Monday, June 18, 2012

A Review of The Zeroes - A Novel

A few months ago, in that sidebar to the right, I stuck an Amazon advertisement for a book called The Zeroes. It is by Patrick Roesle, better known as Pitchfork, who wrote the excellent Rise and Fall of Final Fantasy series, part of which was published at HG101 and all of which was published over at He also did the Darkstalkers article from several years back. Thematically, this book has little to do with video games, though I suspect it may have much to do with the generation of people who grew up playing them.

The summary on Amazon is a little scant, so here's the gist of it - The Zeroes follows an unnamed, everyman narrator through the course of roughly a decade, from his high school graduation around the year 2000 through the year 2009. Much of this time is spent working retail at the local mall and chasing his dreams of becoming a comic illustrator. This does not work out well for him. Much of the time is spent hanging out with his friends, whom also have similar aspirations, mostly as part of the band scene, and who are similarly failing. There is a narrative arc, of course - one might say it's a coming of age tale, as well as a period piece of the early 21st century. I've also seen it described as a "slice of life" story, because that's largely how the narrative operates. But that term is usually reserved for cute or uplifting tales, of which The Zeroes is neither.

For all of the anti-Occupy Wall Street and bootstrap bullshit rhetoric slung around by Republicans and Randians alike (is there even a difference nowadays in American politics?), very little focus is placed on the psychological wellbeing of our generation. It's absolutely depressing, is what it is. In times of prosperity, we were brought up to follow of our dreams. Media consumption has exploded in the last few decades - movies, music, video games - and we want to be a part of it. If some of the random shmucks that encompass "professional" artistry can make it (Rob Liefeld is specifically called out), then why can't we? Of course, reality doesn't really work like that - the medals for winners are limited - and at some point or another, people learn to compromise and either give up their dreams or temper them. But with the economic problems brought up by 9/11, worsened severely by the financial crisis of 2008, makes even compromising difficult. All that's left are retail jobs, paying wages which make it practically impossible to survive, despite the strawman that the spoiled youth largely waste their purported wealth on iPads or whatever.

The Zeroes is about trying to make it in that landscape, of dealing with not only struggling to survive, but also an equally distressing concept - the idea of a life lived in failure. The world moves forward, whether you want it to or not, and it's all too easy to get let behind just meeting the day-to-day needs of food and shelter. It gets pretty terrible watching that happen around you. It's written so that months pass within the span of a few sentences without anything much happening, capturing that feeling perfectly.

There's a lot I can relate to specifically about The Zeroes. Though the mall where most of the book takes place is not named, it's pretty obvious to anyone with a knowledge of North Jersey geography that it's the Rockaway Townsquare Mall. It's a place that I worked for nine months after graduating from college, during the general period where this book takes place, at one of the same stores (though the name is changed in the book). I was able to escape into a better paying job and financial independence, but those nine months were by far the worst period of my life - each day was filled with sort of an existential dread that you'll never escape the hole you've dug for yourself, with all potential you have just wasting away. (It was that mindset and desire to escape that inspired the creation of HG101, actually.) I consider myself lucky to get out, but this was also several years ago during slightly better economic times - today is harder still, and I still know several extremely talented people caught in the same awful place I once was. For those that are still in that spot, or those who ever have been, this book will resonate deeply.

At the same time, I'm not sure if anyone outside of our generation will really get it. Maybe they will be too old, and wonder why the narrator just doesn't go back to school, or try to get a better job. Of course, that's much easier said than done, especially with the self-defeating mindset that the retail world will pummel into you, but I get the feeling most people won't be able to truly understand it unless they've been there themselves. There are also plenty of references to bands or video games of the era, likely to provoke a sense of nostalgia, or at least to define the time period where they take place. And I was never particularly interested in the local music scene either, the culture of which also plays an fairly integral part of the novel. These are not necessarily negatives, though, as they are relatively superficial aspects of what is otherwise a shared generational experience for many.

It's also dark. Very dark. Pat's got a good sense of humor, if you've ever read his Final Fantasy pieces (I'd love to see a piece on Dragon Quest VII, were I not worried it would drive him to a more permanent form of alcoholism), but much of the book is incredibly bleak in its outlook. Any humor would likely seem out of place, but this is not a novel you read to feel good about things. Similarly, as mentioned before, video games are not a huge part of the story - there are many mentions of, say, Marvel vs. Capcom 2 or any other game the narrator and his friends like to play, but in general gaming is referred to in the same manner as alcohol or pot, a temporary distraction from the general awfulness of the world around.

Anyway, the Kindle version of The Zeroes is $7.50, and the hard copy (printed through Createspace, the same service I used for the adventure game book) is currently discounted at just over $10. It is rough, but it is worth reading.


  1. It sounds like the most painfully depressing story imaginable...

    It also reminds me of my time in full-time games journalism. I wanted to get into games development, but ended up writing about games. As one of my fellow journos put it: the time passed as easily and lonely as a coma.

    It was soul-destroyingly awful, made ever more disheartening by the countless young people who dream of becoming a games journalist (in some ways it's worse than retail).

    All I can say is thank **** I got out of there before it killed me.

    Anyway, I'm not sure I want to read any book or watch any film which reminds of that time in my life. Which isn't a criticism of the book, I'm just honest about my aversion to reality.

  2. I just got this book after seeing it on this site. I so far read the first part and it is really good. As somebody that is aspiring to "make it" in comics and fine art it really resonates with me. So far it is very true, painful, and sincere and I love the book so far.