This is a book literally about nothing—about the origin, and powers, of zero. Thus the protagonist consorts with Newton and Leibniz; beholds the magic of outlier mathematics and its cast of infinitudes, multiverses, and quantum anomalies; and all the while carries with her a sacred document, Euclid’s Pseudaria, a partial copy of which—as the preface explains—was recently found with the earliest instance of the equation 0/0=0. It is a bewitching exploration of nullity, and in good detective fashion, it gets going right away:
Shortly thereafter the anomalies began. . . . I felt the back of my neck. Something was missing. The skin was warm as it should be, smooth, too smooth, something was missing—no—something was wrong. I let the toothbrush go, let it hang from my cheek, let it trail its string of spit to the sink and I counted the ridges at my neck. One definitely gone.The story unfolds through a series of flash prose pieces that alternate between accounts of strange happenings to the narrator’s body, her quest to understand the import of the Pseudaria, and lyric explications of theoretical physics and mathematics. Bylenok is adept in this most difficult latter category, writing with clarity and confidence in a distinct voice:
A finite system—ours, us—in an infinite field means necessary duplicates. Once all of the possibilities run out, the universe—monoverse, multiverse, verse and refrain—repeats. Must repeat, exactly and inexactly and endlessly. [ . . . ] And then again. And again doesn’t even begin.In the detective sections, we see similarly arresting simplicity, a declarative style that, for all its seriousness, has a charmingly light quality:
I took the apartment across the street from the phone. I watched it while I percolated coffee, while I read through the day’s mail. I watched the phone while I ate, while I wrote and rewrote the equations. I left my window open and listened for the phone. I gave the number, marked on the box, to friends and asked them to call and listened to it ring. The snow blew in all morning I was listening.Eventually the narrator’s world and that of theoretical physics and math begin to intermix, and that is when the writing really takes off:
But this wasn’t a loop. There was no backward, no glitchy skip, no return. It was Wednesday at noon. I trace the edges of the scrap of manuscript through the fabric of my pocket. I looked out the window to the telephone on the corner. Clouds clenched like a muscle in the sky, dark as a large intestine. I took out the equation and I turned it over in my palm. I pressed it against my cheek, against my jaw, sore from surgery. The tooth they extracted was an anomaly—a rootless molar, once decayed, pocked, but unusually luminescent, a misshapen moon.These are lovely passages, but what to make, conceptually, of her subject, of zero? For my read, I think the question is better cast as such: why noon, and not midnight?
It is almost always noon in this story. “The temperature dropped as noon drew near.”; “In the waiting room for Dr. Hyperboles at noon. There I was.”; “It grew noon by noon and I could feel it grow.”; “A winter noon. A body bag.”; and one more, to really seal the deal:
Noon was my future. Noon drew near like a horse and buggy. Noon came closer, glowering, breathing heavy through its nostrils. Noon shook. Noon shook my hand. Noon tapped its foot on twelve.The twelve o’clock hour, not the zero hour. Why?
Because nullity is generative. Because noon is a kind of zero, an open space, a break, a black hole around which the light of the frenetic universe warps (in fact, I’ve written most of this review in the noon hour, my extracurricular time). In a/0, we aren’t staring into the void but at the activity that surrounds it. To me this is its real achievement: exploring nullity as a critical substance, as something at the very center—rather than the edges—of our lives.
One does not get close to this kind of nullity without effects—hence the vertebra that goes missing (like a person), only to reappear later on as an errant tooth (an imposter, perhaps). It’s an artful disturbance—a metamorphosis of things, of the populated world. In many cases Bylenok emphasizes the viscerality and corporeality of these shifting objects: “One morning when I passed, the phone was, briefly, animal. A deer, perhaps. A corpse. I stopped and picked up its jaw and placed it against my mouth. Intestines curled away from the handset in a single cord.”
There is often the overwhelming feeling of possibility, indeed, more so, that “every version of the story is inevitable.” But there is a darkness to this vision—objects ghosting through time-space, the animals all taxidermied—the ultimate nullity of death coming without any real communication of meaning, just a spirit freezing in midair and dropping to the ground. It culminates in this feverish passage:
I was lost in a movement outside myself but which I still felt—in the way my arm moved up, unconsciously, inevitably, to pull my own blouse tight around my neck, as if I were cold; and the sound of a police siren wound through the streets; and into that wail the snow receded; there was no sweater, no snow; a woman—a patient, who might just as easily have slipped and not jumped—had fallen from her window; there was her body; and sirens; and heat coming off the pavement below.And surely the narrator sees herself in that corpse, a dead thing in the middle of the heat and noise of the universe. It’s a startling climax for this gripping book about mathematics.