The philosophers’ suicide pact: Ryan Ruby’s high-stakes novel Zero and the One

For two cerebral Oxford undergraduates the obscure writings of a German thinker become a matter of life and death.

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“THE MEANING OF LIFE. – Anyone for whom ‘the meaning of life’ is a meaningful problem should be considered an extremely dangerous person. Either because he believes he knows the solution to the problem, or because he believes there isn’t one.”

This aphorism heads a chapter of Ryan Ruby’s debut novel, The Zero and the One. It comes from a book of grandiose and dark philosophical musings – “in the style of Nietzsche… and the later Wittgenstein” – of the same title as the novel, authored by a fictional mid-20th-century German philosopher named Hans Abendroth. Two Oxford undergraduates, young and smart and romantic enough to find such aphorisms profound, devote their time away from class to tracking down a copy of this book. They are convinced it will provide them with the keys – sorry, hermeneutics – that will make it possible for them to go on, not bearing life itself, but readying for death by suicide.

Ruby, an American critic and translator in his thirties, has written a high-stakes novel. It invites comparisons with Dostoevsky, Sartre and Camus, and also Tom McCarthy, Teju Cole, Ben Lerner and Laurent Binet. These writers share an interest in telling stories about the relationship between ideas and (at times violent) action, as played out by highly cerebral young men. These characters find themselves addled by existence itself and alienated from the world around them. They want to break through social conventions to reach higher kinds of awareness, no matter what the consequences.

In Ruby’s case, the story is focused on the intense, increasingly strange and finally destructive friendship that Owen Whiting and Zachary Foedern form when they meet at an Oxford college in the early 2000s. With an eye for telling details of speech and self-confidence, Ruby establishes them as opposites: Owen is a scholarship student and the first in his working class English family to attend university. Zach is at Columbia University, visiting Oxford for the year, and he’s the privileged son of wealthy New Yorkers with extensive connections in Manhattan’s art world.

Attracted in part by these differences, the two become stronger friends thanks to their shared interest, led by Zach, in questioning and testing the tacit, longstanding reasons for how and what they do with their lives. This is the case whether it’s assenting to stand for Latin grace in the dining hall – which Zach refuses on the double grounds of first not understanding Latin, and then, upon receiving a translation, on not accepting the meaning of grace itself – or having sex, which Zach demands they experience together and simultaneously with a prostitute during a weekend trip to Berlin.

Owen, though more tentative, keeps pace with Zach, until Zach proposes, by way of finding acceptable justification in the gnomic and nihilistic writings of Hans Abendroth, a joint suicide at the end of the academic term. For reasons that Ruby discloses partially and ambiguously throughout the novel, leading up to a stunning and devastating revelation near the end, only Zach keeps this pact. Following his death, Owen travels to New York for his friend’s funeral, and to meet Zach’s grieving family including his beautiful identical twin sister, Vera, who, we learn, has her own intense and damage-filled relationship to
her brother.

As Owen becomes involved with Vera, each of them trying to learn more about Zach from the other, while keeping secrets about him at the same time, Ruby mixes together the novel’s main storylines, before and after Zach’s death. This kind of combination demands a deftness of plotting that – save one remarkable detail, withheld masterfully until nearly the end of the book – is undermined, unfortunately, by the novel’s inexhaustible preciousness:

On the flight to Berlin, Zach noticed my anxiety and argued that this was precisely what was so interesting about air travel. It was to be regarded, he said, as an exercise in amor fati… If to philosophise was to prepare for death he could think of no better place to practise philosophy than on an airplane.

Deep-sounding discussions are fine for self-involved, bookish young men like Owen and Zach, only Ruby – unlike, say, Lerner or McCarthy – conveys no sense of ironic or critical detachment from these musings: there’s never anything funny about the boys’ behaviour. This is a problem that becomes stark when Owen begins thinking less and emoting more, particularly as he becomes romantically involved with Zach’s sister while faced with going home: “If I board that aeroplane tomorrow night I know I’ll regret it for as long as I live. Falling in love is like that.” That’s less reminiscent of a mid-century German philosopher than it is of Taylor Swift.

Meanwhile, by choosing to inform the novel’s thoughts and actions with the invented wisdom of a Nietzschean philosopher, Ruby provides a meagre context for higher-order scrutiny of ideas about life and death. Dostoevsky’s and Camus’s protagonists, like their authors, were struggling with centuries-old, complex and real philosophical and religious traditions. By comparison, with easy freedom Ruby’s characters declare, “We’ll turn death into an idea! And ideas never die. Ideas live forever. Owen, it’s genius! Pure genius.” Even Holden Caulfield would roll his eyes. 

Randy Boyagoda’s new novel, “Original Prin”, will be published in 2019

The Zero and the One
Ryan Ruby
Legend Press, 256pp, £8.99

This article appears in the 08 June 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Nuclear Family