Zero K review: Don DeLillo on death as we don’t know it
Novelist Don DeLillo ponders the big unanswerable – mortality – in a speculative tale that is like a summation of his artistic vision
Paranoia is the theme that quiet, intense Don DeLillo has made his own. Resignedly, through a major body of work that includes some of the most defining novels of the postmodernist era, DeLillo has kept watch on America through a cerebral intelligence kept at bay by irony and humanity. If there is a unifying tone, it is that of bewildered fascination.
DeLillo’s fellow maverick, the great JG Ballard, shared his preoccupations, but operated at a level of discernible if suppressed glee. The equally laconic DeLillo is more earnest, less fully subversive. Paranoid characters, cult murders, conspiracy theories, entropy and giant TV screens wild with the latest atrocity have sustained him, although his abiding concern is death – the big unanswerable.
Zero K, DeLillo’s speculative new novel, which is less “new” and more of a summation of an artistic vision, considers the ultimate terror – mortality – and how to face it.
It is too easy to offer this random and ambivalent book as a profound work, which it is and it isn’t. True to DeLillo’s art, it resounds with rhetoric. “Everybody wants to own the end of the world,” it announces as early as the opening sentence. Those words are uttered by a billionaire who reinvented himself, abandoning a wife and son along the way, and marrying a second wife, archaeologist to whom he is so devoted that her impending death has crushed him.
Ross Lockhart emerges as marginally less bombastic than Donald Trump. Through injections of cash he has become involved with an outfit called the Convergence, which has a space-age facility comprised of endless halls somewhere in central Asia, possibly Uzbekistan.
Does it matter? The Convergence is a weird place run by the Stenmark twins, complete with wraiths and staffed by crazies who congratulate people cheating natural death on opting for cryonic suspension, as if they have chosen the best pleasure cruise available.
Observing all of this is the narrator, Jeffrey, Lockhart’s disgruntled now 34-year- old son. Having watched his mother die, Jeffrey has now been summoned by his absentee father to witness the choreographed death of his fatally ill stepmother, Artis. (One wonders why DeLillo did not simply go ahead and add the second “t”.)
Worse still, the jet-lagged, simmering Jeffrey is also expected to stand by while his healthy father also bows out of life because he can’t face it without his adored wife, a supremely artificial construct.
Settling on satireThe narrative takes time to settle. It seems to be a satire, only without the laughs, though these do come later. Ross strikes a ridiculous, demanding figure from the outset, confiding to a son he barely knows.
“Down in an area that serves as a hospice I sometimes stand among the people prepared to undergo the process. Anticipation and awe intermingled. Far more palpable than apprehension or uncertainty. There’s a reverence, a state of astonishment. They’re together in this. Something far larger than they’d ever imagined. They feel a common mission, a destination. And I find myself trying to imagine such a place centuries back.”
Much of the soundbite dialogue resonates with portent and pretentious statement. Now, DeLillo writes wonderful dialogue. His novels are full of talk, if not quite as memorably zany as that of the incomparable William Gaddis. One of the several irritating realities about Zero K, which is Lewis Carroll meets Kafka, is that DeLillo has already written a far superior study of dislocation in his most underrated novel, The Names.
The Names is the key book to the formidable DeLillo canon. Richard Ford conveys what America sounds like, how it thinks. But DeLillo explains how it fears; he describes America’s communal dread.
In The Names, another unhappy narrator, a globe-trotting security risk analyst who is estranged from his wife, also an archaeologist, muses: “We know we will die. This is our saving grace in a sense . . . It is one of the things that sets us apart. It is our special sadness . . . the final denial of our base reality, in this schematic, is to produce a death . . . So we talked, the anthropologist, the storyteller, the mad logician . . . Maybe all that talking had brought us closer to an understanding, a complicity.”
Three years later, in the brilliantly funny White Noise, another DeLillo character remarks that “all plots tend to move deathwards.” He and his wife are obsessed with dying and how to avoid it.
In Zero K, the chill mood is akin to a long, slow reflection on death. Jeffrey wanders about the Convergence. He frequents a food unit, unsure of what exactly he is eating. A lugubrious character, the Monk, whose function is to ease the dying, supplies the answer. Little is made of the fact that these intrepid travellers are wealthy. Cryonic suspension is expensive. No importance is placed on the obvious question as to whom or what will meet them at their resurrection or, rather, defrosting.
Jeffrey is not thinking that far ahead – he is too busy with past resentments that have left him drifting aimlessly. He is jobless and temporarily comforted by a relationship with a woman who has a problematic adopted, now teenaged, Ukrainian son fixated on international terrorism.
Philosophical intentOld Ross chickens out the first time, only to enter a kind of willed decline. There is also a strange interlude, in which we are made privy to the thoughts of Artis as she awaits departure: “I think I am someone. What does it mean to be who I am.” There is no doubting DeLillo’s philosophical intent. Whatever about his achievement as a novelist, he is above all a thinker more preoccupied by theme than plot.
For all its postmodernity, Zero K is a variation on The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678). Jeffery becomes that pilgrim. Absent are the great DeLillo set-pieces: nothing approaches the magic of the opening sequence of his epic Underworld, in which menace merges with nostalgia during a baseball game that juxtaposes the setting off the A-bomb. Before that, Mao II had the mass suicide wedding. The most compelling image from this savvy book of death could be one of human bodies suspended in pods. But DeLillo, in a flourish of inspiration, draws on another happening, one as inevitable as death, as long as the sky is not overcast. In the closing scene Jeffrey, wry and alone, spots a natural phenomenon framed by capitalism: the burning midsummer sun aligned to set between two skyscrapers in busy Manhattan. Better still, pilgrim Jeffrey, having paid a second visit to the Convergence, witnesses a child’s response to “the intimate touch of earth and sun”.
Zero K may well be hailed as DeLillo’s 21st-century novel. But he has already written two of them, both metaphysically prophetic: The Names and White Noise. Underworld is different – it is his American book, infused with love and the horror that had earlier shaped Libra, which explored the aftermath of the ultimate symbolic crime against a country, assassinating a president.
Zero K is apocalyptic and rife with symbolism. It is also the last frontier in which the rats, or at least, the rich ones, are queuing up to leave. Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent