Numero Zero, by Umberto Eco, translated by Richard Dixon, (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), 208 pages, release date 3 November, 2015
At its best, Umberto Eco’s writing sweeps readers along tsunami-like, daring them to stay afloat amidst the flood of word and idea. However, this description applies equally to Eco’s writing at its worst. Numero Zero falls occasionally into the first of those two categories, but unfortunately spends most of its time in the latter.
The premise is pure Eco: a team of writers is putting together “zero versions” (sample issues) of a magazine never really intended to be published. The magazine, titled Domani (Tomorrow), has the avowed, if unlikely goal, of publishing news in print before it reaches the pubic via other means. In essence, Domani will predict the future. The novel’s narrator, an unevenly employed ghost writer, has been charged with documenting the process by which Domani is created. That way, if the magazine fails, which it’s intended to do, the head of the project will emerge from the mess with a book that can be published under his own name.
Unfortunately, Numero Zero feels both truncated and overlong. A few of the characters (one in particular) offer rambling discourses. The others never quite emerge from this shadow of language. Dialogue seems intended to take the place of character development, but it simply isn’t up to the task.
Ultimately, Numero Zero is a book about how news is generated, the dance among innuendo, disinformation, and occasional fact that readers are fed on a daily basis through print and television. To publish tomorrow’s news today requires a good deal of guesswork and an ability to dress these vagaries in a way that so meets readers’ expectations that they fail to notice the lack of substance. Here’s the thing of it: this isn’t new news. Readers of the sort who read Eco already approach the media cynically.
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