The Zero and the One by Ryan Ruby Legend Press March 13th 2018
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.
This is a novel that intrigued me from the very beginning and the fact it is set in Oxford and at Oxford University certainly piqued my interest. My son attends Oxford University and I wondered if Ruby would manage to capture the essence and tradition that exists. I was also intrigued to discover why two young people would embark on a suicide pact and contemplate ending their lives.
The two main protagonists Owen and Zach are from opposite ends of the social spectrum, Owen working class, very little money, and Zach, privileged, money no problem. Their personalities, Owen quiet, studious, Zach, loud more outgoing are also complete opposites, so what brought the two together?
My thoughts, and I may be wrong, are that Zach saw something in Owen that would meet his needs, a person who he could take under his wing, whom he could mould to be the person he wanted him to be. In fact Zach is quite a complex character, obsessed with the German philosopher, Abendroth, whose book, The Zero and The One, he carries around and whose theories he firmly believes in. His proposed suicide is based on the fact that it will give him freedom, relief from the stranglehold of a materialistic world. But is that all that it is about or is he hiding something more?
Owen, is less complicated, a loner with few friends who has worked hard to be at Oxford. Zach is a welcome distraction, a friend who offers something different, a more exciting life. Owen is pulled along, inextricably linked into Zach’s master suicide pact, until it all goes wrong and Zach is dead and he is alive.
The story itself alternates between Oxford and New York. I particularly liked the slow build up of tension and drama as Zach pulled Owen further and further into his plans, often seeming quite mad at times. In New York you could sense Owen’s awkwardness, as he attended Zach’s funeral, as he dealt with Zach’s parents and his twin sister Vera, who he knew nothing about.
The introduction of Vera, is brilliant, she plunges the novel into even darker recesses that are deeply disturbing and unsettling. I had sort of guessed what was Vera was going to reveal, but I still found it an uncomfortable read. This is no way detracted from my enjoyment of the novel, in fact the revelations allowed me to make sense of, and piece together the reasoning behind Zach’s actions and thoughts.
What I didn’t expect was an explosive ending that took me completely by surprise!
It is a complex novel, and some of the psychological concepts and thoughts could have been too much, but Ruby somehow managed to slip them seamlessly into the main body of the novel. The descriptions of Oxford and its many student traditions were, I am pleased to report, perfect.
With great tension between the characters and explosive drama, The Zero and The One is a novel that I found unique, and hugely enjoyable.
My thanks to Legend Press for the opportunity to read and review and Imogen Harris for the invitation to participate in the blogtour.
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 http://www.ryanruby.info
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