The Zero and the One by Ryan Ruby – New York, Oxford and a Puzzle

This is a powerful book, or a philosophical puzzle, or both in one extremely strong story. There are parts of this book that are a complete puzzle, being mainly the quotes from a non existent book “The Zero and the One”, but essentially the whole book is a puzzle. The resolution or answer only becomes clear in the end, or does it? On the surface this is a story of a suicide, but much more is going on. It can be seen as a story of intense relationships which can only break up horribly, or a book in which the forces against its two protagonists are just too much for them. It is a book to read with a certain tolerance of obsessions, and is certainly not for those who are easily shocked. It is an almost hypnotic read, and sometimes quite overwhelming in its effect.

The book opens with a young man, Own, travelling to New York for a funeral. Amid the descriptions of discovering a hot and largely unforgiving city in many ways, it emerges that he is going to attend the funeral of his more than friend, Zach. Zach has apparently committed suicide, but his family are stunned by his action, as he seemed to have so many things in his life. Clever, well off, gifted in many ways, the obvious questions are asked silently by his family, especially his sister Vera. Owen has time to reflect on his relationship with Zach. Owen is a student at Oxford, from a non University family background. His parents find it difficult to relate to him, his old friends do not know what to say to him. He cannot find his place in Oxford, except to study alone, lost in his self imposed allowance of beer, confused by the antics of students whose wealth and experience of public schools causes them to behave so differently. Zach seeks him out, engineers a friendship, introduces him to Clare, and together with Tori, form a small group who spend their time together. There are perfect times, punting on the river, drinking in the positive experiences of Oxford. Zach begins to behave even more strangely; while his behaviour on a trip to Berlin is beyond moral, his behaviour now breaks down. This does not emerge in a straightforward way, as Owen tries to cope with Zach’s family and his total culture shock in New York.

This is a shocking, strange but ultimately powerful novel. Owen is an unreliable narrator, and far more than a dispassionate narrator. There are points of breakdown when all predictable behaviour is gone, but the narrative pull is so strong that the reader is compelled to continue. This is not a book to be tackled lightly, and overall I do wonder at its treatment of women as reactive rather than proactive. This is not a book for the easily shocked, and one I may not have picked up for myself, but I am grateful to Legend Press for the review copy. A taut, compulsive read.