Zero K: I’ll take a second-tier DeLillo any year

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Zero K by Don DeLillo science fiction book reviewsZero K by Don DeLillo

Don DeLillo, I’ve found, is one of those authors that splits readers down the middle. For myself, I definitely and whole-heartedly fall into the fan camp, with White Noise and Underworld being two of my favorite all-time novels, and Mao II and Libra not far behind. His newest, Zero K, doesn’t rise to their level (most novels don’t), but it is still classic DeLillo, filled with great sentences, dialog that sounds less like real people talking and more like a pair of students work-shopping their dissertations (one of the reasons he tends to split readers), cool musings on the intersection of technology and modern culture, and explorations of wealth, violent (almost apocalyptic) events, the modern senses of dislocation and isolation, the impact of media, and (a true DeLillo staple) the imminence of death.

Or perhaps, not-so-imminent death. Because it turns out that the central technology in Zero K is an attempt to out-maneuver death via a combination of cryonics, nanotechnology, cellular regeneration, and consciousness shifting. All of this takes place at The Convergence, a secretive enclave for the super-wealthy in the rough vicinity of the “stans” of Central Europe. One of the prime donors to The Convergence is Ross Lockhart, a billionaire financier whose second wife, Artis, is dying and is therefore about to be frozen and then, as the plan goes, eventually awakened hale and hearty. The novel spends its first half in the futuristic Convergence as Ross and Jeff, Ross’ son by his first marriage, wait for Artis to be artificially “induced” onto the next stage of her existence. The relationship between the two men is as chilly and spartan as the space-habitat like corridors and rooms of the Convergence. Ross left Jeff’s mother years ago as he rose up the ranks of capitalism, and even at one point as they talk pretends (or perhaps not) that he doesn’t even remember Jeff’s mother’s name.

When Jeff’s father decides he wants to follow Artis into the procedure, Jeff tries to understand that decision as well as the complexities of the relationship he has with this man. He also tries to come to terms with the Convergence itself, as he wonders its halls filled with strange art installations, including huge projection screen showing video of mass deaths via natural and man-made disasters such as floods and terrorism. The second half of Zero K shifts forward a few years and moves to Manhattan, offering up a different setting, plot, and tone.

To be honest, the first half (actually somewhat more than half the novel) is more likely to inspire admiration and wryly intellectual stimulation than the typical readerly enjoyment and engagement in terms of plot and character. As to the former, there really isn’t any; it’s a lot of waiting and wandering and talking. As for the characters, they’re more than a little removed, not only from each other but also from the reader, though it would seem to me that this is the point, or at least one of them. One character, after all, is waiting to die (Ross) while the other (Jeff) is adrift in life, moving from job to job, girl to girl. What’s to admire, though, are the sentences themselves (beginning with the opening line of the novel “Everyone wants to own the end of the world.”), the back and forth on death and life extension, and the surreal imagery of the setting, which has layers upon layers of meaning and sort of a wonderful cross between Kafka, an infomercial, Alice in Wonderland, Scientology, Bonfire of the Vanities, and the space station in Kubrick’s 2001.

There’s also a nice tension between the salesmanship of the Convergence and Ross and Artis’ belief in it and Jeff’s skepticism, made even more deliciously complex by the way in which the context of the salesmanship — which evokes the dislocating impact of modern technology, the many forms of violence in the world perpetrated by humans — makes it far less easy to simply dismiss The Convergence in its entirety. Sure, it’s a refuge for the uber-rich, and most likely there’s nothing to it, but it’s hard to argue against their criticisms of modern life. Tell me a line like, “Half the world is redoing its kitchens, the other half is starving,” isn’t a kick to the gut. But perhaps my favorite aspect of this first segment, though, is the focus on language, as Jeff is constantly trying to call words up, to define things, to name people in ways that allow him to somehow define them as well. In a novel about perhaps the most incomprehensible things of all — mortality — it’s a brilliant choice of a character quirk.

Despite how much I liked (if not enjoyed) this first segment, it’s so cold and claustrophobic and removed that it’s a relief to enter into the Manhattan scenes, which are diametrically opposed in so many ways, making for a wonderful sense of structure to the novel. We move from the empty desert, barren technology, and the top .1% to the bustling crowds and polyglot society that is New York City, from the static to the active, from death to life (though this being DeLillo, death is not gone, merely more balanced against). All of this is wonderfully encapsulated in a simple taxi ride through the city. The world intrudes in lots of ways in this section as we meet Jeff’s new girlfriend and her son by her now separated husband (a parent-relationship to parallel the one in segment one, complete with step-parents and absences). I won’t say more about where Zero K goes save to say it closes with a beautiful set scene.

If Zero K doesn’t rank in DeLillo’s top four or five novels, that’s hardly an embarrassment or even a surprise. While I wholly get he’s not to everyone’s taste, from my standpoint, a second-tier DeLillo stands well above the top rank of most novelists thanks to those beautifully crafted sentences and thoughtful explorations of big, important questions. It may not pull me in and along like a well-plotted book, or one in which I’m deeply invested in the characters, but few other authors make me linger over so many sentences for both their construction and their weight of meaning, or have me returning in my head to those lines or those questions long after I’ve put the book down.

Published May 3, 2016. The wisest, richest, funniest, and most moving novel in years from Don DeLillo, one of the great American novelists of our time—an ode to language, at the heart of our humanity, a meditation on death, and an embrace of life. Jeffrey Lockhart’s father, Ross, is a billionaire in his sixties, with a younger wife, Artis Martineau, whose health is failing. Ross is the primary investor in a remote and secret compound where death is exquisitely controlled and bodies are preserved until a future time when biomedical advances and new technologies can return them to a life of transcendent promise. Jeff joins Ross and Artis at the compound to say “an uncertain farewell” to her as she surrenders her body. “We are born without choosing to be. Should we have to die in the same manner? Isn’t it a human glory to refuse to accept a certain fate?” These are the questions that haunt the novel and its memorable characters, and it is Ross Lockhart, most particularly, who feels a deep need to enter another dimension and awake to a new world. For his son, this is indefensible. Jeff, the book’s narrator, is committed to living, to experiencing “the mingled astonishments of our time, here, on earth.” Don DeLillo’s seductive, spectacularly observed and brilliant new novel weighs the darkness of the world—terrorism, floods, fires, famine, plague—against the beauty and humanity of everyday life; love, awe, “the intimate touch of earth and sun.” Zero K is glorious.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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One comment

  1. When I read THE NAMES, I thought, “What have I got myself into?” in a good way. WHITE NOISE is one of my top ten favorite novels, probably. As you pointed out, I love the observations he makes about modern life (especially lives of privilege), and his extraordinary prose. Thanks for bringing this one to my awareness! Another book that’s going to go on the list.

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