Reviewed by Jack Cameron Stanton
But it’s nonsense! No one kills himself for abstract principles like that. Not even my brother. Principles are a thing to live for, not reasons to die.
The Zero and the One, Ryan Ruby’s debut novel, has been dubbed a philosophical thriller. Featuring plenty of twists in the story and style, it offers moments of Gothic storytelling, mystery suspense, and the wise contemplations of fine fiction. It is a brilliant story told by a shy intellectual, Owen Whiting, who is recovering from the death of his friend Zach.
Owen’s best friend Zach commits suicide for reasons he conceives are morally dignified, leaving behind a guilt-ridden Owen, best friend and accomplice in the suicide. But how did their suicide pact go so wrong, and why did it happen in the first place? What started as a moral experiment played out in their lives quickly became a reality, and although Zach frequently theorised about how suicide was ‘a principled act of defiance . . . a defence of the freedom of the will against our servitude to causality’, he never thought Zach would actually go through with it. Or did he?
Zach and Owen met at Oxford University and immediately formed a fast friendship, mostly because Zach’s unwavering charisma pulled Owen away from a life of solitude and scholarly discipline into an underworld he never could’ve discovered on his own.
As students of philosophy, their lives become an increasing set of challenges and moral experiments, as they drift from Oxford to the hidden wonderlands of Berlin, until Zach proposes a transgression like no other: a suicide pact.
But running alongside the narrative of Owen and Zach’s newly kindled friendship is a story in the future. Owen is lonely once again, attending Zach’s funeral in New York and ruminating on how all of this came to be. Zach has committed suicide and although everyone in mourning doesn’t understand why, Owen knows more about it than he’s letting on . . . There is a mystery inside this book that unravels slowly, compellingly.
Ryan Ruby’s book echoes plenty of classic novels: at times it rings of The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, The Secret History by Donna Tartt, and even The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. It has been dubbed a philosophical thriller and accomplishes this blend of genres by foreshadowing a dark Gothic twist within it. On the surface, The Zero and the One is a story about a young man lost in the big world, but things quickly take a surprising, sinister turn, and the pace of the story accelerates right along with it.
It’s obvious that as a writer, Ryan knows exactly what he’s doing. The double narratives take a staggeringly unexpected turn about halfway through the book and catapults toward an ending that is totally out of sight and fulfilling. It will surprise, haunt, and excite you all at once.
Born in Los Angeles, Ryan Ruby was educated at Columbia University, Oxford University and the University of Chicago. He has been a bookseller in Los Angeles, a tour guide in Berlin, a lay-about in New Orleans and a lecturer in philosophy at the City University of New York. He lives in Berlin.