Sunday, October 6, 2013

The Zero

by Jess Walter

In the days after 9/11, New York police officer Brian Remy tries to commit suicide by shooting himself in the head, but succeeds only in causing a sort of temporal brain damage, in which he flits in and out of awareness of his own life as though through staccato, disconnected snippets of film.  Apparently recruited for some black ops anti-terrorist unit, he sporadically comes to his senses to find that he has gotten involved in some unpleasant and untenable situations – taking mysterious packages, going through citizens’ correspondence, beating and intimidating Arabic suspects, sleeping with women he doesn’t know whether he loves or is just using for information.  He has no idea what the reason for it all is – his genuinely confused question about what he’s doing inevitable taken as kidding or rhetorical musing – and as the black ops sting heads toward an insane, disastrous conclusion, he is helpless to stop it.

It’s written with more of a satirical black humor than this plot summary implies, a sort of modern Catch-22 as written by Don Delillo, with the typical distant lens he views humanity through to make it seem foreign and alien.  There are, indeed, a couple of scenes that pay almost direct homage to Joseph Heller’s masterwork, such as when Remy’s high school son pretends that Remy is dead, and he, his wife, and son have a straight-faced, absurd conversation about honoring grief and having respect for the son’s wishes.  Or another scene where some intelligence officers looking at some evidence, including a photo of a man eating in a restaurant, begin an earnest, utterly irrelevant discussion of how to properly cook it, and what wine might go best with it.  But the mordant humor gives way to a spooky noir feel in the second half of the book, and although the botched terrorist sting is clearly political satire, it lacks the deadpan absurdity of the earlier half, and comes to a comparatively predictable ending.  Altogether, this a tense, readable, original political satire, the work of a major modern talent.

four stars

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