My hostel is located opposite a primary school in the middle of a short, derelict street in Harlem. I’d spent most of my savings on the flight and this one was the cheapest I could find at short notice. On my walk here, three different beggars asked for money in tones ranging from supplicant to menacing. I dropped the two quid I happened to have in my pocket, shrapnel from the carton of cigarettes I bought at the duty- free shop, into the outstretched cup of the one I passed as I turned onto 113th Street. I moved on, head down, hoping he wouldn’t notice until I was well out of shouting range.
I ring the doorbell. Open the door. Approach the large desk in the lobby and say, My name is Owen Whiting, I have a reservation. At the other end of the room, an elderly couple is sitting on an exhausted brown couch, watching a game show on the telly. Another guest is typing an email at the ancient computer in the corner. Next to him, there is a plastic display for tourist brochures and pamphlets and a table whose dusty surface supports a metallic coffee dispenser, a stack of paper cups, and a basket filled with pink sachets of sugar, plastic stirrers, and jigger pots of milk and cream. Framed photographs of the Manhattan skyline have been hung unevenly and seemingly at random on the beige walls.
My room, up three flights of stairs, proves to be equally spartan. A pair of bunk beds. A bank of lockers for valuables. A grated window that looks out onto a fire escape and down into a dark alley, which is separated from the road by a barbed wire fence. The ceiling fan spins slowly, straining to circulate a dainty handkerchief of tepid air on the slab of dusk that has also taken up residence here.
My bed must be the one on the top left — at least that’s the only one that’s been made. I strip down to my underwear, stuff my clothes into my rucksack, and place it into the locker with the key still in the hole. Book in hand, I climb up to my berth and lie down on the thin pillow and starchy sheets.
The reading lamp clipped to the metal bedpost splutters a few flashes of yellow light before it shines a paltry neon cone on the cover of Zach’s copy of The Zero and the One.
On the black background, the white circle of the titular Zero intersects the white circle of the titular One, forming an eye-shaped zone the jacket designer coloured red. Beneath the title, also in red, the name of the author: Hans Abendroth.
From the earliest days of our friendship, Zach and I sought out philosophers whose names would never have appeared on the reading lists we received before the beginning of each term. To our tutors, such thinkers did not merit serious consideration. Our tutors were training us to weigh evidence, parse logic, and refute counter- examples; they encouraged us to put more stock in the rule than the exception and to put our trust in modest truths that could be easily verified and plainly expressed. Whereas the philosophers who interested us were the ones who would step right to the edge of the abyss — and jump to conclusions; the ones who wagered their sanity when they spun the wheel of thought; the ones, in short, who wrote in blood. In counter- intuitiveness we saw profundity and in obfuscation, poetry. With wide eyes, we plucked paperback after paperback from the shelves at Reservoir, the used bookshop opposite the entrance to Christ Church Meadow, our own personal Nag Hammadi, hunting for insights into the hermetic nature of the universe and ourselves.
Zach had seen an aphorism from The Zero and the One cited in Lacan’s seminar on Poe, a reappraisal of which had appeared in Theory, a London- based journal of continental philosophy whose back issues Reservoir kept in stock. Subtitled “an essay in speculative arithmetic,” The Zero and the One (Null und Eins in the original German) is Abendroth’s only book to have been translated into English. For a whole month we searched every bookshop we passed and came up empty- handed — not a negligible failure in a city that must be one of the world’s largest markets for used and rare books. Even Dr. Inwit had never heard of Abendroth. The Bodleian had two copies, naturally, but the one that was permitted to circulate was on loan that term. Zach placed a hold on it, only to be told, when he returned to the Philosophy and Theology Faculty to collect it, that it had been reported missing. Despite his insistent pleading, the librarian, citing a recent act of Parliament, refused to divulge the identity of the borrower.
When he finally found it, on Niall Graves’ shelves at the Theory launch party, he yelped, alarming some of the other partygoers, who must have thought he had just done himself some serious injury.
Though he was quite generous with his money — he picked up the tab wherever we went and never once turned a beggar away — Zach wouldn’t let me borrow the book. It was, you might say, his prized possession. He quoted from it often and sometimes read whole passages aloud when he wanted to prove some point. The first time I held it in my hands was four days ago, when his father and I were cleaning out his rooms. Save for the travel guide I bought at Blackwell’s, it is the only reading I’ve brought with me to New York.
I flip through the collection of aphorisms, looking for one in particular. The book shows all the signs of intense study: broken spine, wrinkled edges, dog-eared pages, creased jacket. Inside, the margins are heavily annotated in black pen. The underlining consists of lines so perfectly straight they must have been traced there with a ruler or with the edge of a bookmark.
On my first search, skimming all the dog- eared pages, I fail to find the passage I’m looking for. It was something about The Possessed he read to me that night. Something about Kirillov. Kirillov’s suicide. The aphorisms all have titles, but there’s no table of contents; nor is there an index of names in the back. I’ll have to be more meticulous, examine every sentence Zach found worthy of comment. I turn back to the beginning, but I’m only able to read a few pages before the light bulb splutters again, this time fatally, and the room goes dark. I flick the switch once, twice: the light isn’t coming back. I take off my glasses and slip the book under my pillow, giving what remains of my waking attention to the vague, slow circles of the fan and the dim lattice of orange and black the streetlamp has cast on the ceiling.
I’ve just begun to fall asleep, for the first time in a week, when I hear someone, one of the other guests, struggling with the door lock. Two shadows, one male and one female, stumble into the dark room. From how loudly they whisper to each other not to make any noise, it’s clear they’re both totally pissed. They fall into the bunk beneath mine; the bedsprings shriek under their combined weight. I cough into my fist, to let them know someone else is in the room, but they remain oblivious or indifferent to my presence. Rather than embarrassed silence, the rustle of fabric. Lips on bare skin. A moan — hers — escapes the fingers of a muffling hand as the bedframe begins to sway. Beneath the small of my back, my mattress elevates slightly. The palms of her hands or the balls of her feet, I wonder.
Outside the window, there is a dull pop. Then another three, in rapid succession. The bedsprings stop contracting abruptly beneath me.
What was that? the woman whispers, petrified.
What was what? Her lover sounds deflated. He knows exactly what she’s referring to, and can already tell that he’s lost her attention.
Nothing, baby, he says. It was nothing. Just a car backfiring.
I never learnt where Zach found those pistols. Where does one buy a handgun anyway? Estate sale? Antique shop? The black market? I hadn’t asked, and if I hadn’t asked it is because I’d rather not know.
When Bernard told me that the Inspector from the Thames Valley Police had managed to trace the pistol (he said pistol, singular, and I certainly wasn’t about to correct him), I let it be understood with a wave of my hand that I preferred to be kept in the dark about certain aspects of the case. Still, this hasn’t prevented me from speculating. Whoever sold the firearms to Zach would surely have told the Inspector about the second pistol. Unless he bought them from two different people. Unless: he stole them. It wouldn’t have been the first time, after all.
The pistols were small and old. Their black barrels were no longer than my outstretched index finger, the sort of weapon my grandfather might have stripped off the corpse of some Nazi officer during the war. They looked ridiculous to me, but Zach was quite serious about them, as he was about any technology the rest of us considered antiquated. When I asked him if they even worked, his expression soured. Of course they do! He’d tested them to make sure. Yanks and their bloody guns. Whatever else they may feel about them, they’re all obsessed by them. Even Zach, the latchkey kid born and bred in downtown Manhattan. When he collected me from Prelims, one pistol weighing down each pocket of his dinner jacket, he must have been the most heavily armed person in all of Oxfordshire.
“Skillfully plotted and…intriguing. An undeniably propulsive read.”
— Publishers Weekly
“A ferocious hybrid of a book: part novel of philosophy, part thriller, completely absorbing. It’s the sort of book you read in a day — reminded, between gulps, of The Secret History and The Talented Mr. Ripley — and then spend months thinking about.”
— Ben Dolnick, author of Zoology and At the Bottom of Everything
“Beautifully written and minutely observed, THE ZERO AND THE ONE brilliantly encapsulates the agony and the ecstasy of the search for meaning in late adolescence.”
— Jenny Davidson, author of The Magic Circle and Reading Style: A Life in Sentences