The Zero and the One is a novel about intellect, questioning morality, and how people can be pawns in a larger game. Owen is an Oxford fresher from a working class background who, feeling lonely and out of place anywhere other than stuck into his work, ends up befriending a visiting student who believes they have a similar mindset for discussing philosophy. However, Zachary Foedern is more complicated than Owen first thought, constantly trying to defy convention, and their friendship lasts barely more than a term before Zach proposes his greatest transgression yet: a suicide pact.
The novel moves between Owen in the aftermath of Zach’s plans and showing Owen and Zach as friends, from meeting until ending. The narrative is unfurled like a mystery, though it is not a hugely surprising one, not even as Owen gets to know Zach’s twin sister Vera who he never met during their time at Oxford. The ultimate denouement is definitely set up, but this seems to work with Owen as a clever and also short-sighted narrator caught in this dark, recognisably literary fiction world.
The earlier narrative is more centred around students obsessed with their intellectual quest: in this case, an obscure philosopher and questions about the morality of suicide, with an Oxford and Berlin backdrop. The later plot, with Owen in New York, feels quite different, with hints of a mystery and a fish-out-of-water Englishman in America vibe. This variation can be a bit strange: it feels like a mixture of The Secret History, the Netflix series ‘The Good Place’, a dash of Brideshead, and maybe a bit of Nabokov too. The Oxford parts were surprisingly decent with only the odd jarringly Americanised detail, though the Berlin trip felt too fleeting.
The Zero and the One is clearly trying to be a certain kind of book, a literary thriller type with intellectual obsession and dark characters hiding secrets. At times it pulls this off better than others, but it still makes for an intriguing read.