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  • Reading and Writing the Post-9/11 Cop:Trauma, Personal Testimony, and Jess Walter’s The Zero
  • Kristine A. Miller (bio)

Jess Walter’s ‘The Zero’ (2006) compares and questions both the media discourse that described New York Police Department (NYPD) cops as confident heroes after 9/11 and the trauma discourse that cast them as speechless victims.1 Walter was hired in March 2001 to ghostwrite Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik’s autobiography, and he thus began chronicling before 9/11 life in the NYPD as the story of “everyday heroes” (Kerik xvi).2 With unprecedented “access to all sorts of cops and going’s-on (sic) at ground zero” (Baker par. 21), Walter found himself implicated in a post-9/11 public discourse that labeled cops and firefighters as “Heroes amid the Horror” (New York Times).3 The media’s hero narrative framed 9/11 as a battle of good versus evil, underwriting the political allegory that pitted America against an “axis of evil” (Bush, “State” par. 26") in a righteous “crusade” (Bush, “Remarks” par. 17) for “Infinite Justice” (Pike par. 1).4 The Zero satirizes this nationalistic allegory by contrasting “what happens when a nation becomes a public relations firm” with what happens to Brian Remy, an ex-NYPD cop whose post-9/11 psychological collapse is far more traumatic than heroic (222). Yet even as the novel critiques media stories that mask individual suffering, it also questions the central tenets of trauma theory: that trauma is fundamentally “unspeakable and unrepresentable” (Leys 304), defined by its “literality and nonsymbolic nature,” and thus “absolutely true to the event” (Caruth, “Trauma” 5).5 [End Page 29] This essay argues against the resultant rigid opposition between the authentic experience of “what I was witnessing myself ” in post-9/11 New York (Kaplan 13) and the “cheap, inauthentic and mass-produced” imagery in the media’s “realm of kitsch” (Engle 77).6 Examining how both The Zero and interviews held by Columbia University’s Center for Oral History navigate the discursive terrain between private trauma and its public representation, the essay analyzes the variety of literary forms and figures that allow individuals to express their pain.7

Although no sustained scholarship on The Zero has yet been published, reviewers have focused on how the troubled, inarticulate Remy symbolically represents America’s post-9/11 trauma.8 As the novel opens, Remy is “lying on his side, panning across a fuzzy line of carpet fiber” in his apartment and realizing that he must have attempted suicide, even though he cannot remember doing so (3); the “streaks and floaters” in his degenerating eyes and the “gaps” in his unreliable memory exacerbate his disorientation (4, 5). According to the Wall Street Journal, his “exhausted confusion . . . distills what many Americans have felt for the past five years” (Smith par. 13). The New York Times likewise admires The Zero’s portrayal of “the denial and dislocation endemic in post-9/11 America” (Maslin par. 3), and USA Today applauds Walter’s transformation of a “shell-shocked, suicidal” cop into “Everyman Remy,” whose story is “a dark allegory of the attack, the aftermath, and what has happened to America” (Donahue par. 8). Booklist even claims that The Zero offers “the perfect metaphor for the way we experience today’s world” (Ott par. 1). Like other scholarship on post-9/11 literature, the reviews seem to conceive of 9/11 as “a limit event that shatters the symbolic resources of the culture and defeats the normal processes of meaning making and semiosis” (Versluys 1); they describe the novel’s ability to “‘translate’ the trauma as personal and political happening for the reader” (Kaplan 21). Ironically, however, this reading of the novel pays no more attention to the traumatized cop than the mass media does: by identifying in the broken-down Remy a “perfect metaphor” for national trauma, the reviews universalize his experiences in much the same way as the political allegory that treats the NYPD hero as a symbol for a crusading America. Walter himself has criticized America’s “perverse desire to create a triumphant myth out of pure tragedy” (“Conversation” 6), but the reviews suggest that the desire...


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pp. 29-52
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