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March 7, 2017

Book Notes - Ryan Ruby "The Zero and the One"

The Zero and the One

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Ryan Ruby's novel The Zero and the One is a captivating, philosophically-informed coming of age novel.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"The Zero and the One is a fast-paced, philosophical meditation on what qualifies as the worst crime one can commit."


In his own words, here is Ryan Ruby's Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel The Zero and the One:



The Zero and the One may be set in southern England, Berlin, and New York, but it really takes place in the medium of writing. Like everyone living in such places in the twenty-first century, active and passive engagement with media and media technology represents a significant portion of my characters’ activities. In the world of the novel just as in the world of which it is a representation, media are vehicles for communication, identity-formation, self-understanding, social cohesion, and entertainment as well as features built into the private and public atmospheres in which they live, work, consume, learn, travel, and socialize.

In the so-called real world, media atmospheres have the character of white noise: randomly patterned and therefore thoroughly devoid of meaning or intention. However, in a novel nothing can be (or should be) random, meaningless, or unintended. So, in The Zero and the One, I designed a dense reference network whereby every active or passive engagement with media—not just various kinds of writing but also paintings, films, and especially music, both recorded and live—represents a node in a subjacent parallel narrative in which the characters could read their fates, if only they were to recognize in these media something more deliberate than white noise.

What follows is a sampling of what could be called the diagetic sound of the book: not what I listened to during the writing process, nor the soundtrack I would choose were it to be adapted to the film, but the real and fictionalized sound atmosphere the characters themselves occupy.

1. The Cortinas, Defiant Pose (Peel Sessions)

…I watched three punks collide like quarks in a particle accelerator until the sound of distortion and feedback flattened into a high-pitched and hollow ringing. Just like not-so-old times…

The novel’s narrator, Owen Whiting, grows up in a working class district of a southwestern English city that is loosely based on Bristol. While the Bristol sound is most commonly associated with 90s trip hop acts like Portishead, Owen is instead a patron of the local punk and hardcore clubs that were founded there in the late 70s. Though never quite as popular as their Manchester or London counterparts, Bristol bands like Disorder, Vice Squad, and The Cortinas first came to national attention thanks to their recording sessions on John Peel’s BBC radio show. With Ramones-influenced singles like “Fascist Dictator,” “Television Families,” and “Defiant Pose,” The Cortinas established their place in pop history as “Bristol’s first punk band.” Owen doesn’t know it yet, but the opening negations of “Defiant Pose” (Ain’t gonna take no for an answer / Ain’t gonna take no anymore) will be precisely the stance taken by Zachary Foedern, the novel’s protagonist, whenever Owen expresses discomfort with his increasingly questionable and dangerous plans.

2. Kode9, music to Motion Capture by 0(rphan)d(rift>)

…but where one would have expected a band or a DJ, there was instead a man in a black tunic wearing two prosthetic gauntlets, somehow conducting, through the wires that were attached to them, a raving symphony of sampled beats…

On a trip to London, Zach, Owen, and their respective girlfriends attend the launch party of the cutting-edge continental philosophy journal Theory. A heavily fictionalized version of the “conferences” put on in the 90s by the Warwick-based research collective Ccru (Cybernetic Cultures Research United), the scene at the Theory launch is equal parts occult séance, rave, happening, hackathon, academic seminar, and cocktail party. An affiliate of Ccru with a PhD in philosophy, the electronic musician Steve Goodman performed at many of their conferences as Kode9. In the mid-00s, Goodman would go on to be a driving force behind the emergence of dubstep, both as a musician (with his collaborator Stephen Gordon, a.k.a. The Spaceape) and as the founder of the record label Hyperdub. Though Kode9 obviously did not use the made up gear with which I’ve tricked out the cyborg performer in this scene, the disintegrated patchwork of his beats and the punctured equilibriums in the ambient dread of his samples sounds to me like the kind of music that will be composed by machines in a posthuman future. To provide an example that would be contemporaneous with the book, here is an excerpt of a composition Kode9 wrote for a video by the collaborative artist and fellow Ccru affiliate 0[rphan]d[rift>] (Mer Maggie Roberts and Ranu Mukherjee).

3. Masada, Lilin (Live at Tonic 2001)

...The old countercultural flavour that has been gentrified out of Alphabet City can still be tasted here, below Houston Street, where hipsters occupy former tenements and where art collectives and experimental music clubs rub shoulders with working mazoh factories and turn-of-the-century synagogues…

So says Owen’s guidebook of the Lower East Side where Zach’s twin sister Vera lives. The experimental music club is Tonic, on Norfolk Street, just around the corner from her apartment, which has itself subsequently been gentrified out of the neighborhood. For many years Tonic was the home club of the protean saxophonist, avant-garde composer, and bandleader John Zorn, who has made hundreds of recordings in dozens of genres during an almost forty-year career as a musician. Named for the mountain fortress in Israel on which nearly a thousand Jewish rebels committed mass suicide rather than be captured by Roman forces in 73 A.D., Masada is what Ornette Coleman’s or Albert Ayler’s free jazz would have sounded like if it took klezmer rather than R&B and gospel as its basis. Recorded on the day Owen reports Zach’s suicide to the police, Live at Tonic 2001 is generally regarded as Masada’s finest two and a half hours. Though Masada’s lineups and instrumentation are in a perpetual state of flux, the quartet comprising Zorn on sax, Dave Douglas on trumpet, Greg Cohen on bass, and Joey Baron on drums lays down the definitive version of the band’s set-list staple “Lilin”: on no other recording are the song’s titular demons more fully incarnated as they are here by Zorn and Douglas’ horns, which slither and lumber around the cool flame of Cohen’s infectious bass line.

4. The Strokes, New York City Cops (Is This It)

…A garage rock track, its singer disparaging the intelligence of the New York Police Department, is playing on the portable stereo someone has placed on the brick ledge…

Period Music. Hearing The Strokes’ debut album for the first time I immediately knew that these would be the songs through which I would remember what it was like to be an eighteen-year-old college freshman in New York in 2001. Owen also encounters Julian Casablancas’ louche, sardonic voice on his first visit to the city. As he climbs up the fire escape of Vera’s apartment to investigate the party that is taking place on the roof, he finds himself once again Rising to the bottom of the meaning of life. “New York City Cops”—the best track, in my opinion, on Is This It—was pulled from the American release after the September 11th attacks, the event that casts a retrospective shadow on the summer during which the book is set. Owen spends the better part of it playing a cat-and-mouse game with two officers of the Thames Valley Police; by the end, he will be in a position to judge for himself how true Casablancas’ assessment of their New York counterparts actually is.

5. Richard Wagner, Overture to Die Walküre

…The conductor takes his place in the pit and lifts his baton to ready the orchestra. When he brings it down again, it’s as if he’s maliciously swiped a hornet’s nest…

When I tell people I like opera, what I really mean is that I like Wagner. His synthesis of media into a Gesamtkunstwerk; his use of the leitmotif as a compositional technique; his use of art as political allegory; his interest in the legitimacy of sexual taboos; the way his librettos are unapologetically melodramatic and his music flirts with hysteria and courts nervous breakdown: these were all things I attempted to transpose into The Zero and the One. (I would even go so far as to say that the Zach-Owen relationship owes something to the dynamics of the Wagner-Nietzsche relationship.) So, when Vera’s parents give her and Owen their tickets to a performance of Die Walküre at the Met, what they are really doing is sending them to an opera within an opera. The Overture to the second part of the Ring Cycle is a programmatic representation of a thunderstorm; like nearly all of Wagner’s best music it is beautiful to the point of being intolerable. Vera, at any rate, finds it so. She and Owen do not stick around to hear the famous “Flight of the Valkyries” that opens the second act.


Ryan Ruby and The Zero and the One links:

the author's website

Kirkus Reviews review
Publishers Weekly review


also at Largehearted Boy:

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