The Zero and the One

Ryan Ruby

March 10, 2017 
The following is from Ryan Ruby’s novel, The Zero and the One. Ruby was born in 1983. His fiction and criticism have appeared in a variety of literary magazines including The Baffler, Conjunctions, Dissent, Lapham's Quarterly, and n+1. He has translated two novellas from the French for Readux Books. He lives in Berlin.

I sat down, as I usually did when I visited Zach, on the bed, the only empty surface in his rooms. I expected him to clear off the books piled on the chair and join me. Instead, he motioned me over to the desk. He opened the voluminous drawer meant to hold file folders and pointed into the depths, where I saw two pistols and a box of cartridges. He took one out, cradling it like a newborn cat in his upturned palms, and presented it to me. I’d never held a firearm before.

“It’s heavy,” I observed, not knowing what else to say. At that moment, the object struck me as an absurd prop, a prop he’d requisitioned from the warehouse of his imagination for the film of his life. I threaded my finger around the trigger and thrust out my arm, aiming it with one eye closed at one of the mosquito stains on the wall, pretending I was in the title sequence of a Bond film. Step into the circle. Turn and fire. Blood drips down the screen. Theme song: you only live twice, live and let die, the world is not enough. Though I’d seen it done innumerable times in the cinema, holding the pistol and aiming the barrel and touching the trigger still didn’t feel at all natural.

“Be careful,” he said. “It’s loaded.”

I looked at him incredulously. For once, he didn’t curl his lip or raise his eyebrow. My arm dropped to my side. I brought the pistol before my chest, supporting it in my palms with the same fearful reverence as he had. When he took it back from me, I unconsciously wiped my hands on the sides of my trousers, as if I’d just been handling something filthy. I remarked on the age of the pistol and asked him if it still worked.

“Of course it does!” He looked offended. “I’ve even tested it!” Then, after a sharp breath, he summoned the courage to tell me what he was planning to use it for. He spoke slowly. Deliberately. Fixing me with a stare. “Owen,” he said, “I’ve decided to end my life.”

What he had told me at The Bear after our tutorial on the Phaedo returned to me in a flash. That’s where you’re wrong, he had said. It wasn’t only a paper. Could it have been true? What if, for the boy of a thousand theories, this was the one he took seriously enough to put into practice? I looked at the pistol in his hands and then back at him. My eyes begged him to break character. I longed to see the withering smile appear on his face, but his features remained stiff, intensely studying my reaction to what he had just said, compelling me to respond, though again I had no idea what to say. Finally, in a faltering voice, I asked him what he thought happened when we died, hoping by my question to return our discussion to the plane of the purely theoretical. We had talked a great deal about preparations for death. But never about what happened after.

“Nothing at all,” he responded, as I knew he would.

“Doesn’t that thought frighten you?”

“Why should it? Death will remove the fear of death along with everything else.”

“What I mean is: won’t you miss being conscious and perceiving the world and experiencing new things?”

“To do so would require me to imaginatively project myself into a state I will never experience. But imagining the abyss doesn’t terrify me. Unlike most people, not a day goes by when I don’t think of death. Most people try to run away from death, and that’s why they live such meaningless lives. To embrace death freely is to prove that life actually matters. Life will never mean as much, experience will never feel so full, if you are fully conscious when you die. And the only way to do that is to plan your death. What I want to do is to exchange ten thousand experiences that don’t matter for one that really does. Since the moment I decided to die, I’ve felt the most extreme freedom. I’ve been released from manners and politeness and morality— which are all just euphemisms for the fear of death. Now that they’ve become limited, each and every moment has correspondingly increased in intensity. The last one is going to be the most intense of all. I just know it. In fact, I’ve never been more certain of anything in my life.”

“But what if you’re wrong? Don’t you worry that, daft as they sound, all the things people have said about the afterlife are actually true?”

Zach placed the pistol on the table and walked over to the tower of books he’d stacked on the floor. It wasn’t necessary to ask which book he was preparing to quote from.

Swishing page after page between his forefinger and thumb, he bent the book three-quarters in. Holding it in one hand, he read, “‘The early Church did not put an end to the cult of martyrs to promote an essentially worldly . . .’ No, it’s a little further, the passage I’m looking for. ‘. . . promises a fundamental stability . . . That’s why, in Dostoevsky’s novel . . .’ Ah yes, here.” He held up his finger and spoke deliberately for emphasis: “‘That’s why in Dostoevsky’s novel The Possessed, Kirillov isn’t entirely mistaken about the outcome of his suicide. When he kills himself, he will indeed kill God, as he believes. Suicide violates the most fundamental of Christian moral principles precisely because it permanently disrupts the very stability of identity God’s existence is intended to guarantee. In killing himself Kirillov becomes God, that is, something that does not exist.’”

He looked at me insistently, waiting for me to understand the passage, to feel the logic of the argument wash over me with the same force of revelation he had obviously experienced when he read it. Perhaps what Abendroth had written made more sense if you knew the novel, but all I had read of Dostoevsky was Notes from Underground and The Double. I asked Zach what he thought it meant.

“It means that—in answer to your question—we shouldn’t fear God’s punishment, because he who kills himself shows that God does not exist. For the suicide there is precisely no one to fear. But it’s not God we should be worrying about, it’s Nature.” He continued reading. “‘The Divine was invented by the primitive imagination as a weapon against death, but when this fact is forgotten, the weapon is turned back against its inventor. When the Death of God is finally announced, those who have killed him do not realise that something will inevitably take His place. Nor do they suspect the obvious usurper: Nature. Rather than vanishing along with God, the problem of suicide actually intensifies. It goes from being a mortal sin to an unnatural act. Thus, in order for Kirillov to be truly successful, he would have to perform a miracle: he would have to kill himself twice.’”

Zach closed the book, placed it on the table, and grabbed the pistol. “What we have to fear, Owen, is not some future state no one has ever seen, but what we already see around us, everywhere around us, right now. It is all of this,” he said, gesturing around the room with the pistol, before placing it back in the drawer, “that the unnatural act of suicide strikes against.”

The drawer slid shut and we both looked at it for a moment, in silence. I felt overwhelmed by a sense of unreality. I had the unsettling impression that were I to have opened the drawer again, it would be empty. Zach’s words were contaminating the things he described. Suddenly, the objects in the room, including me, seemed to lack all substance. Everything had been hollowed out, drained of significance, menacing in its meaninglessness. Without taking my eyes off the shape that until that moment I would have had no qualms about calling the handle of a drawer, I asked of the now invisible pistols, “Why two of them, then?” half expecting he’d have no idea what I was referring to.

“Because I was hoping you’d come with me.” He said it without hesitation, almost casually, as if he were inviting me to the pub for the evening, rather than to nothingness for all eternity.

With an abrupt twist of my neck, my eyes met his. A whisper evaporated from my stunned, open mouth: “Why me?”

Zach grabbed my shoulders and looked me straight in the eyes. “I didn’t consider anyone else but you. From the beginning, the very beginning, I had a feeling about you, a feeling that’s proven to be correct.”

“And what was that?”

“That you were lonely—and not just lonely: alone, deeply alone.” I tried to look away, to hide my shame at the truth of his words, but he shook me so I would not break his gaze. “If I was able to see this it was because I felt the same way about myself. You laugh? You think that because I was always surrounded by people, talking to them and going out drinking with them, that I was any less alone than you were, sitting by yourself at Hall or at The Bear? No, the only difference between us is that, unlike you, I knew why I was lonely. And also why you were lonely. You want to know the reason? It’s because we’re special, Owen. That’s why. Being special means being singular and being singular means being lonely, even if, like me, you have to surround yourself with meaningless chatter in order to drown out the voice in your head that reminds you how alone you really are. But the amazing thing is that we found each other. That’s the rarest thing in the world, don’t you think, two singularities finding each other like that? I wasn’t wrong about you. You were the only one capable of understanding me, understanding me like one brother understands another. To understand someone, to truly understand them, requires more than intelligence, which you demonstrated right away, it also requires empathy, the willingness to understand. That is what is so rare. And to have that, to have empathy, you must have had the same experiences as I did. To understand the question that most people are too stupid or too afraid to even pose, you must have had certain experiences that would enable you to understand the need for that question to be asked, why it needs to be wrestled with, why there is nothing more important than finding the answer. And that question is—”

“Why is life worth living.”

He let go of my shoulders, now that he believed I was capable of standing on my own two feet.

Exactly. If you can ask that question, if you are even capable of posing it at all, it must be because all of the traditional answers—service to God or falling in love or having children or achieving peace on earth or even experiencing as much physical pleasure as possible—fail to satisfy you. They must fail to alleviate the suspicion, the miserable suspicion that all those answers come at the cost of submission—submission to a religion or a political ideology or even the natural order. And that a person who answers like that, who submits themselves like that, has already given away their freedom. For people who submit, death is nothing more than a redundancy, because their lives are not worth living. How to be free and alive at the same time? I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not possible. And between freedom and life, I choose freedom. And I want to share my choice with the only other free person I’ve ever met. Share my freest act with him—with you. Because only another free person would be able to understand what I’m talking about.”

As he spoke, a rush went through my body. The objects in the room, which his earlier words had emptied of significance, were now resurrected, one by one. They overflowed with the purpose he had stripped from them only minutes before. Everything now seemed radiant and clear. Everything stood in its proper place, where it had to be, a mathematical proof made out of objects rather than necessary truths. All that had to happen was that two people understood each other as perfectly as we did. Zach and I were the deduction. The Q.E.D. Later, I’d go through my habitual pattern of indecision and self-doubt, second-guessing his motivations and mine, but at that moment I was prepared to do anything he asked of me.

“So, Owen, what I want to know is: are you in?”



From THE ZERO AND THE ONE. Copyright © 2017 by Ryan Ruby. Reprinted by permission of Twelve/Hachette Book Group, New York, NY. All rights reserved.


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