What was it Socrates said to the oracle at Delphi? If he was the wisest man in Greece, this was only because he knew that he knew nothing.
In the age of a doublespeak forever war defended with "unknown unknowns," New York police officer Brian Remy knows nearly nothing at all. Perversely, this makes him one hell of a covert agent in the aftermath of 9/11. He's got down that psychologist's arsenal: What do you think? Why did you come here? The long empty pause that must be filled. Always questioning what to everyone else seems obvious, Remy develops a reputation as a major hard ass (or, alternatively, a hilarious clown), when in fact he's just genuinely baffled by everything that's happening around him. Might have been the self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.
Jess Walter's The Zero begins with Remy on the floor of his apartment in a pool of his own blood, a suicide note left nearby: "Etc." He doesn't remember shooting himself, but the evidence all points in that direction. He mostly missed, just grazed himself a little. But Remy's consciousness is seriously fractured. He perpetually finds himself in the middle of situations he does not recall entering, with people he does not remember meeting, stumbling his way through shadowy plans he does not remember making ... and that he suspects may be serving nefarious intents.
This would be unsettling enough in the best of times, but Remy is living in the worst. His partner, Paul Guterak, won't (maybe can't) shut up about how happy he is to be a cop in post-9/11 New York: the free coffee, the shiny new jackets, the Ford Excursions, the guided tours he gives to celebrities wanting to visit "The Zero" -- a reference to the scraped bare ground at the site of the Twin Towers' collapse. Guterak sells his pseudo-heroic credentials to get his picture on a box of "First Responder" cereal. The one with the marshmallows. Loyal to his partner, he gets Remy a gig showing up at a monster truck rally: "We're turning Veterans Arena into a giant mud pit to honor our dead heroes!"
Everyone but Remy seems to think this is all perfectly normal.
A man referred to only as "The Boss" -- a self-promoting Mayor intent on using the disaster to catapult himself to national prominence and ... well, you get the picture -- choreographs the costumes of his extras, insisting each keep a dust-covered outfit at the ready for those moments when a little pathos is called for. Walter might be accused of creating a caricature if The Boss' brain-bending pronouncements didn't ring so familiar: "They hate our very ... economic being. This is a war we fight with wallets and purses, by making dinner reservations and going to MOMA." And, "Every question we ask is a love letter to our enemies." (An unnamed "President" makes similarly surreal statements, peppered with malapropisms.)
It's The Boss, too, who sets in motion the creation of the "Documentation Department" (the "Double-D's") of the new "Office of Liberty and Recovery." Calling for the recovery of all the scattered pieces of paper that erupted from the crumbling towers, he proclaims, "There is nothing so important as recovering the record of our commerce, the proof of our place in the world... if we do not gather up the paper and put it all back, then the forces aligned against us have already won."
And so begins Remy's double-agent mission to track down the provenance of a particularly flavorful recipe for almond-encrusted trout and its possible connection to a sleeper cell of terrorists. The Double-D's collect hangars upon hangars of filing cabinets, filing every scrap of paper they can recover from The Zero, then, predictably, expanding their mission to papers with increasingly tenuous connections to the site.
There's a helpless dream-state inevitability to Remy's post-9/11 existence. He knows he's gotten himself involved in something unworthy, yet even his moments of intended nobility end up serving covert purposes that are apparently of his own devising. He dips into awareness of his own life just enough to see what a mess it has become, never staying long enough to change the direction. "This is a life, he thought, smooth skipping stones bounding across the surfaces of time, with brief moments of deepened consciousness."
The word "absurd" often carries connotations of "unbelievable," but sometimes it's just an accurate descriptor for a surreal reality. The Zero is absurd in precisely that way: wholly recognizable as the reality of our recent times, laughter in the most despairing of atonal chords, a smart depiction of our mass idiocy as it scrapes bare the ground where paper records (and, oh, by the way, a few thousand people) came to die.