224 pages, Liberties Press
Review by Bill Kirton
In a previous review (of a Paul Auster novel), I wrote ‘Writing fiction about writing and writers is a precarious endeavour; making one of your characters yourself – giving him your name, location and profession – is provocative’. And the review went on to list the reasons why I won’t be reading any more of his work. So it’s strange that I found Absolute Zero Cool so compelling because it, too, features the writer himself, the work in progress (which is the novel we’re reading), one of its characters who ‘helps’ him to write it and works by blurring the dividing lines between fiction and reality.
But here that blurring is useful because it allows Burke to juxtapose, explore and exploit the elements of the creative process. When we write, we live with our characters, whether they’re contemporaries, historical, fantastical, aliens, anthropomorphised animals or whatever else our imaginations have conjured up. They exist for us, they’re real. So there’s no reason we shouldn’t enter into dialogues with them or suggest that they’re at least as legitimate (in terms of reality) as we ourselves are. And if that sounds pretentious or egocentric, consider this quote from the book ‘Writing and masturbation have in common temporary relief and the illusion of achievement’.
But I don’t want to stress the analytical aspects of the book or get tangled in the complexities of having two narrators, both fictional and yet one of them also the author himself, because this is also a bloody good thriller. It’s also funny, thought-provoking and very satisfying. Some reviews refer to it as possibly becoming a cult classic; I think it deserves to be more. It’s consciously set in a literary and philosophical tradition of which the writer is constantly aware and on which he draws. He’s an intelligent, sensitive novelist who’s comfortable with the form, willing to explore its wider possibilities and simultaneously a creator of great characters and an assured story-teller.
The two main threads – each having a male-female relationship and a child at its centre – develop in parallel and are linked by the identities of the 2 males, who are also the narrators. It’s only in the final action-packed pages that they’re brought thrillingly together and resolved in a fusion that made me at least want to start reading all over again. Throughout the book there’s a tension between the two central male characters, an unease about what one of them is planning, a series of choices about actions, any one of which could send the narrative in a different direction. It ticks all the boxes of a classic thriller.
And, at the same time, it’s just as thrilling in the way that it examines the process of writing itself. In the course of the story, Burke refers to ‘how writers are demented by their own egos’ and how their fictions are an ‘impossible pursuit’ which they convey through metaphors such as the whale in Moby Dick and, in this case, the destruction of a hospital. ‘A good novel and the terrorist bomb,’ writes Burke, ‘have this much in common: they are about questions, not answers’.
I wont go on. Read it. It gives you all this and more and, unlike the Paul Auster book, it’s immediate and entertaining. I’ll end with just one of the many examples of how good a writer Burke is which I noted as I read and which still keep me held by the book:
‘Democracy is a blizzard of options so thick it obscures the fact that there is no choice.’
Now That. Is. Good.