"The Zero" in question is Ground Zero, though writer Jess Walter never comes right out and says it. But it is: Smoke covers a city after planes ram into its buildings, shards of metal and bits of bodies are trucked away, and a president urges America to "draw your strength from the collective courage and resilientness" as we wage a "War on Evil." It's all there, familiar but askew, and Walter's The Zero captures it with an intensity that veers from deeply unsettling to queasily comedic.
The Zero begins with an unheard bang whose repercussions last the course of its 300 pages—the terrorist attacks, yes, but also the gunshot from cop Brian Remy's failed suicide. Afterward, Remy's head is covered in blood and he can't remember stretches of time—and then shit gets worse. He's quickly drawn into a world of shady intelligence agencies and shadier politics, trying to find his way though a moral morass where rescue workers are put on cereal boxes ("First Responder: the cereal of heroes") and torturing innocent people is eagerly justified. We see it all—or, rather, see it all again—through the semi-reliable eyes of Remy, whose chronic blackouts and confusion give Walter's disjointed novel an eerily accurate sense of what life was like immediately after 9/11.
The Zero is a few things: A mystery (though, thanks to Remy's unfocused attentions, not a very successful one), a hit-and-miss comedy, and a struggle to discover what 9/11 did, and continues to do, to us. It's here, toward the novel's end—when the allegories begin to clarify, when the too-long setup begins to gel—that The Zero really begins to stick and squirm, becoming at once funny and uncomfortable and disturbing.
"This is what happens when a nation becomes a public relations firm," one character remarks. "You forget the truth. You claim victory in every loss, life in every death. Declare war when there is no war, and when you are at war, pretend you aren't. The rest of the world wails and vows revenge and buries its dead and you turn on the television. Go to the cinema." Or have some First Responder cereal. Or draw strength from our "resilientness."