Published March 15th 2018 by Legend Press (first published March 7th 2017)
Author: Ryan Ruby
Format: Paperback (I read a proof copy from Legend Press)
Genre: Fiction, literary fiction, philosophy, mystery, thriller
Star rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
“A British Airways jet, high above the coast of New England.”
A bookish scholarship student, Owen Whiting has high hopes of Oxford, only to find himself immediately out of place. Then he meets Zachary Foedern from New York. Rich and charismatic, Zach takes Owen under his wing, introducing him to a world Owen has only ever read about.
From Oxford to the seedy underbelly of Berlin, they dare each other to transgress the boundaries of convention and morality, until Zach proposes the greatest transgression of all: a suicide pact. But when Zach’s plans go horribly awry, Owen is left to pick up the pieces and navigate the boundaries between illusion and reality to preserve a hold on his once bright future.
Recently I’ve been trying to get more into philosophy. I’ve never studied it, but I’m opening my eyes to it and actively trying to access it through different means. The Zero and the One has proved to be a crucial part of my new philosophical musings.
The author, Ryan Ruby, has written about philosophy as well as literary criticism, and this novel seems like the perfect mix of those areas. The result? A philosophical thriller surrounding two boys, Zach and Owen, who are studying Philosophy at Oxford. Zach is the embodiment of philosophical thought, or so it seems.
From the start, we know that Zach and Owen are going to make a suicide pact. We also know, because Owen is our narrator, that Zach does die. The opening of the novel is told from when Owen is on the plane to New York for Zach’s funeral. But how did we get to this point? That’s where the sheer cleverness of this story comes in.
“People are responsible not only for what they do, but what they fail to prevent.”
The main narrative is with Owen in New York where he meets Zach’s family, and his sister Vera. From this, we go back in time in Owen’s narration to his time with Zach at Oxford. In these scenes, the story begins to unfold, but each chapter alternated, taking us back to New York. In a way, this story could be told in a loop, or re-arranged in chronological order, but the author’s choice to have alternating time frames all leading up to one point of contact makes this book gripping.
Once I really got into the story, I realised that one of the most significant obkects in the book is Zach’s copy of The Zero and the One (Null and Eins) written by Hans Abendroth. At first, I thought the book was made up, but then when Abendroth was mentioned, I realised I’d heard of him before. So I did a quick search, and discovered an article written by Ryan Ruby for The Paris Review. In it, Abendroth’s aphorisms are included, and then the penny dropped. Each chapter of the book begins with one of these aphorisms from the book. It is through these that Zach took his ideas on life, living, the meaning of life and the ethics of suicide from.
“It’s not at all surprising that the hypocrites who accuse suicides of being selfish also accuse them of being cowardly. Living solely for other people – you know what I call that? Slavery. And there’s nothing more cowardly than choosing to be a slave.”
For me, the first half is in the shadow of the second half, which is a lot more thrilling, intense and fast-paced than the first half. Here, we find out a lot more about Zach’s past than we could ever have anticipated, and it puts everything into a whole new perspective, for us and for Owen. It is here that the genius of the plot is revealed, and that every detail has meaning and has been thought through.
I have to feel sorry for Owen, but he’s a formidable character and a very apt narrator. In another world, the book might have been narrated by Zach, who is undoubtedly the real main character. Think of The Great Gatsby and how that is narrated by Nick, but Gatsby is the main character, it’s like that in a way, in terms of the narrative structure.
To sum up, the plot is incredible, the characters perfect for their setting and what happens to them, and anyone who wants to read a thriller but actually prefers philosophy…well, you can’t avoid this one, and I recommend you give it a read! I can’t describe the intensity of the brilliant and genuine hold-your-breath moments that this book contained. And it got my mind thinking philosophically. I couldn’t have asked for anything better, but I gave it 4 stars simply because the first few chapters are weaker in comparison to the rest. But that’s just because you need the rest to understand where it all began.
Link to the book on Goodreads: The Zero and the One
About the author
Ryan Ruby was born in Los Angeles in 1983. He has written for The Baffler, Conjunctions, Lapham’s Quarterly, n+1, and the Paris Review Daily among other publications, and has translated two novellas from the French for Readux Books. He lives in Berlin. Follow Ryan at www.ryanruby.info
Follow the blog tour
Thanks to Imogen at Legend Press for the opportunity to read the book and take part in the blog tour!