Thursday, April 30, 2009

Absence and Everything in It

Jess Walter's The Zero takes its title from the absence of the twin towers and the holes they left in the American psyche, or maybe not. It is a valid question to ask if the towers left any hole at all. The structure of Walter's novel contains as many holes, gaps, and questions as can be imagined. However, those gaps are quickly filled by a society wanting to quickly fill the gap with meanings and perceptions that make sense, avoiding the void that might lead deeper into the subject. This comes through when Remy, the central figure of the text, remains in a state between consciousness and unconsciousness, unsure whether he is dreaming or thinking:

"A dream - that would help explain the gaps, and the general incongruity of life now - the cyclic repetition of events on cable news, waves of natural disasters, scientists announcing the same discoveries over and over (Planet X, dinosaur birds, cloning, certain genetic codes), the random daily shift of national allegiances, wildly famous people who no one could recall becoming famous, the sudden emergence and disappearance of epidemics, the declaration and dissolution of governments, cycles of scandal, confession, and rehabilitation, heated elections in which losers claimed victory and races were rerun in the same sequence, events that catapulted wildly out of control, like plagues of illogic ..."

Are these what exist in the state between consciousness and unconsciousness, possibly where we all exist today? The text depicts a culture that is not enlightened to the point that it can accept the void and discover the meanings from within it. Rather, society tends to overlay pop culture and populous understanding atop the void.

5 comments:

Danielle Moyer said...

I would first like to rule out the notion that the state between consciousness and unconsciousness is NOT where we all exist today. On the morning of 9/11 I was completely consciousness, I knew I wasn't dreaming. The event did not seem surreal to me. I remember asking my mother why she kept repeating, "I don't believe this". Was it that hard to believe? Thousands more died the same day. Was it not that important for the Washington Post to report the death of:

Melvin J. Gonwa, 79, of West Bend, died Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, at Harbor Haven Nursing Home in Fond du Lac.
He was born April 27, 1922, in Dacada to the late Nicholas and Adelia (nee Wetor) Gonwa, and married Lucille C. Schmitt on Dec. 28, 1946, in Milwaukee.

She died the same day as the thousands in the towers, so why was it more catastrophic for thousands to perish? Did a single life not mean as much as thousands?

Society rushed to fill the gaps and never truly had time to react to the situation.Not only is the text depicting a culture unable to accept voids but our society today can't seem to settle for an empty space. Once the towers had fallen on 9/11 our reaction came too quickly with, "The towers were there, now they are gone so let's replace them with something else". Why were we trying to make "sense" out of it all? Why couldn't we just accept it for what it was? The acceptance of the event may have influenced better judgment about the events taking place after 9/11. The acceptance may have allowed the grief to settle. The acceptance may have made more sense then trying too hard to actually make sense.

Towards the end of the novel, Remy changes and begins to accept the gaps in his life. He stops questioning his actions and just tries to pick up from the moment of realization and beyond. Instead of asking, "why, why" he changes his thought process to "ok, what is next? Where do I go from here?" Remy looks around, examines his surroundings and acts.

If we would have changed our thought process from "why?" to "where do we go from here?" and examined the events of 9/11, maybe we could have been like Remy. Could we have just picked up where we left off and moved on?

Maija said...

I thought the emphasis on time in this novel was very interesting. There is a point in the novel where Remy is described as looking at the Rolex watch he received, surprised that the 2nd hand is gliding gracefully around (96). Not standing still or jittering about which would have reflected how his mind was finding itself keep track. Later on in the novel Remy wakes up after his eye surgery and first asks what day it is, and then wishes he would of asked about April instead (265). I couldn't help but question why all these organizing and classifying names of time were coming up, and alongside this whole clockwork business. There seems to be an issue with staying on and with the pace of classified time. And on page 263 Remy's expansive deliberation on how his life has come to be quite dream like, he talks about the cyclical nature of the constructions around him as incongruous with the way his memories and experiences work. He states that "it is as if some faulty math had been introduced to all the equations." I find it interesting that Walter uses mathematics and the equation form where everything should be worked out and steps are explained for. But this dependency is faulty in Remy's painting. It's like what one always takes as truth is not really working. I'm not sure what all to conclude from this but there is a posed discrepancy between how Remy feels and how his peers and society expect him to feel. The form of the novel with all of its gaps and cuts and the use of time classifying terminology to depict characters, and the emphasis on Remy's watch suggest there is a confinement to the way Remy is expected to process his experiences. And it is made clear that Remy's mind does not function like clockwork.

Katherine said...

I agree with Danielle- on 9/11, I too knew I wasn't dreaming and the event did not seem surreal. However, looking back on the event 8 years later, I recently watched videos of the attacks on youtube and the whole thing seems surreal to me now. I think this is due to time- the emotional shock and trauma has subsided and the facts of 9/11 have come out and I am able to analyze the event objectively. I do not view the attacks through the blinds of emotion anymore. Remy's gaps and memory lapses appear to be bothersome at first, however maybe that is what the nation needed after the attacks. The search for a linear and definitive reaction to the attacks is what led us to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I think through Remy, the author wants the reader to see that hastily filling in the gaps can lead to as much hurt and confusion as the gaps themselves may bring- however, gaps or no gaps, the pain and trauma of the event remain. As strongly as I do feel however, that the government reacted too hastily, I do feel that not retaliating in some form may have been portrayed as a sign of weakness and a victory for the terrorists. I think that The Zero presents what should have been done in hindsight, however it is easy to make such judgments after the facts and ramifications of our actions surface.

ashley said...

It is a greatly disturbing notion that there is an urgent human need to not just explain everything, but also to assign meaning to everything, even if it is incongruous. Ironically, I feel like the meaning quoted in this post assigned to the "void" is empty itself (obviously) and meaningless - this meaninglessness is perpetual and a dangerous distraction to fill the need to have everything explained, controlled, or satisfied.

As our nation suffered from and through extreme loss, paranoia, confusion, and anger, it seems these emotions needed to be satisfied - going to war was greatly applauded, and many were on a nationalistic high of hysteric patriotism which, in many ways, was also empty. People discuss being emotionally distances from the event of 9/11 - I am still not - I still feel anger and sorrow when I see media depictions of the event, but I feel that it is important to let the meaning of this event form over time and over the passage of other events and history (not long term, obviously) so we can understand it in the matrix of time. The event was personalized for me when I discovered a few days later that my friend's sister perished in one of the towers - our entire school district put on a memorial function in memory of her, and my friend and his family were flown to D.C. later to meet George Bush and attend a function there for grieving family. No longer was this event for me something that just happened on the other coast or something on TV, but rather I witnessed my friend go through extreme emotions of loss as he tried to create meaning and sense of it all. His anger, like most of ours, was targeted at the Middle East and at terrorists and for a while rendered him culturally discriminatory.

Creating meaning in the void of the towers is dangerous. What is it to be American? Did America ask for this in any way? Why did this happen to us? What kind of response does it warrant? SHOULD it unify everybody into one America of nationalistic, blind pride? How should we behave after events like these, when is okay to move on with life? There are so many questions that need to be answered, time that needs to go by to overcome the emotions (which in part do inform the event to give it valid meaning) and understand the logical side of the situation. Just as Remy gets himself out of the hole or the void in a sense and continues on with life, we needed to in a healthy way instead of searching for meaning (and looking for solutions instead).

Courtney K. said...

I think that the media's reaction to 9/11 was quick, maybe not to fill in the gaps left by the twin towers on that day, but to fill in the new opportunity created by the event. As the media blasted the event on the television, people began to watch the news around the clock, waiting for the next big break that the media promised. The media was able to create a need in people for this new coerage, all the time. There is of course not anything that will be missed if a person is not watching something live on the news. Sure, you could see the second plane crash into the tower as it happened, but if you did miss it, you would see it on the television so many times afterwards that it wouldn't actually matter if you saw it live or not. You could probably lie to people and say that you saw it live even if you didn't, because no one would really be able to tell.


The hole left on 9/11 was an opportunity for the media to create a new genre of entertainment. Remy lives like any other American after 9/11, even with all the gaps and such. Sometimes you find yourself doing something, and you have to ask yourself, 'how did I get here?' Most of the time its just because life is on autopilot. The media makes it all the more easy for life to move on without paying that much attention to things. Stuff is usually repeated so much that its pretty hard to miss it, if its important to the media.