Zero K by Don DeLillo
Simon & Schuster, 2016; 288 pp
Reviewed by Bobby Fischer
In Zero K, Don DeLillo’s 17th novel, he pursues the aesthetics and themes that made his previous book, 2010’s Point Omega, a triumph of difficult narrative. DeLillo uses a metaphorical paintbrush to smear a single color across a white canvas, resulting in a texture that is dense and a focus that is simple. Ross Lockhart, billionaire and father of our narrator, wants to be cryogenically preserved along with his second wife, Artis, who suffers from multiple sclerosis. DeLillo is one of our foremost novelists concerned with distilling big ideas such as death and art, and he uses the scientific conceit of cryogenic preservation as a means to explore these complexities in a concrete way.
The novel moves at a geologic pace. It inches forward, plotless as the narrator wanders the underground preservation facility known as the Convergence. The Convergence is located in a remote area of the former USSR, and these qualities—along with the fact that it is located underground and is primarily functional as a long term preserver of life— almost demands that the novel be read apocalyptically. Filmed disasters play on screens around the Convergence, snuff films that invoke the apocalypse that the true believers are rooting for. Their belief in their own preservation has allowed them to fetishize the death of the world.
As he wanders, our narrator Jeffrey Lockhart, engages in philosophical conversations about the meaning of death, and then reverse engineers those conversations into inquiries about the meaning of life. He’s more than a little skeptical of the prospect of eternity that exists within the frozen bodies that populate The Convergence like modern sculptures. He rightly questions whether or not death is what gives life meaning and is largely dismissed by those that he finds willing to interact with him. There’s more to it: Jeffrey is plagued by unaddressed father issues, there’s an Oedipal interest in his stepmother that is really only passively mentioned but feeds the deep pathos to Jeffrey’s dérive. Jeffrey is alienated, not only in ideology, but also physically from the rest of the world and from his family as they enter the deep freeze.
It’s scary, but it’s also weirdly funny. DeLillo’s humor enters in the driest way possible, and it never really cracks the ice that is necessary for the story to function the way it needs to. A belly laugh would be out of place, but there is a wryness to the dialogue that is deeply satisfying. You’re with Jeffrey because you’re as skeptical as he is about all this stuff, and his sarcasm is pointed in the exact direction you imagine you’d point yours if you were in this situation. It allows Jeffrey, as the narrator, and you, as the reader, to function.
At 79, DeLillo is still moving forward, still obsessing over the tough questions and approaching those questions in interesting and experimental ways. He continues to be one of the most important living American novelists, and Zero K only further advances that idea.