Zero K by Don DeLillo. Scribner. $27.00, 288pp.
A blue mannequin staring you full in the face from out behind the title and author printed in the same cyan font. Don DeLillo. Zero K. This image itself seems to say that Don DeLillo’s new novel, his sixteenth, will most likely be his last. It will deal with isolation, with absolutes and nullities, and with what Catholics would call “Last Things”: heaven, hell, death, judgment. Also known as Absolute Zero, Zero K or 0° Kelvin (-273.15 °C) represents the asymptotic point where atoms reach perfect stasis. Where nothing moves. Where time stops.
However, within the novel’s own Zero K, a sparse room inside a mysterious scientific facility in rural Eastern Europe funded and run by a group known as the “Convergence,” such is not the case. Rather, here is where certain wealthy elites choose to forego their twilight years so as to be preserved in cryogenic vats. The novel’s protagonist, Jeffrey Lockhart, with his father Ross, watches as his stepmother Artis is taken to Zero K. A deep skeptic of this latest bid for scientific transcendence, Jeffrey relishes the fact that Zero K in fact brings the body that the Convergence takes and—transforms? preserves? kills?—farther from rather than closer to the coldest of temperatures.
Like many of the main players in DeLillo’s late fiction, Ross Lockhart is a billionaire whose exact occupation and power are left to the hazy cant of the industry: “private wealth management,” “dynasty trusts,” “emerging markets.” Suffice to say he is part of the same world of predatory finance capital as Eric Packer of Cosmopolis (2003) and buys from the same mega-rich abstract art market of Martin Ridnour of Falling Man (2007). After a career of being privy to pretty much anything he wants, Ross decides to fund something of actual worth, a project dedicated to ending human death. DeLillo can feel you rolling your eyes at this moment in the book, as science fiction plots from Abre Los Ojos (remade as Vanilla Sky) to Mr. Nobody to even Futurama have toyed endlessly with the idea. But unsurprisingly, DeLillo’s is a more human and pragmatic instantiation. As Jeffrey learns of the weird combination of hodgepodge and hi-tech that makes up the Convergence—advanced scientific equipment alongside spartan waiting pods for friends of the soon-to-be-frozen, and giant land art comprised of hundreds of mannequins—he questions the validity of the project’s aesthetic and ethical grounds. DeLillo also worries this phantasy—a bunker in remote enough Eastern Europe to house human lives until technology can cheat death—with the looming real world events of the Chelyabinsk meteor of 15 February 2013 and the 2014 Uprising in Konstantinovka. Et in Siberia, DeLillo warns, disaster finds a way.
The book does an excellent job tracing the kind of all but plotless course that readers have come to expect from the Bronx Bard in the 21st century. Zero K follows, even parodies, the same structure seen in most of DeLillo’s post-Underworld (1997) fiction: a narrative in perpetual slowdown interrupted by a space of linguistic experimentation. Zero K is particularly funnier in this domain. As Ross agonizes over the last days of Artis, even to the point of hastily deciding to undergo the process with her, Jeffrey is at once melodramatic in his disagreement with his father’s choice and comically aloof, absorbed in a screen showing apocalyptic scenes or chasing after mysterious Convergence doctors or employees. In a risible bit of foreshadowing, the novel ends its first section with Ross backing out of the treatment, only to have him recommit in full two years later in the next section. We bargain with death, but what the hell do we think, in the end, will happen instead? The novel waits, with Jeffrey, throughout its second section, until Ross is tired of waiting for death and returns to the Convergence. There is effective gallows humor in DeLillo’s encouraging his reader to laugh at the disappointment of going on living.
Nevertheless, Zero K is uninterestingly lackluster in some of the other familiar areas of DeLillo’s late fiction. Where Cosmopolis (2003) and Falling Man (2007) map the enticing mental landscape of terrorist plotters, or where The Body Artist (2001) and Point Omega (2010) powerfully image irenic experiential art through gnomic and meditative language, Zero K’s offering in this domain dissatisfies. The middle section, entitled simply “Artis Martineau,” is meant to be a rendering of the unique psychic experience of being alone inside a cryogenic chamber. Without any external referent, the self, the world, and time become the same Klein bottle semblance of consciousness. Though as interesting as this kind of reality may seem, and as excited as DeLillo fans may be to see his contemplative and innovative literary powers put to work on such an experience, the section lasts a mere six pages, and repeats itself often. The reader, like Jeff, is left unimpressed.
But perhaps even this failing is all to DeLillo’s point. Zero K is masterful at running down readerly expectations to nothing. The novel seems to joke with the oft-aired idea that DeLillo’s late style is flat, dull, and moves too slowly, if at all. I will give you mere heads in vats, it mocks. I will give you motionlessness. Even the novel’s ending seems to render bathetic the much vaunted argument, made by Amy Hungerford in her Postmodern Belief: American Literature and Religion since 1960, that DeLillo’s is a sort of post-Catholicism without any belief content, a hark back to the pre-reformed Latin mass of DeLillo’s Catholic youth where language was unintelligible and thus sacred. But what such critics fail to grasp is that DeLillo wants to slow things down to nothing so as to show that even on the nano-level his portrait of humanity can hold. What Hungerford calls DeLillo’s belief in unbelief or meaning through meaninglessness is in actuality worlds away from the more refined take on meaning through art he is always making. Concepts like zen, kenoma, encratism, and apophasis seem better suited to the constellation of un/belief that DeLillo cultivates. Ideas whose very configuration in language must be careful, fraught, and reflective.
Or finally, DeLillo is perhaps most in line with the post-Catholicism of someone like Martin Heidegger, a philosopher who Jeffrey quotes to his girlfriend’s son from a previous marriage at an art exhibit near the novel’s end: “God is, but he does not exist.” This is as close as Jeffrey dares get to expressing what language can’t express. Like the philosophy of the older Heidegger, DeLillo’s is a heightening of the acts of naming and making art and poetry. If anything can save us, it’s art. And yet art’s being escapes its naming. And in what may quite possibly be his final novelistic effort, Don DeLillo has worked out a contentment with the fact that life’s highest cause for reverence is finally, is merely, just such a static escape.
Michael J. Sanders is a writer. He is currently an instructor and Ph.D. candidate in American Literature at Washington University in St. Louis. He is also Fiction Editor at The Spectacle, a new online literary journal.
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