Amy Benson’s Seven Years to Zero explores fundamental questions about contemporary urban life through the guise of art, particularly many strange and varied art shows and installations presented by galleries in what is presumed to be New York City (never named, but hinted at throughout the text). Benson uses the endless possibilities of these art shows to explore human nature, the human connection to nature, and parenthood.
One of the most interesting aspects of Seven Years to Zero is its genre classification: autobiographical fiction. This calls into question the very nature of the text itself—what really happened to Benson, what is purely fictional, and does it even really matter which is which? Because of this, the actual text relates to the art shows presented in the stories; many of the shows ask the viewers to question their reality, such as the “artificial” indoor forest that is so lifelike it grows literal roots in the gallery.
The lead characters of the collection (or novel—even the structure of the book comes into question) are constantly reevaluating their place in society, their very nature as human beings, based on what they see in these shows. And the interactions with art sometimes border on the impossible or fantastical, such as the interactive presentation where viewers scream into a bag and have said screams pour back out of the bag as something else, as new sounds. Reality is ethereal and strange in Benson’s work.
Seven Years to Zero also explores the literal decay of nature, an oncoming apocalypse. The earth, as mentioned several times early in the book, seems to be falling apart. The art connects with this decay; nearly all the shows involve broken-down scenery, buildings in disrepair, radioactive elements post-Chernobyl. “Art has always loved a ruin,” the narrator says. “The ruins art loves now are industrial, the places we have made that threaten to undo us.” The earth is dying in Seven Years to Zero, and people seem to be rushing toward its destruction.
In the introduction to “Year Four,” the narrator describes being pregnant and stuck on the road in a storm: “We pulled to the side of the road, climbed into the backseat, and fell into a deep sleep while the car shook with rain. Which seemed an apt metaphor for the year.” I would argue that this is as much an apt metaphor for the collection as a whole. There is a tendency in the book for the characters to almost hide within the art shows, to avoid the difficulties of their lives and of a world that is falling apart. Art becomes both world and distraction from the world, then; it is the “deep sleep” the characters fall into while the world shakes with rain. As the narrator says, “Now is a disaster we have not yet framed.”
Benson captures the paranoia and search for escape that is found in much of contemporary life. She does so with beautiful language and a unique approach, joining in the tradition of great “art as life” works as The Horse’s Mouth and Letters on Cezanne. Much like Rilke in the latter work, Benson’s characters find inspiration and meaning in their own experiences as artists and art lovers. This continues with their child, creating a cycle of artistic expression as life, mirroring the cycle of nature’s disarray.
For these characters, art is a release, a comfort, a complexity to be defined. They go from show to show, looking for “a way to stay bodiless for just a moment more.” For us as readers, Seven Years to Zero is just that: a way to float, to imagine, to dream, even as the sky crashes down.
Sean L. Corbin