The novel centres around a suicide pact between Zach and Owen, two philosophy students at Oxford University. Although they come from vastly different backgrounds – Owen from a working class British family and Zach from New York money – they develop a close friendship.
Zach becomes obsessed with obscure German philosopher Hans Abendroth and his elusive book The Zero and the One. So it is to this book that Owen returns after Zach’s violent death as he tries to grapple with what happened. Every chapter of the novel begins with an excerpt from the philosophy book as Owen navigates a story that shifts between the locations of Oxford, New York and Berlin.
In a way, the feel of the novel corresponds to how it was created. Ruby said that he wrote the first draft while travelling. Often he would work in one New York cafe, then go for a walk, letting ideas come to him, before settling down to continue in another. A good part of the novel was also composed on trains, planes and buses.
Details, observations and episodes from different places are lines connecting the dots of the narrative. Many sentences are like the lofty thoughts that drift through the mind of a walker. Of course Owen and Zach, like the author, are students of philosophy. This too gives the book a particular quality. Fiction and philosophy are linked – both are exercises in thought experiments. Philosophy, however, is abstract, whereas fiction builds its arguments through characters and feeling. With this novel, the intellectual is present, but the emotional is lacking.
Ryan Ruby will be reading from The Zero and the One at 7 pm, 22nd April 2017 at St. George’s Bookshop in Prenzlauer Berg (Wörther Strasse 27, 10405 Berlin)