Jess Walter

The Zero

I’m running through various award winning authors, and this guy’s name popped up. My library didn’t have ‘Citizen Vince,’ so I thought I’d give this a go.

It was immediately refreshing to be a mile from crime/action cliché, and the stereotypes of, for example, the most recent crime novel I’d come across in the laughably juvenile ‘1st to Die’ by James Patterson, which somehow dumbed down an already simple formula. And while ‘The Zero’ treats its audience with a world more respect, and the writing is in a different league, there are still a few stereotypical characters from a less well travelled but still established satirical genre. Walter openly acknowledges his debt to writers like Kafka and Heller (and in googling a little for this review I was reminded of Hasek’s ‘Good Soldier Svjek’ – something I haven’t read in years and am currently enjoying on a reread, and other reviewers picked up on how the movie ‘Being There’ – perhaps more successfully and with less repetition – picked up on the gag of ignorance being mistaken for profundity or cynicism), and I found the treatment of the FBI/CIA game playing down the line for images parodying particularly US government and intelligence. We’ve been here many times before in films too, right back to ‘Doctor Strangelove’, up to something more recent like ‘Burn After Reading’. Sure these government agents are such targets because of the massive gulf between their Dudley Do Right rhetoric (and popular NCIS type nonsense), and the reality of how they function. And maybe Walter felt more compelled to pen this reaction than I did to read it because I’m at more of a distance over here in Australia. Maybe that’s the trick – a good book, but aimed more at a US audience. While he handled this deftly, I was more struck with how familiar it felt than by stinging new insights. 

The format of a main character with all these memory lapses was interesting, but, again, not new to me. It reminded me of Gene Wolfe’s Soldier of the Mist, although I must say I found each of Walter’s episodes more gripping. The whole deal of Remy’s fears that in his lapses he was a monster just felt straight out of ‘Fight Club’ (and other reviewers cite ‘Memento’ – which I haven’t seen).

I’m not saying what Walter did was easy, or that it’s some sort of carbon of previous books. Some of the exchanges between Remy and his partner are up there with Hellar’s best. He gives his enigmatic middle-eastern man some trenchant lines. We feel for Remy with his appalling son, and for the tortured ‘March’. The satire of PR slogans and the grief industry within the media is effectively biting. But I am saying that by about half-way through the book it wasn’t enough for me that this book wasn’t like so many. Perhaps because it was too like some others.

October 2013