Trauma, Satire and Jess Walter’s The Zero

A deliriously mordant political satire… Walter’s Helleresque take on a traumatic time… carries off his dark and hilarious narrative with a grandly grotesque imagination. –Publishers Weekly

This review is featured as a paratextual element within the first pages of The Zero (2006) and accurately describes the novel’s absurd portrayal of 9/11 a, the reaction of the Bush administration to 9/11, and the personal trauma from which the character cannot escape. The review compares the novel to Joseph Heller’s satirical novel Catch-22 published in 1961 and other reviews have compared the novel to satirist and surrealist writer Franz Kafka. John N. Duvall agrees with the reviewers. He states that “although it has received surprisingly little attention, Walter’s The Zero brilliantly satirizes a moment in recent American history when any chance for reasoned political or ethical debate fell prey to the initiation of a state of emergency” (281). Kristine Miller notices the lack of scholarly work too. She states that “although no sustained scholarship on The Zero has yet been published, reviewers have focused on how the troubled, inarticulate Remy symbolically represents America’s post-9/11 trauma” (30). She also observes that “The Zero satirizes this nationalistic allegory by contrasting ‘what happens when a nation becomes a public relations firm’ with what happens to Brian Remy, an ex-NYPD cop whose post-9/11 psychological collapse is far more traumatic than heroic” (29). It is clear that The Zero satirises the state of the United States after the attacks. The Zero offers counter-narrative to the Bush administration in the form of a satirical novel. Duval states in “Homeland Security and the State of (American) Exception(alism): Jess Walter’s The Zero and the Ethical Possibilities of Postmodern Irony”:

Both using and repurposing the genre of the detective/spy thriller, Walter satirizes the hero narrative to examine the conflation of personal and collective grieving that emerges at a time when the forces of nationalism, media, and capital work in concert to mobilize public support for the notion of just wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and for curtailed civil rights at home (281).

This novel juxtaposes the public state of affairs with Brian Remy, the lonesome man who is unable to deal with his trauma. Remy, who previously was a police officer, now works for another counterterrorism agency while also giving tours at Ground Zero. Thiscounterterrorism mission becomes a focus in the novel. He has a difficult relationship with his son Edgar and tries a romantic relationship with April, a girl he has to investigate on suspicion on terrorist relations. Remy is the focaliser and narrator of the novel, which means that “[he] controls what readers see and know. To the best of his ability, he aspires to be a reliable angle of vision” (Duval 284), because he is a man of the law. However, he witnessed the attacks first hand and suffers from memory loss, loss of hand-eye-coordination, and speech issues. The memory loss actually prevents Remy from remembering his counterterrorist mission, though this turns out to be a wild-goose chase, because April does not have relations to terrorist and everyone else Remy investigates is pretending to be a terrorist while being part of another anti-terrorist agency. The novel is a parody on the state of exceptionalism just after 9/11.

Important to this mission and the parody thereof is the contextualisation of the Bush administration and the policies that were put in order after the attacks, which Duval describes in his essay: “The Zero turns these domestic situations inside out in a way that comments critically on America’s post-9/11 state of exception” (Duval 281). The “domestic situations” Duval states allude to the personal relations of Remy. His son pretends Remy died in 9/11, and Remy tries to form a relationship with April Kraft while she is in grief over the death of her husband and sister. The state of exception he explains is when “President Bush’s executive order of November 13, authorized the ‘indefinite detention’ and trial by ‘military commissions’ of noncitizens suspected of involvement in terrorist activities, which” is a paradigmatic example of the “immediately biopolitical significance of the state of exception,” wherein the law operates “by its own suspension” (Giorgio Agamben qtd. in Duval 281-2). He explains further that “the Office of Homeland Security, then, endows Bush’s rhetorical refashioning with a full bureaucratic weight that has allowed an expansion of state power in a way that challenges any attempt to keep the spheres of the domestic and the foreign separate” (282). This means that new agencies were built to fight terrorism and that immediately after the attacks, anyone who could be a terrorist should be immediately dealt with by the agencies. This is reflected in the novel through the wild-goose chases after people who are suspected of being terrorists. The other Remy makes decisions on the spot which have severe consequences for the people involved. These decisions are part of the literary irony, which satirises the American government and its policies. This will be discussed in this post.

There was a feeling of paranoia in America where anyone and everyone could be a terrorist or related to one. The novel “recounts Remy’s selected experiences as he leaves theNYPD to take a position in a new counterterrorism agency” in this post-9/11 era of terror (281). The Zero also takes in account and satirises the public increasing patriotism and public grief. The novel portrays the days after 9/11 where the American people “stood on roadblocks and behind barricades on the street, in flag T-shirts and stiff-brimmed all caps. […] And still they all cheered and called out […] They cried. Saluted” (Walter 10). They did this all to support the policemen and fire fighters who were searching and working on Ground Zero, the destroyed World Trade Center site. While the Bush administration and American media celebrated this patriotic reaction of the American people, the novel criticises it by portraying it as having a concerning effect on the Remy and Guterack. The novel also takes into account the real-life reactions of the police officers in 9/11. The novel’s depiction of the police trauma victims is quite accurate. As discussed earlier, Miller compares The Zero to interviews with police officers and she finds that there are noteworthy similarities between the novel and the interviewees: “both the novel and the testimonies initially seem to support the conventional opposition between incoherent, authentic trauma and coherent, fabricated media stories about the cop-hero” (31). This is relevant because these experiences of the cops can be compared to this fiction and the trauma depicted in this novel can be compared to real life traumatic experiences, and the literary devices used in novels seem to represent these real life reactions and trauma. Speech issues, discussed above, as well as the use of metaphors, can be related to the lives of real life police officers: “interviews with NYPD cops suggest how widespread was this need to describe 9/11 figuratively” (Miller 35). Another phenomenon Miller observes is the patriotic public. Apparent from those interviews is that The Zero comes close to describing the feeling of the officers after 9/11 when the public treated them as heroes. They often felt embarrassed with all the attention. Remy represents such reactions. His reaction to “they all cheered and called out” is to hide behind his coffee (Walter 10-2). In contrast with Remy, “his former NYPD partner, Paul Guterak, serves as Remy’s foil, one who understands the need for America to identify heroes” (Duval 285). As such, he has been affected differently by the trauma, because Paul “lost whatever filter used to separate his mind from his mouth. He said whatever came into his head now” (Walter 16). Despite his frequent talking throughout the novel, Paul often struggles with finding the right words and his utterances resemble blabbering. It becomes apparent that Paul actually has speech issues as well. Furthermore, Remy seems to dislike all the media and public attention, while Guterak basks in it and tells Remy that “that ain’t it the best feeling, them people treating us so good like that” (Walter 11). This media attention derive the concept of the cop-hero. As discussed in this thesis before, the idea of heroes changed in 9/11 as New York needed heroes and the government and media turned the focus to police officers and firemen. As Duval explains, “America’s state of exception requires exceptional heroes, which means that people who might be otherwise identified as victims or even cowards are pressed to wear the mantle of hero” (285). This means that the government and media turned victims like police officers and men who had helped into heroes, for some against their will. While Guterak accepts this, Remy rejects this and yet he “is nevertheless repeatedly commended for his heroism. The hero is by definition exceptional, which leads to one of the issues of identification in post-9/11 America” (285). This concept is satirized in the novel. Guterak complains about firemen and calls them “sons-of-bitches” (16). However, he is also resentful “they can get all the blow jobs, all the cooked meals. Half of ‘em off duty” (16). Though Guterak’s crude language is one of the ways the novel works to satirise the trauma of the police officer in 9/11 by bluntly treating the need for heroes as a celebrity status, this post will discuss the ways in which literary devices emphasise the portrayal of this satirical trauma in relation to Remy’s trauma, but also to the state of New York in the age of terror. The following paragraphs will first discuss use of structure to portray Remy’s memory gaps, which turn out to be a “red herring” (Duval 283). Secondly, use of imagery will be discussed. Thirdly, use of alliteration and other poetic devices will be discussed. Then, the post turns to use of ellipses and dialogue. Finally, this post will discuss the use of irony to create the counter-narrative.

The structure of the novel represents Remy’s memory gaps; while these gaps are a result of trauma, the gaps are also a way to criticise the state of exception. The novel features paragraphs ending with dashes. As Duval notes, “formally, the novel’s impaired angle of vision results in most scenes ending without resolution so that the reader is forced to immediately start another in medias res” (284). These disruptions are represented by ending the paragraph with an open dialogue, just after a question, “Mrs. Lubach opened her mouth to answer but—” (Walter 7) or after setting an expectation “He opened the door and passed through—” (101), leaving the reader to wonder what comes next after passing through. The chapter of this quote continues with Remy suddenly sitting at the hospital or being with his girlfriend April. The dashes signify the disruption in memory, because there are cases where no such dash is used and the paragraph is completed. It is a “technique that Walter has called both ‘devicey’ and ‘freeing’” (Ehrnwald 100, 107). These breaks represent leaps in time or space that simulates the “dissociative episodes” of the “textbook PTSD” with which Remy’s psychiatrist diagnoses him after 9/11” (Ehrnwald qtd. in Miller 35). During the novel it seemsthat these disruptions signify the traumatised mind, but then it becomes clear that Remy has a split personality. Remy has literally become disrupted with himself by the 9/11 trauma. Balaev explains that a trauma “leads to a fractured pathological self and memory” (The Nature of Trauma in American Novels 6). In this case, this can be taken quite literally, because the gaps in memory that he experiences, are in fact when the other personality occupies his body. One Remy is ignorant and innocent, while the other is a brutal agent of a counter terrorist agency, who has to pretend to be a terrorist in order to catch one. Duval states that “Walter’s novel reminds us that the victim himself may easily become the terrorist” (284). Through abrupt endings of paragraphs and gaps in the plot, the “fractured self” is emphasised.

The imagery in the novel presents the World Trade Center site, Ground Zero, as a living object. Because Remy cannot cope with the destruction of the towers, he uses metaphors of living things to describe the site. Early in the novel, Ground Zero is described to be “humming” (Walter 15). Later Remy describes Ground Zero as the following,

Water was being pumped from three angles, from ladder trucks on the fringe of the massive smoldering jungle, while fire raged in its roots and hot shoots jutted from the pile. Up close, you didn’t really get any better idea what the smoking leaves and vines were made of, except a few things like windows blinds (18)

Another example is when Remy describes the wreckage as a “shattered steel exoskeleton” (19) and machines pulling at this wreckage as “horses grazing at deep-rooted grass” (17). These examples illustrate a reaction that Miller has described as well. Remy is unable to accurately describe the events of what happened, so he seems to treat Ground Zero as an organism, because he tries to make sense of what had occurred. Similarly, actual cops repeatedly claim that “the destruction of the World Trade Center (WTC) was “unbelievable” (Reminiscences of Scott P. Strauss 9), “hard to imagine” (Reminiscences of John Lambkin 20), and therefore impossibly “hard to describe” (Reminiscences of Thomas B. Vinton 18 qtd. in Miller 31-2). Therefore these cops rely on metaphors to describe the event. Remy cannot process what has happened and he has to relive the trauma by working at Ground Zero every day.

Another prominent use of imagery is the comparison of the destruction of the towers with paper, which refers to the image of the destruction of the towers. The opening of the novel makes this metaphor. “They burst into the sky, every bird in creation, angry andagitated […] and then close enough to see that it wasn’t a flock of birds at all—it was paper. Burning scraps of paper. All the little birds were paper” (Walter 3). The metaphor is recurring. Later Remy wonders the following: “what would the rain do to the dust and ash? And the paper, the snow banks of résumes and reports and bills of lading—what would to all the paper?” and “the vast paper recovery efforts would be complicated by rainfall” (11). Paper is an important motif in the novel, because Remy is hired by a new counterterrorist agency, the Documents Department of the Office of Liberty and Recovery, which is “a government organization with the supposedly benign mission of recovering and interpreting the fragments of paper that blanketed the city when the twin towers fell” (Duval 283). Paper is a metaphor for the information that America has lost during the attacks and Remy has trouble distinguishing the dead from the paper,

That would help, somehow, knowing what percentage of the pile was paper. And People. Most of the pile was steel and concrete and window blinds and you became grateful for these because they mostly stayed put. You could figure out how much steel and how many window blinds; you could account. It was a simple problem. But the people were different. And the paper. The people and the paper burned up or flew away or ran off (19)

Here Remy tries to make sense of the wreckage and categorises it: countable and uncountable damage. Remy cannot think of people and paper separately. Both the paper and people burnt, flew, or ran. Even after Remy admits to not remembering 9/11, he admits to remember “standing alone while a billion sheets of paper fluttered to the ground” (Walter 306). With the image of paper and people blurring, it seems as if Remy has also seen the people falling to the ground and mistaking it for paper.

Alliteration is related to the imagery in the novel, as it emphasises the metaphor the novel sets for the World Trade Center site. Remy describes people and paper as “they were bellowed and blown” (Walter 19), evoking the image of loud wind. Remy also describes 9/11 as “silent fireworks, the lining of his eyes splintering and sparking and flaking into the soup behind his eyes—flashers and floaters that danced like scraps of paper blown into the world” (9), which seems to evoke the image of “silent fireworks” through the repetition of the sibilant and non-sibilant fricatives. Another example of this is when Remy wonders that “it was amazing what could burn. We forgot that, Remy thought, in our fear of fission and fusion, radiation, infection, concussion and fragmentation. We forgot fire” (15). The repetition of the fricative sounds seems to evoke the image of the sound of fire. These sounds emphasise the image of the day that traumatised Remy, which would be why it is so often repeated, because Remy is “possessed by an image or event” (Caruth, Trauma: Explorations in Memory 4-5) of the destruction of the World Trade Center. This shows how prominent the image of paper is in Remy’s traumatised mind.

Dialogue, and especially use of ellipses, is used to emphasize the “speechless void, unrepresentable” of the traumatised mind (Balaev, The Nature of Trauma in American Novels 3). Remy seems unable to articulate his sentences properly. For example, in this excerpt from the beginning, “‘No. I was just cleaning my gun and…’ She stared at him as if he knew how to finish the sentence. ‘Et cetera,’ he said” (Walter 6). In this example, Remy, being the third person focalisor, comments on his inability to form coherent sentences, while feeling pressured to be able to. He cannot finish his sentence because the words elude him. In another example, Remy is at a loss for words again: “‘I don’t know,’ Remy said. ‘But there’s something happening… and I should probably be…’ Be what? Remy was stumped” (Walter 299). Here, Remy is literally stumped by his own fragmented and forgetful mind. These ellipses represent the disruptions in the mind where it fails to form coherent sentences or remember what was going to be said. The 9/11 trauma has caused his mind to be interrupted with blanks. Guterak as well seems affected by this. As examined before, he seems to have lost the filter between his thoughts and his speech. However, there are often instances where he does not know what to say. For example, when discussing a head they found in the wreckage, “can you imagine it just … showing up”, but he follows immediately with “what kind of look would you have on your face, do you think?” (Walter 45). It is as Miller states, “in Columbia’s interviews, cops and civilians demonstrate a similar inability or unwillingness to describe their 9/11 experiences (31). She gives the following examples of stammering, “Not—the whole ex— you know, you’re—it’s so incomprehensible what had happened” (Reminiscences of Ruth Sergel 16 qtd. in Miller 32). Balaev explains this: “traumatic experience is unrepresentable due to the inability of the brain, understood as the carrier of coherent cognitive schematas, to properly encode and process the event” (Balaev The Nature of Trauma Theory 7). Remy, and the police officers cannot describe 9/11, they stammer, cannot find the right vocabulary and thus resort to imagery. In this novel, the frequent use of ellipses reflects the actual state of the New York police interviewee and reflects the unspeakable of Caruth’s trauma theory approach.

The humour in The Zero invokes an atmosphere of absurdity that satirises the administration, conduct, and state of New York right after the attacks. The novel proposes a counter-narrative to the administration and the need for a hero. The organisation Remy works for hires him to track a woman named April. She is suspected of being related to a terrorist on account of a paper containing a pecan recipe. Remy receives a briefing of the matter, though having no previous knowledge of accepting the job, because his aforementioned other personality had accepted it. Remy tries to make this clear, but fails:

Markham was still talking. “Of course, your work must be treated with the utmost discretion. I will be your primary contact. I trust you haven’t told anyone about your negotiations with us to this point.”
“With—“
“With us,” Markham said.
“Yeah.” Remy laughed nervously. “Well I don’t think that’s going to be a problem.”
Half of Markham’s young face smiled. “That’s good.”
“Hell, I don’t even know who you are.”
Markham seemed momentarily startled, then smiled. “Wow Yeah. That’s good. You could be in one of our training videos.” (Walter 56).

Here, the irony is that Markham is under the belief that Remy is playing along. So, Markham believes that Remy is using verbal irony. This happens again when interrogating an Arabian man. Duval uses this example to illustrate that the novel has four levels of irony. One is that Markham “interprets Remy’s comments as simple verbal irony”, the second is that “the reader simultaneously understands that Remy does not intend his comments to be verbal irony”, the third is that Remy’s other personality “must use verbal irony” and the fourth is that “Remy’s self-proclaimed innocence in no way disrupts the Homeland Security State; his actions consistently support the state of exception” (287). Using this irony, The Zero satirises this state and this attitude, because both personalities sustain this state of exception.

Another example of the humour in this novel, from the same scene, shows how absurd the agency is, and thus satirises the agencies’ method of conduct in 9/11. They discuss the recipe found that somehow survived the attacks, suggesting April left the building and took the recipe with her. An elderly lady found the recipe stuck between two bus seats.

“She says she picked it up because… she thought it would taste good. She thought her husband would like it. He likes pecans.”
“But you…don’t believe her?”
Markham looked stung. “Yes, we believe her. Of course, just to be sure, we polygraphed her.” (60).

While polygraphing an elderly lady over a recipe already seems absurd and demonstrates the paranoia of this agency, the absurdity continues:

“But why would anyone lie about liking pecans? Who doesn’t like pecans? Especially in a good fish recipe, a tender filet? No, the pecans give it some substance, some crunch. Some weight. They’re soaked in honey. I think you could substitute corn syrup. But it specifically calls for honey. A hint of cayenne. Sea salt. You bake it for twenty minutes on low heat. Some chives. No, it’s a good little fish for a summer meal. Tasty. Light. We had the lab make it, just to be sure it was, you know… good.” Markham leaned back. “We’ll probably make it again; I’ll let you know.” (60) This long passage indicates the level of absurdity of this bureau and satirises the Homeland Security State early in the novel. The irony of the novel “makes clear that the most significant work of the Homeland Security State has been to produce the simulacrum of security by constructing plots” (Duval 295). The construction of these terrorist plots is futile as “it turns out, however, that every member of the supposed terrorist cell is actually an informant for one government intelligence agency or another” (Duval 284). This leads to absurd actions like polygraphing an elderly lady. This irony and the absurd passages of irrelevant information create a surreal feeling, which coincides with the feeling the New York police officers felt: “the feeling shared by many cops that the scene at Ground Zero “was just kind of surreal” (Reminiscences of Strauss qtd. in Miller 35). The Zero employs this surreal effect and satirises it to the level which Duval describes it as postmodern in his essay.

In conclusion, The Zero satirises the state of New York right after the attacks and does this by ridiculing the method of the actions and protocols set after 9/11. The Zero takes the concept of trauma and, while not reducing the severity of its effects, uses it to satirise the need of a hero, the atmosphere of the public, and the Bush administration’s actions. The imagery and dialogue evoke the feeling of the severity of Remy’s trauma and the accuracy of the police trauma, as described by Miller. The structure seems to emphasise the traumatic rupture of the self, but the novel turns it into a device to show the severe rupture of Remy’s “Self”. While his split personality is a severe symptom, this device is also used to assist the irony of the novel which satirises the Homeland State of Security. The Zero provides a satirical account of a traumatised New York police officer in relation to the state and public. The novel makes satire of the government’s response to 9/11 without devaluing and ignoring the severity of 9/11’s aftermaths and consequences.

 

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