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Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Book Review: The Zero by Jess Walter -- Memory Tricks and Political Slicks at Ground Zero

Jess Walter spent several weeks at Ground Zero starting a few days after the attacks of September 11th, but he seems just as damaged by his stint as a ghostwriter for an autobiography of New York's disgraced former top cop Bernie Kerik. His novel The Zero (Harper Perennial, Paperback, $14.95) is haunted by the aftermath of the twin towers destruction and the decisions that leaders made as a result of that day. The author himself prefers to call it a September 12th novel. Walter is not alone in tackling this subject but he comes at it in a unique way. His protagonist is a cop, Brian Remy, who suffers from conspicuous gaps in time and a severe case of macular degeneration which causes his vision to be obscured by "floaters and flashers" like damaged film stock. The time gaps are disorienting to character and reader alike, every few pages we are in a situation that Remy has to untangle from where he just was. One minute he could be about to pick up a cup of coffee and then... BAM! ...he's stepping off an unfamiliar elevator to a floor he's never seen before. Even worse he begins to suspect that the times he can't account for have been filled with misdeeds that he himself may be a central perpetrator of. There is an element of satire to the mysterious government agencies that all seem more interested in scooping each other than in protecting Americans and the vaguely threatening mayor (unnamed but clearly Giuliani) who speaks in platitudes about not letting the terrorists win.
Ultimately Remy's journey through darkness is meant to be a metaphor for America's own confusing, disjointed journey. Walter is not wholly successful in blending Chuck Palahniuk style mindfuckery with Kafka-esque satire and Chandler inspired hard boiled mystery. The climax is more of a resigned shrug and the puzzle pieces seem to fit together rather arbitrarily. Still it's a fascinating read and suggests that Walter is a writer worth watching.
Four out of Five memory chips:

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