The Zero and the One by Ryan Ruby

Review published on December 19, 2017.

If you are a bookish sort of a person, the older you get the more books you will have read and, a tautology of sorts, the wider your reading experience. That in itself is no problem except that you find the act of comparison becomes an almost automatic reflex. And so I found myself doing just that with this debut novel of Ryan Ruby’s. I could elaborate on parallels with Donna Tartt and Patricia Highsmith for starters that might infer either criticism or approval. But ultimately it’s meaningless for readers beginning their literary journeys who have no need of such comparisons. I believe it’s possible in years to come that their future reading may end up provoking comparisons with Ryan Ruby!

For this is a highly intelligent, clever work and a most credible debut novel. It has something of the gothic and neo-romantic about it with its foundations firmly based in philosophy, much of the metaphysical and epistemological kind. The title derives from a philosophical work that one of the main characters finds completely absorbing once he has tracked down an English copy. Each chapter cleverly begins with a philosophical aphorism from the book. These in themselves, even though they are fictional, could occupy the reader for some sustained length of time. They are fascinating.

The narrative is of dual construction between the past and the present told in the first person by Owen Whiting, an Oxford student who finds himself somewhat solitary and misplaced until he strikes up a friendship with American student Zachary Foedern. Foedern, who is from a seemingly privileged background, is a maverick in his thinking and his actions. It would be a criminal act to divulge details of this clever plot. However, as the the book blurb does allude to the suicide pact, I’m spoiling nothing by mentioning it, for it is fundamental to the story. But the ensuing exposition of all that happens, causing one reviewer to label this work aptly as a ‘philosophical thriller’, is extremely well plotted and absorbing especially as the tale gathers momentum. There are those who might find it shocking, certainly there are unexpected situations. Usually in a thriller you might call them ‘twists’, but somehow that term doesn’t quite fit here. There are slow dawnings of realisations. It’s a dark tale and in no way uplifting. But it suggests that Mr Ruby is a writer of some considerable talent; it’s beautifully written. Without a doubt someone to watch out for.

Gill Chedgey 4/4

The Zero and the One by Ryan Ruby
Legend Press 9781787198876 pbk Mar 2018

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