‘Zero Zone’ by Scott O’Connor: Looking Out, and Beyond, Art, Angst, and Agony

Paul Wilner

“The guards let them stay in the dayroom longer than usual, on account of the fact that the world might end,’’ Scott O’Connor allows, writing about a convict named Tanner and his friend Emmett deep into his enthralling new novel, Zero Zone (Counterpoint Press, 320 pages).

The “fact’’ in question is the Three Mile Island meltdown—the jailbirds are disappointed that it fizzles, but there’s more—much more—apocalyptic tension to come here.

O’Connor’s work is a spooky, sometimes sepulchral portrait of the confluence between the overlapping lives of Jess Shepard, a Los Angeles installation artist who has created a space near an abandoned bomb shelter, and Isabelle Serrano, a troubled Pasadena adolescent who slashes Jess’ cheek—paging Valerie Solanas—at a gallery opening to retaliate for the artist calling the cops after the afore-mentioned Tanner, a self-styled guru holed up at Zero Zone in the pursuit of a millenarian, Rapture-like escape from the world we deceive ourselves into thinking we know.

But plot summaries (the least rewarding aspects of the reviewing project) do not begin to do justice to the author’s measured invitations to join him into the vertiginous worlds his characters inhabit. It’s a combination of a literal ghost story—O’Connor is also an accomplished television writer, and his story arc training serves him well—and a metaphysical attempt to question the ground on which we stand, the air we breathe. What is real? he asks, providing no answers.

Not the least of his technical accomplishments is writing the tale largely through the point of view of Jess and Isabelle without raising questions of gender—or breaking a sweat. Like Alice, they fall into their dreams of life, and we are there for the journey.

And the creation of his anti-hero Tanner, a pustular prophet with growths all over his body who nevertheless has a mesmerizing effect on those he entices into his orbit, is an amazing achievement. It brings to mind the nightmarish visions of Nathaniel West in Miss Lonelyhearts, with its dark comedy of desolation angels of lost, and sometimes deformed souls and doomed Christian aspirations.

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At the beginning of the tale, the eleven-year-old Jess almost drowns on a family holiday visit to Santa Monica, and finds in the vibrant colors and “terrible beauty’’ of the undercurrent another world that she spends much of the rest of her life, and her art, trying to recapture.

“Back in Pasadena at the Hamburger Hamlet, Zack and her parents couldn’t stop talking about the incident, telling and retelling it from different angles, disputing details, already starting to mythologize what was certain to become a tentpole story in Shepard family lore,” O’Connor writes, emphasizing the alienation that is to come. “But Jess knew that this wasn’t the right story—losing her mother’s hand, disappearing beneath the waves, the lifeguard’s dramatic rescue. It was a story, it was their story, but it wasn’t hers.”

There are other losses, other griefs.

When her boyfriend, Alex, died in a James Dean-like auto crash, Jess creates the New Mexico space (think of Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, or Rothko’s work) as an homage, a gesture in which she can reunite with him, despite the many insoluble glitches, including the inconvenient facts of his widowed wife and young son. As with her relationship with her brother Zack, the original artist in her family romance, she also has to come to grip with the fact that hers is the greater talent, however much she tries to shy away from it.

Zack’s Underground Man existence, holed up in a cluttered apartment filled with old films and video, including stag tapes of Hollywood celebrities, mirrors the larger refractions of the world around them: gas lines in ’70s America, conspiracy theories prefiguring the current dystopian moment. The center cannot hold because there is none.

Along the way, there are delicious character portraits of characters like Martha Reed, the Las Vegas waitress who takes Isabelle in when an ill-advised gambling trip with her high school BFF, Chloe, goes south. Sadly, Martha initiates the desert trip which leads to Isabelle’s meeting with, and inculcation by, Tanner.

Looking through the openings of the “Zero Zone’’ installation, she sees escape, of a sort, enabled by her strangely charismatic guru. O’Connor writes:

“You recognized it, didn’t you?” Tanner asked. He was speaking to Izzy now. She could almost see his pebbled face in the dark, his eyes on hers. “Yes,” she said.

“What you saw,” Tanner said, “is the sun that will burn this world clean.” “And then what?” Martha’s voice.

“And then,” Tanner said, “we’ll be free.”

Well, of a kind.

For skeptical, semi-agnostic readers like this one, mindful of the ways in which the psychedelic experiments of the ’60s were abused and misused, Tanner brings to mind the excesses of Jim Jones—or Manson—as he plays his mind games with Isabelle and, for a time, Martha.

But O’Connor’s creation of this character is masterful, tracing his change from a deeply painful childhood brought up by a woman he believed to be his mother to someone who somehow surmounts his gargoylesque handicaps, lecturing to growing crowds at a New Age bookstore and preying on young women, including an Asian American graduate student whom he persuades to forego cancer treatments, until her family breaks down the door, and spirits her away.

He’s an awful, completely convincing creature of our times, worthy of Dostoyevsky (or Stephen King).

But the repressed always return. O’Connor’s rendition of Jess, Isabelle, and Martha’s final confrontation with Tanner makes fictional, and eschatological sense, recalling the Old West and the Old Testament.

Still, the striving, gestural search for what lies above, below and beyond this world lingers.

A final flashback involving Waterfall—the pull of the element remains a theme—Jess’s first commissioned piece, in northeastern Vermont, sparks reflections:

 “You walk up to the wall of water. It smells clear and clean. No one told you not to touch the water, but you do not touch the water. You wonder what is on the other side. You sit on the bench. Thoughts and memories and dreams flow through. You are no longer the central figure in your own life; you are a bridge from one place to the next.”

What will the next place or state of mind be? One awaits the next work from Scott O’Connor for answers—or, more likely—new questions.

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