Philosopher Ryan Ruby launched his debut novel The Zero and the One last week at WORD Bookstore in Brooklyn. He was joined by Alexandra Kleeman, author of the story collection Intimations and the novel You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine.
Kleeman describes Ruby’s novel as “generally a mind fuck,” that calls on numerous genres. The novel is an exploration of male friendship but includes elements of psychological suspense thrillers.
Ruby says he began writing the book as a campus novel. At the time he was visiting his partner at Oxford where he had previously spent time studying. While she went to work, he started writing.
The novel is both autobiographical and not. Ruby is not dead, for instance, as befalls one of his characters early on in the book. The two friends, Owen and Zach, end up in a suicide pact, which is also not something Ruby is in. Yet there is truth in the book.
Every word of the book has passed through him, Ruby explains; every book is an excretion. Fiction exists so writers are not sued, he jokes.
Ruby is a professional philosopher, though he jokes that it’s not much of a career. He claims that people who end up in the field of philosophy are there because of some trauma.
He is interested in the idea of individual subjectivity. No two people will ever share the same subjective experience, and yet to communicate between each other, we all must share a public language. Language cannot be a private thing. He sees his novel as an exploration of the mind and the subjective experience.
Philosophical thought is dangerous, he warns, adding that all philosophy is a form of failure.
Male friendship is a major part of the narrative, and Kleeman points out the parable that the shortest distance between two men’s hearts is a woman. The idea is one that surfaces in The Zero and the One between Zach and Owen.
Male friendship often happens in competition for women, but it’s rarely about the woman at the center of their competition. Instead, competing is a means of bringing men closer together and the presence of the woman is incidental.
Ruby says a novel is always about irony, no matter what is happening. That is one reason why as an academic philosopher, he was interested in writing a novel. Irony can’t be used in academic work. Also, the style of writing a novel differs from philosophical texts, and allows a broader range.
When Ruby is feeling optimistic, he believes books can be very dangerous, but when he’s feeling pessimistic, he just sees books as words on a page.
“I like the sound of my own voice.”
Fiction also has the benefit of characters. As the voice of the character, he has a responsibility to be true to that character’s voice, and that keeps him from rambling on. Characters serve to edit his writing.
“There are things you have to give up when you are writing fiction.”
One thing that he had to give up was the original ending. The first nine drafts all shared the same ending, but his editor wanted to changed it. He thought he would just write an ending so insane that everyone would agree to continue to use the original ending. Instead, he admits his editor was right and the new ending stuck.