to the area and establishing a memorial.
Do you see this as a hopeful book?
Oh, sure. What did Kafka say: There is infinite hope. But not for us.