Scott O’Connor’s ‘Zero Zone’ is a sophisticated thriller about the power of art

Ron Charles

THE WASHINGTON POST – At his trial in 1970, Charles Manson claimed that a message in the Beatles’ White Album provoked him to murder. “Helter Skelter is confusion,” he told the court, referring to his favourite song. “It says, ‘Rise.’ It says, ‘Kill.’ Why blame it on me? I didn’t write the music.”

That defence was as ridiculous as any of Manson’s claims, but what a cruel burden to throw at the Beatles. Years later, when Paul McCartney recalled the burst of energy that produced Helter Skelter, he still seemed to feel the horror of its association with the Manson family murders. “Unfortunately,” he lamented, “it inspired people to do evil deeds.”

The spooky relationship between art and the most extreme responses that it sometimes provokes is the subject of Scott O’Connor’s new novel Zero Zone. It is a sophisticated thriller that revolves around the work of an installation artist named Jess Shepard. She designs and constructs large pieces that viewers inhabit and interact with. Some people feel nothing but boredom; others are deeply moved. Of course, how anyone reacts is ultimately beyond Jess’ control, beyond even her ability to anticipate. But since artists strive to evoke responses, to what extent is an artist culpable when viewers react very, very badly?

That is the question O’Connor circles around with ever-increasing intensity. Jess falls into her life’s work almost accidentally while in college. She fabricates a curtained room in which humiliated college women can scream and shatter plates. Most find the experience cathartic and empowering. But one participant goes too far. Jess finds her lying catatonic in a pile of shards and blood. The ER doctor blames Jess; the college dean shuts the site down. Hearing Jess describe what happened, a friend tells her, “It is a risk. And I don’t think the risk is just to the artist.” Until that moment, Jess had not realised that what she was doing was art.

We learn of this foundational experience halfway through the novel. O’Connor constructed the plot of Zero Zone as a kaleidoscope, frequently shattering the chronology of events and remixing the parts. That may sound baffling, but it is compellingly done – a constant process of filling in context and meaning, solving some mysteries and raising others.

One of the challenges of writing fiction about a great artist is how to convincingly create the presence of artistic genius. For instance, if the novel is about a brilliant poet, sooner or later we will want to read some immortal verse. If, as in this case, the central character is a famous installation artist, we need to see some of those astonishing sites.

Fortunately, O’Connor, who teaches creative writing at Cal State Channel Islands, meets that burden. He provides alluring descriptions of Jess’ famous pieces – from Candyland, a house filled with rooms of different hues, to Waterfall, a woodland hut with a fourth wall made of cascading liquid.

Jess’ most powerful work is called Zero Zone in New Mexico. Built near the grounds of an abandoned military base where atomic bombs were once tested, Zero Zone is a concrete room, 10 feet high, 25 feet long and 30 wide. There is a narrow door at one end and long slits on the other walls. As the sun rises and sets, light and darkness shift dramatically inside the room. Visitors who make the trek across the desert might find the overheated space plain or transcendent. That does not matter much to Jess. For her, it is an expression of her grief for someone she loved and lost.

But early in the novel, we hear of an infamous tragedy involving a small group of viewers who squat in Jess’ concrete room for eight days. A conflict with law enforcement gets out of control; someone dies in the ensuing altercation. And a month later, Jess is publicly attacked by a young woman who had been caught in the Zero Zone incident.

That controversy and the trauma of being publicly assaulted shatter Jess’ confidence and send her into a long period of anxious isolation. “I can’t control someone’s reaction,” Jess claims. But she cannot shake a mingled sense of culpability and fear.

Revealing that drama so early should sap the novel of its tension, but O’Connor constantly cycles through the experiences of a series of people connected in some way to the Zero Zone site. Chief among them is that young woman who assaulted Jess. We are drawn back into her troubled adolescence, and we see the rising sense of alienation that make her yearn for something pure beyond this plane of sorrow.

That yearning for escape becomes the novel’s central theme. It is the dark matter that draws people across the desert to Zero Zone. And it is what powers the ideology of a frightening character named Tanner, who speaks of relief from this world. Tanner’s hypnotic patter is terrifying, a convincing demonstration of how one man might exploit a work of art to exercise his will over others.

But I wish O’Connor had not felt it necessary to give Tanner a gruesome skin disease that covers his entire body. At its best, that “ugly equals evil” motif is a remnant of cheap fairytale propaganda. At its worst, it is a pernicious moral equation that perpetuates prejudice against people with disfiguring conditions.

Aside from that misstep, though, Zero Zone is an engaging reflection on the function of art and the responsibilities of the artist. Following these characters along their circuitous routes offers a rare chance to consider the risks that great creators take when they try to inspire us to action – but not too much.