Zero K by Don DeLillo

Don DeLillo’s latest novel is a must read. In chiseled, sculpted prose, DeLillo tells a fundamentally simple story about Jeffrey Lockhart (the narrator) who accompanies his wealthy father Ross and stepmother Artis to a remote outpost in the deserts of the former Soviet Union (perhaps Kazakhstan), where the super wealthy have installed a secretive installation called The Convergence. Here people come to die, or as they would have it, to be placed in suspended animation, cryogenic freeze, preserved for the future, in expectation of one day being revived, their body and mind renewed. The stepmother is terminally ill and the father plans to join her, although he is healthy. The Convergence is described elliptically in all its scifi weirdness through Jeff’s skeptical point of view, and the manner of description reminded me of the radio monologues of Joe Frank , surreal, absurd, and stoked with subtle irony. In the reviews of the book that I have read to date, it seems as if the reviewers have missed the wry humor DeLillo has used to leaven the narrative. If you’ve read White Noise, you know that DeLillo has a knack for this kind of black humor. It is a novel about death, about the human longing to transcend it, and the absurd lengths people will go to exert what they think is control over it.

As I said, the plot line is pretty simple. Ross at the last minute changes his mind, choosing not to join Artis in The Convergence. He returns to New York city with his son. To put it mildly, their relationship is strained, and Jeff is dealing with abandonment issues. Ross left the home when Jeff was a child and has trouble even remembering his ex-wife’s name. He had millions to acquire, which took precedence over such petty human bonds. Jeff doesn’t really know his father, and vice versa. The novel jumps ahead a couple of years. We learn about Jeff’s search for a new job. He rejects the offer of working for one of his Dad’s companies. We learn about Jeff’s romantic partner Emma, and her fraught relationship with her son Stak, a troubled adopted youth from Ukraine.

The plot turns again when Ross, in mourning for Artis and unwilling to keep on living, changes his mind again and returns to the Convergence with Jeff, to go through with the process. Jeff gains access to new levels he hadn’t seen the first time, where all the bodies are being held. I won’t reveal the final plot twist and closing scenes. I’ll only say that they are warranted by what has come before and bring the book to a quietly satisfying, rounded conclusion.

But this is not the sort of book you read for plot. You read it to access what a great artist has to say about themes and ideas we face at this point in history: spiritual death, the longing for transcendence, the apocalyptic imagination, the expectation of end times, our conflicted relationship to technology (will it save or damn us), our difficulty in maintaining human connection, the distractions caused by our attachment to technology, the materiality of language and how it conjures meaning, the urge to define and control and identify. Ultimately, it seems to me that the book asks us to think about choices: life or death, accepting the phenomenological reality of material being, our awareness of being in time versus the more extropian fantasy of living forever as subjects of modern science and technology. Even the artistic imagination that can conceive a place such as the Convergence as concept art gets placed under scrutiny here. Is it enough to turn our longings for immortality into pieces of concept art? Are these longings a symptom of a basically tragic human condition? I think so. The tragedy is not that we die and the body decays, but that we fail to see that this world, I’ll call it the phenomenological present (if we could only preserve it and restore the human contact needed to sustain it) is good enough for us. In DeLillo’s world, human beings are drifting in a haze of amorphous expectation and disarray. We get transported, or willingly transport ourselves, out of the here and now, into the there and thereafter. Zero K is a vision of humans literally giving up this world for a next world with no guarantees. DeLillo cleverly refers to this as “faith-based technology.” How perfect. We really are a pathetic and ridiculous species, when you think about it this way.

It’s a cool, spooky, wry, vaguely unsettling book, that puts me in the mind of cinema auteurs like Antonioni (think Zabriskie Point, L’Aventurra, Red Desert) and Kubrick (2001: A Space Odyssey). I appreciate how the novel is informed by our current moment–burdened by terrorism, distraction, fear, war, post-industrial capitalist expansion, environmental degradation–but is not trapped into petty explanations of those factors. The shit-storms of modern life are the backdrop, playing out on the streets of New York and the TV screens in the hollow hallways of the Convergence, and alluded to in the pep talks given to those about to forego life and make the “transition.” This is the world you long to escape from. Like the questionable balances on the slips of paper emanating from the ATM machine, it’s a world that doesn’t quite add up.

The final scene of the book, which I won’t divulge here, affirms an alternative way of being, a kind of connected, mindful present we could have, if only we could summon the awareness to see it in front of our eyes. Tune out to tune in, as they used to say in the sixties. If we could use our time on earth to appreciate its tactile wonders and to foster the actual relationships that matter: family, friends, lovers, so that by the point at which time reclaims our bodies and souls, we can let it go, let it be, without regrets. This alternative lurks in the novel like a shadow. But instead, we run away, abandon, disconnect, claw our way into dissociative, secondhand, virtual spaces. We get so wrapped up in identity, who we are and what we will become, that we forget where we’re at and why that matters.