A Zero-Sum Game
By Eduardo Rabasa
Reviewed by Jaclyn Goddette
In the last few months, George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four jumped to Amazon's bestsellers list and The Handmaid's Tale earned Hulu its first-ever Emmy series nomination. Such is the cultural landscape in which Eduardo Rabasa makes his novelistic debut with A Zero-Sum Game: an audience attuned to the way our society's biggest ills can be exposed through exploring an exaggerated depiction of them.
Rather than Orwell's totalitarian state, it's neoliberalism that Rabasa takes to its logical conclusion. In Villa Miserias—a housing complex composed of forty-nine buildings—the individual is supreme. A coefficient is invented so the amount people pay for rent is commensurate with their use of the collective services—such as the minutes spent sitting on communal benches or one's proximity to green areas. Inequality is embodied at every turn, from the structure of the apartment buildings to the weighted votes during the biennial election of the president of the residents' association.
Enter Max Michels, a political science graduate who decides to run for president without receiving the blessing of Selon Perdumes, a spectral figure who pulls all the strings in Villa Miserias. Perdumes haunts the pages through money-lending and his philosophy of "Quietism and Motion," a two-fold ideology that convinces the lower class to respect both the current system (Quietism) and the so-called progress issued from those above (Motion). Of course, the occasional "reforms" in Villa Miserias do nothing to create substantial change. Rather than make ridiculous promises, Max runs a campaign on maintaining the status quo that the electorate has come to comfortably accept.
Though Max declares his intent to run for president by the end of the novel's first sentence, Rabasa makes us wait for a proper introduction to him. The first hundred pages largely tell the story of Villa Miserias and its various occupants through flashback-like narrations as Max comes in contact with them. Except for a few moments where Max disappears for too long, the initial slow burn works. It's exciting to watch the people and things that populate this world intertwine as the novel progresses: what was first just a mural becomes a mural painted by Max's best friend; Max's hatred toward the local paper is later understood to be caused by his volatile affair with one of its journalists. Things gain significance through repeated exposure in Rabasa's world. And it is only at the precise point that Max registers as a candidate that the reader has enough of the history of Villa Miserias to fully understand the radicalness of his decision.
This split sets up two narratives that both complement and compete against one another. At its best, the character portraits intertwine with the political to highlight Nietzschean and Foucauldian ideas of power. In an effort to teach Max to not be seduced "into falling into that pit of shining truths that was poetry," his father marks his nose with purple dye every time he tells an untruth, an external branding meant to internalize a lesson through public humiliation. Max's relationship with Nelly, the journalist, also shows that power is not only exercised through the state but also through private relationships, strategically. "In political campaigns, just as in love," Max says, "you have to make concessions."
At other times, the story of Villa Miserias and the story of Max seem to compete against one another. The election gives Rabasa the platform to devote pages to undigested political rhetoric riddled with academic jargon. It can be exhausting to get through, and stories of minor characters struggle to breathe above its density. Some of the most beautiful prose comes from Rabasa's stripped-down explorations of his characters, such as when the narrator describes Sao's backstory: "She came from a distant land with swarms of bicycles and pointed hats; her parents had arrived by chance in that foreign country, seeking refuge from the rain that burned their children." Enormous ideas are crammed into the pages between these character studies, making the novel so expansive that you can forget that Villa Miserias is a microcosm, not the world entire.
Though it is microcosmic, Rabasa's choice to not explicitly locate his story in a specific place or time lends itself to the feeling that Villa Miserias could happen anywhere, or at least in any democracy where there's a disconnect between the purported ideas of a society and its actual reality. There are characters with Mexican names and Mexican food, but beyond that, Rabasa stays clear of referencing any specific country or even the real world, going so far as to only obliquely allude to the philosophers and ideas he draws upon. (For example, when Max ruminates on an analogy for human existence developed by Arthur Schopenhauer, our narrator refers to him through the epithet "the pessimistic metaphysician.") By unhinging the story from the specifics of any particular locality, Rabasa widens the scope of his satire. For his thesis, Max charts the percentage of the population in prison, the distribution of wealth, and the number of armed conflicts over time, and titles the graphs, respectively, "Liberty," "Equality," and "Fraternity." It's a critique that could work for any industrial country.
It's ironies like these that Max tries to expose during his campaign. He becomes convinced that the residents are ready to start "calling things by their proper names," and thus language becomes a central theme. As such, the novel also flits between different forms, from fable to legal record to poetry. These many playful interludes also decenter Max's otherwise single perspective—Max's journal entries that chronicle each day of the eleven-day campaign season are followed by Nelly's journalistic reports of the same day.
Importantly, Max and his friends decide to get the electorate to "look in the mirror" by staging a series of performance art pieces throughout the campaign, including a political play written by Sao, the script of which the novel reproduces in full. Just as Quietism and Motion perpetuates itself through symbolism and allegory, so too must Max's message. It's a paradox A Zero-Sum Game is aware of: the most effective way to get the truth across is through the dazzling lies of fiction.
The actual election amounts to a little more than a quarter of the novel, which sets up a visceral feeling of suspense as it barrels towards its conclusion. A deep sense of determinism pervades this last section during which Rabasa explores whether or not the average citizen actually has any control over of the overwhelming social structures that govern his life.
Early on in the novel, Rabasa introduces us to Severo Candelario, the first person to run for president without Selon Perdume's approval. Candelario, a schoolteacher, delights in taking a picture of a willow tree at the same time everyday. He views the tree's gradual growth as a metaphor for the effect he has on the minds of his students. When Perdumes orders that the security guards cut the tree down, they force Candelario to deliver the final blow. Nevertheless, he returns every day, at the same time, to take a picture of the tree, this time capturing the gradual decay.
I cannot shake the image of Candelario returning to his beloved spot to continue his work, building a vast album of pictures, trying to see the tree more clearly. It reminds me how necessary good fiction like A Zero-Sum Game is in a political climate of alternative truths.