"The point is that newspapers are not there for spreading news but for covering it up. X happens, you have to report it, but it causes embarrassment for too many people, so in the same edition you add some shock headlines — mother kills four children, savings at risk of going up in smoke, letter from Garibaldi insulting his lieutenant Nino Bixio discovered, etc. — so news drowns in a great sea of information."
That's Umberto Eco's conspiracy-obsessed journalist Braggadocio weighing in on the operating philosophy of Italian newspapers (or, maybe, newspapers in general) in the early 1990's. Everything is a scam, he says. Everything is a lie. The world you know is only the world you are allowed to know by powerful forces who trust ultimately in your laziness and stupidity to keep the truth from you. Pleasant as ever, is Eco. His characters as charming as bunions, as competent as toddlers with power drills.
His new novel, Numero Zero, is a book about conspiracies and journalists — about a self-professed loser named Colonna (a hack journo, ghostwriter, manuscript reader and perpetually impoverished freelancer now skidding into middle-age) offered a sweet gig out of the blue by a former professor. 80 million lire, Simei, the professor, offers. And it's perfect for Colonna because it's a job that requires a loser. That demands cynicism and a complete lack of ethics and the kind of rented-snake morality that only grows in someone who hates what he's become — and hates even more those who've forced him to it.
At the orders of the mysterious Commendator, Simei has been told to start a newspaper called Domani (Tomorrow). It's to look like a serious(ish) place of investigatory journalism — the kind of place that owes no allegiances and sets out to expose corruption and incompetency. More important, the kind of rag which could make certain powerful people uncomfortable. The twist? It's all blackmail. A fake paper that the Commendator will use to scare some rich and powerful people into bribing him to shut down.
Nice trick, right? And Eco — as obsessed as ever himself with conspiracy, with twists and double-crosses — lays the whole game out early, within the first dozen pages. The Commendator has ordered Simei to create a fake newspaper. Simei picks the loser, Colonna, to run it and, on the side, to gather material for a book about him (Simei) which, when Domani ultimately folds, will show him as a brave defender of free speech who fought to the last for his paper and his writers. The only people who don't know that the whole thing is a scam? The scrabbling, desperate journalists that Simei and Colonna bring together to write the thing — a celebrity gossip columnist who wants to write about politics, a political reporter with shady ties to the secret services, a few other failed or failing scribblers, and then Braggadocio, an investigative reporter with a nose for corruption, prostitutes and conspiracy theories.
So with that kind of set-up, can you guess what happens next?
Of course you can. Braggadocio goes sniffing after a conspiracy (that Benito Mussolini wasn't really killed by partisans as history records, but survived for years and was just waiting to stage a fascist coup) — and it turns out to be true. Also, very dangerous to him and anyone involved with him. Like, perhaps, his editor at Domani, Colonna.
Except ... blah. The main plot of Numero Zero is a kind of potboiler that never really boils. Once the bones of the main story have been laid out, Eco turns Numero Zero into a kind of see-saw game. For the whole (albeit thin) middle of the 200-page novel he flops back and forth between editorial meetings where he works journalists, journalism and the Italian public like a punching bag, and meetings between Colonna and Braggadocio where the conspiracy details (and, occasionally, highly specific and pointless discussions about sports cars) are laid down in great, sprawling swaths of dialog that cover dozens of pages.
He starts a day with the first (the people have no memories! Newspapers have acclimated readers into thinking in clichés, so we must give them more clichés so as not to frighten them!), then breaks and follows Colonna to a bar, a café, or skeleton-filled catacombs where Braggadocio talks about body-doubles and Italian commandos, assassination attempts and girls. Next chapter, same thing again.
And by the time Numero Zero reaches its rote conclusion, the overwhelming feeling is simply that this was a confection — a nice appetizer for the Eco addicts out there, but without enough meat to make a meal for the rest of us.
Jason Sheehan is an ex-chef, a former restaurant critic and the current food editor of Philadelphiamagazine. But when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about spaceships, aliens, giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book.