The zero of the title refers to the ground zero of the World Trade Center of September 11. Is there anyone who wasn't able to grasp for a long time the enormity of what had occurred? Did it seem fantastical, surreal, overwhelming? Jess Walter's book is about the time immediately after the bombing, and his novel is fantastical, surreal, and overwhelming at times.
Police officers Brian Remy and his partner are survivors of the blast. Afterwards their lives careen out of control, but their paths take different courses. Brian's partner cannot stop talking, often inappropriately, about what happened. He suffers from survivor's guilt and grapples with his sudden fame by greedily grabbing every opportunity to present himself as the hero he is not.
Remy's story is told in jumbled patches because his awareness of what he is doing flashes in and out; he lives his life between the "gaps." This device sometimes wears thin at the end, but it creatively allows the main character to act as his own analyst. When he is aware (i.e., when we hear his story), his moral line is "normal." He is the concerned and faithful father, boyfriend, employee, police officer. What he learns is that in the gaps, he may be none of the above.
We can only guess that what he does in the gaps is rooted in the same psychological turmoil that affects his partner. He may have been a hero, but he does not remember. He survived, but his son's life revolves around mourning the death of his father, who sometimes stands in front of him and says, "But I'm alive." That's not the point, his son answers. There must be some bad guys to "get," some panacea he can apply to halt what has brought his world to its knees, even if he must become a bad guy himself to accomplish it.
For both this novel and Citizen Vince, his last much-praised book, Walter frames his story within the political context of the times. What are we as a nation, as a community, seeking? Are we able to define ourselves as part of a whole, or are we merely seeking individual gain? Can we make a change with a bigger picture in mind? The author addresses one of our most important current dilemmas: Is there such a thing as "going too far" to ensure our nation's security? Perhaps this high-falutin' philosophical quest sounds daunting, but Walter is able to create a captivating story without allowing it to become moribund.
There is no easy explanation for anything in The Zero. The reader must work hard to judge what reality is being served. The work is worth it, because Walter's writing often floats in a stratum of its own. Understandably, The Zero was a finalist in 2006 for the National Book Award in fiction.