Book Review: Zero K by Don DeLillo

The unrelenting theme of Don DeLillo’s literary corpus has been life after death—in particular, the theories of life people develop in reaction to the knowledge that they’ll one day die. In White Noise, a husband and wife repeatedly argue over who should die first. They conclude it should be the one who can least bear living without the other—except that when forced to choose between grief or demise, each admits they’d undoubtedly pick grief. The Lee Harvey Oswald portrayed in Libra is no doubt an ideologue, slowly fumbling his way through Marx and protesting the United States’ maltreatment of post-Batista Cuba. But he’s also a character deeply conscious of his own potential insignificance. How can he live on after his passing without fame? Simple, he realizes. With infamy. In Underworld , the title of the prologue is “The Triumph of Death.” And when in Mao II DeLillo asks, “What happens to all the unexpended faith?” he’s asking what people will believe in after annihilation replaces divine retribution as what’s expected on the other side.

Zero K, his seventeenth novel, is subject-wise no different from the rest. Once again we’re familiarized with characters constructing their lives around the presence of death. The narrator is Jeff Lockhart—a noncommittal job-drifter in his mid-thirties—who introspectively assigns names to people and things as a way of guarding himself from their unpleasant realities. For example, while riding in a plane that circles above a storm blocking its landing, he focuses his attention on what this precautionary maneuver might be called: “This is what I do to defend myself against some spectacle of nature. Think of a word.” Jeff intermittently dates Emma, a counselor in a year-round school for children with emotional problems and learning disabilities.  She shares custody of her adopted Ukrainian son, Stak, with her ex-husband. (A compelling but inconsequential subplot is Stak’s obsession with his home country’s geopolitical grievances.)

Jeff’s father, Ross Lockhart (his real name we later discover is Nicholas Satterswaite), is “a man shaped by money,” who “made an early reputation by analyzing the profit impact of natural disasters” and who now dabbles in the financial liturgy of “private wealth management, dynasty trusts, [and] emerging markets.” Private jets, island resorts, art collections, home villas, and transportable offices are all at his disposal. He is featured on the cover of Time magazine as a world-significant financier and is interviewed on television (speaking French) for his monetary advice. Ross divorced Jeff’s mother (now-deceased) and is married to an archeologist, Artis Martineau, who suffers tremendously from multiple sclerosis. (MS is most likely a purposeful choice of disease by DeLillo, given that the majority of deaths related to it are by suicide, while many of those who endure the terrible malady undergo paralysis; both of which, in the book’s own peculiar forms, end up plaguing Artis.)

Faced with the prospect of losing his wife, Ross takes Artis to the Convergence, a futuristic underground facility located somewhere in an unmarked desert of central Asia. There she is to be cryogenically stored with others until the staff are able to “colonize their bodies with nanobots…refresh their organs, regenerate their systems…[with] embryonic stem cells…enzymes, proteins, nucleotides,” so they may then “reengineer the aging process…reverse the biochemistry of progressive diseases.” Different methods of bodily preservation are tested. Some clients are stripped of all their internal organs, which are then placed in “organ pods.” Others have their “entire heads with brain intact” removed and stored separately. In return for these temporary discomforts, the facility’s conceptual architects—a pair of twins that Jeff refers to as “the Stenmark brothers” although their actual names are never given—offer “a promise more assured than the ineffable hereafters of the world’s organized religions.” Immortality finally made possible not by the grace of God but through the works of humanity.

Similar to the castles and mansions of horror stories, the physical structure of the Convergence is an imposition in itself. “The empty halls, the color patterns, the office doors that did or did not open into an office. The mazelike moments, time suspended, content blunted, the lack of explanation.” Video screens adorning the walls and ceilings depict “scorched treetops,” “people wearing facemasks,” and “water surging over sea walls.” A shot of families hiding from a mega-storm is followed by an obese man stumbling down his basement steps. Monks are shown setting themselves on fire in protest.

At one point, while visiting the Convergence at his father’s request, Jeff comes across mannequins that are in fact “preserved corpses,” “roughly twenty such figures and a few that were full-bodied, standing, in old gray shredded robes, heads bowed.” Who arranged this scene? The twins? And why? Or is it a hallucination? Jeff’s paranoia tampering with his perceptions?

The most haunting and enigmatic portion of the novel is the abstract suffering Artis experiences after she has been chemically put down and cryogenically frozen. She can’t see since she is all thoughts and no senses. She can’t distinguish herself from her thoughts because she can’t think in concrete terms. And she can’t think in concrete terms because her thoughts no longer occur in temporal succession. Her savior-futurists describe it to potential investors as “floating thought. A passive sort of mental grasp. Ping ping ping. Like a newborn machine.” But DeLillo leaves no doubt that this “newborn machine” is still Artis, or at least a damned specter in possession of Artis’s memories, “Am I who I was.” (DeLillo throughout the book frequently uses periods instead of question marks in situations where the latter would typically be more appropriate.) Jeff asks, what are we without others? DeLillo has a voice from the abyss respond, “Just this and nothing else.”

In a review you should only spoil a book that isn’t worth reading, and Zero K is certainly better than that, so I’ll shy away from giving away much else. Whether you find the book’s pessimism astringent or just tiresome depends a good deal on how much you agree with the hopes and expectations of the facility’s staff, all of which either sound like singularity enthusiasts at a TED Talk or doom-ridden prophesiers speaking to a conference of tech billionaires. The first sooths his audience with rhapsodies like, “Death is a cultural artifact, not a strict determination of what is humanly inevitable,” while the second warns of “bands of death rebels” who will defy the promises of a better, everlasting future and gorge themselves on innocent blood (“voracious bloodbaths with ceremonial aspects”).

An important class element is interwoven throughout. The Stenmark brothers clearly see the facility as a safe haven from, and monument to, humanity’s worst vexations (“Life everlasting belongs to those of breathtaking wealth”), whereas Jeff boils their entire project down to nothing but “the billionaire’s myth of immortality…science awash in irrepressible fantasy.” To them, the world is fast dividing between those who fearfully shy away from death and those who bravely seek to overcome it. To him, both are merely different expressions of the same sentiment. Without committing the intentional fallacy, it would seem DeLillo sides more with his narrator than his unsettling visionaries (“bland in appearance, demonologists in spirit”).

Regardless, in Zero K the Kafkian kernel within the futurist’s utopian shell is left exposed. Those who believe the hereafter isn’t here for much longer will find in the book a sardonic imitation, while those who see the totalitarian impulse beating in the technocrat’s utilitarianism will recognize in it a sincere caricature.