AnalysisJuly 20, 2016

DeLillo Week: Probably the most brilliant literary conversation ever recorded in New Zealand, as two men of letters discuss Don DeLillo


The world is a fucked-up place with terrorists controlling the narrative (and the images), and distracted, anxious, over-fed America slouching towards a Trump apocalypse. Don DeLillo anticipated the way things have turned out; to mark the publication of his latest book, the Spinoff Review of Books devotes the entire week to the work of maybe the world’s greatest living novelist. Today: the most brilliant literary conversation ever recorded in New Zealand, probably, as DeLillo’s work is examined by Tom Moody, a St Louis native and head of the US fiction bureau at the Spinoff, and Thom Shackleford, who has great hair.

Tom Moody: Let’s just review what [Spinoff Review of Books literary editor] Steve [Braunias] emailed us. He said, “The idea is that Tom and Thom sit together and make themselves comfortable and talk for an hour or so and present a transcript about DeLillo and Zero K, a good intelligent chat, possibly argumentative, whatever really, about the guy, his work and his latest book.”

Thom Shackleford: Well you’ve certainly provided a comfortable environment here; we’re surrounded by a number of first edition DeLillo’s, three of which have been signed by the man himself.

Tom: Yes, signed under mysterious circumstances which I can no longer remember…So l’ll just start, because I’m curious: to me, DeLillo is a quintessentially American writer — and although he does touch on universal themes, how is it that you are such a fan?

Thom: You mean a twentysomething-year-old Kiwi from the other side of the world?

Tom: Right.

Thom: Well, I guess the cultural power of America resonates further than the country itself. The US is, for better or worse, the epicentre of the modern world. So I think understanding the 21st century requires some appreciation of how the American psyche has shaped it. And no one quite gets this psyche like DeLillo, which is his great appeal. Like most people, I grew up on a diet of American TV shows and films and all of my favourite writers have been American, and that’s probably a reflection of how America’s been able to export its mentality.

Tom: I can appreciate that America has had a strong influence on culture and the arts, and I use those words very loosely. But so much of it is popular culture, and DeLillo is not a popular writer. He’s certainly a literary writer; he’s not a best-seller in the usual sense. So did you first read him at university, or do you remember when you first came across him?

Thom: Ah let me see. I think the first book of his I read was White Noise, which was the perfect introduction to him with its short declarative sentences that are so catchy and emphatic. And after I read it I found myself narrating my life with his language. I’d be grooming and thinking to myself, “Am I doing this because on some level I believe self-preservation will ward off death?” He immediately became an icon for me, because the ability to affect the voice inside your head is not something most art can do, especially not populist art.

Tom: So White Noise was your entry point. Do you remember when it was ?

Thom: About two or three years ago.

Tom: So, very recently. Weren’t you at University then?

Thom: I’d just started my English degree, and I’d begun to discover good but little-known American writers, like Denis Johnson and Thom Jones, and I found him around the same period.

Tom: He hadn’t been assigned at all?

Thom: No, and to this day I don’t think many lecturers are aware of him. I did this course last year, it was about The Self or something vague, and nearly everything they taught had been covered in DeLillo’s books, and I pointed this out to them and they just gave me baffled looks and asked who he was. I ended up doing well by regurgitating a lot of his ideas.

white noise

Tom: It’s interesting that White Noise was your first book of his you read, because it was for me, too. It was before you were born; the year of its publication was ’85. And it was one of those things where I was living in New York, I’d been living there for about seven or eight years as an adult in a working life, and I was still resisting reading big important books, because I had finished university myself in the Midwest and had declared that I would no longer read any books over 400 pages nor any books that seemed too serious — which was a ridiculous thing to say — and I held true to that for a few years, but I broke down over time. And, in fact, White Noise was one of those books where I saw a number of people reading it on the subway. I’d been aware of it and read reviews of it, so I thought it might be pretty good, and it became the first book of his I read. And I think you’re right, it is the perfect way to start, because I’m not sure how I’d feel about DeLillo if I’d read something like Ratner’s Star. After reading White Noise I did what I often do with writers I’ve discovered quite late — I went back and read his earlier work. None of them stick in my mind the way White Noise does, and I think it marks the start of his masterpiece period.

Thom: Yeah, that’s when he was really propelled into stardom. Up until then he was writing in relative obscurity. He was known by a few literary wonks around the US, but he certainly wasn’t a household name. And you’re right: it’s this point that marks what’s been called the Himalayan peak of his career, when he wrote Libra, Mao II and Underworld. The great thing about those books, compared to his earlier work, is that although there’s a certain amount of theoretical stuff happening behind the scenes, you can choose to engage with it if you’re that way inclined, but you don’t have to do so in order to enjoy the books — their insights and sentences. They’re very pleasurable reads and you don’t need a background in philosophy or an English degree to experience them.

Tom: Yeah, I think that’s right. So we might be jumping ahead here, but what’s your favourite book of his?

Thom: It’s tough to say. I like Mao II, White Noise and Libra. Underworld is fantastic, but it’s not as immediately fun. It is tough work at times. It’s a 900-page tome, essentially, and all the narrative elements don’t piece together until the last couple of pages. So you have to put in weeks of effort in order to figure out if the novel works or not.

Tom: I completely agree, and that includes all of the works subsequent to Underworld. Underworld is one those books that is really difficult to talk about with other people. A lot of my friends are fans so we get involved in long discussions. And I worked for a brief while in New Orleans in a bookshop, so I got into a lot of DeLillo discussions, often against my will, and it’s interesting to talk about DeLillo because you can pick and choose things. But I’ve found in the last couple of weeks that it’s actually quite difficult to write about DeLillo, because you don’t know how to approach it — for the most part a plot summary will not scratch the surface of what’s it’s really about. On the other hand, if you just talk about the ideas and the philosophical underpinnings of things —

Thom: It gets too abstract, right?

Tom: And pretentious and boring. And also, and I found this when writing my review for Zero K (for the Listener), that I always want to quote extracts from it. The danger is that, in isolation, those phrases almost reinforce the criticisms that have been levelled against him — that his work does sound very ponderous and pretentious and that people don’t really talk like that at all.

Thom: There’s that book of his, I think it’s called The Players. It revolves around dialogue, and when you read its character’s voices they come across like artistic illusions. You think people don’t really sound this way. But he constructed the book by going out into the streets and listening to the way people genuinely spoke to one another. It turns out we don’t actually talk in complete sentences – if you transcribe someone onto the page you’ll usually find they come across a little bit mad, right?

Tom: Much like the transcription of this conversation.

Thom: Yes. And one of the other criticisms levelled against his dialogue is the way his characters tend to say expositional essays to each other. And there is some truth to that, it certainly happens a lot in his latest book. Zero K is full of monks looking for any opportunity to have an existential chit chat. But in the smaller, more casual exchanges, I think there’s a greater conversational realism than what you might have once found, in say, a Henry James novel.

Tom: I think that’s right. And just to follow up on what you were talking about, the structure of The Players and the source of it, it just goes to show that the most realistic sounding dialogue in fiction is not actual dialogue. It is a made thing, it’s made to sound realistic, because actual recordings from the street would sound ridiculous. So in fiction dialogue always has a heightened sense of reality. And I do think I understand people who say they don’t like his books because there is too much philosophy and it’s completely false sounding and the characters seem two-dimensional. But to me, it’s almost like, you know, Picasso made that series of bull lithographs — the first is a quite realistic depiction of a bull, and over the course of the lithographs, he steadily removed details and simplified the lines, until he ended up with a series of lines that was little more than an outline of a bull — and I think he said something along the line that the final lithograph has more of the essence of a bull than the original, more realistic drawing. He was right; look at his final bull and tell me what needs to be added to it to make it look more like a bull. And I think DeLillo’s writing is much like that, it’s the essence of real dialogue.

Thom: It’s so real it’s surreal in a way. I think Picasso is a great analogy, because his art work is made up of all these abstract parts that form a greater whole — making it rich in terms of what you can interpret and take from each piece. That’s the great thing about a DeLillo book: no two people are going to have the exact same interpretations of what’s going on. I don’t even think DeLillo himself knows half the time. If we listen to him speak about his process, he just says he’s driven by the written word. He’s like a conduit through which stories write themselves. I think he means it’s a subconscious undertaking, which probably explains why he’s known for being reluctant when it comes to talking about his work. Apparently he used to have these business cards that said “Don DeLillo – I don’t want to talk about it”, and he’d hand them out to hapless interviewers. He creates beautiful vague works of art, and we just take whatever meanings we want from each novel.

Tom: He was interviewed in Rolling Stone years ago, and he was asked why he doesn’t teach or do anything like that, and he said that he doesn’t think he really has anything to offer. He could tell writing students how he approaches things, but he doesn’t think it’s of any use — he has no actual advice to offer in that way.

Thom: His whole methodology is quite bizarre, right? He see’s himself as more of a sculptor than a writer. He works with this big antiquated typewriter, and he focuses on the sound each letter makes as he hits it onto the page, and the way the letters look next to one another — focusing on the perfect rhythm of syllables; which is not how you’re taught to do things in a creative writing class. Paula [Morris, a creative writing tutor and Tom Moody’s wife] would have some very bewildered students on her hands if she encouraged this approach.

Tom: Yeah, and it sounds a little preposterous to hear him describe things that way, but there is no doubt there is a kind of rhythm to his writing that makes it seductive. Anyone who is willing to give themselves over to it will find it moves in a very particular way. And I also think, I could just be imagining this completely, to me it’s a very American mode. He does use American vernacular — and not because he says “pardner” and “y’all” or anything like that — he uses language that to a kid who grew up in the US and lived in New York for a long time, sounds absolutely authentic. And one of the things that struck me about White Noise was his quoting of advertising slogans.

Thom: What is it – Toyota Celica. The brand name the main character’s daughter says to herself in her sleep. Toyota Celica.

Tom: It’s a nod to contemporary American culture or Zeitgeist or whatever.

Thom: Didn’t he get his introduction to writing through advertising? He worked for Ogilvy & Mather, and that may have given him the ability to describe the world through the language of marketing. Ad-speak is almost the dialect of today: it’s very important for things to be catchy now, slogans and tweets are important forms of communication, and we’re exposed to so many adverts and discrete bits of info each day that a message really does have to chime in your head in order to resonate and be remembered. Perhaps that’s the power of his writing: he’s able to use the language of marketing to describe a culture so dominated by that very force.

Tom: The downside of that, critics would say, is that some of these extended soliloquys sound like a bunch of aphorisms strung together, a bunch of headlines with subheads all coming along, and then there’s the body text of the advert itself.

Thom: It’s an interesting critique that’s levelled against him, because I think modern life can be so fragmented and complex and hard to make sense of that a straightforward “realist novel” approach to writing is no longer relevant, at least when it comes to condensing a culture or reflecting its values in a true way.

Tom: It might tell us little more than what we already don’t know.

Thom: Exactly. The only way to transfigure it is to find new and interesting ways of shattering reality and displaying the product. That’s what big books like Underworld do so successfully, it’s in the same league as Gravity’s Rainbow, Infinite Jest and JR by Gaddis: books that are so ambitious and take such a different approach to authorship that they’re able to say something valid and new about contemporary life — something I don’t think a straightforward realist novel can do anymore.

mao 2

Tom: I don’t think they need to be big, ponderous books necessarily, because I think DeLillo at his best is able to achieve it with much less. You take Mao II, Libra and White Noise and together they maybe equal Underworld in length. But each of them have quite a bit to say. You mentioned some other writers, writers he’s often compared to like Pynchon and Gaddis. How do you feel about those guys?

Thom:  They’re rather abstruse. I’ve read those books and they’re slog fests, they take a lot of mental exertion to get through and they’re ultimately rewarding but not in the same way DeLillo is. I mean you basically need to buy a specialist encyclopaedia dedicated to the esoteric references in Gravity’s Rainbow just to make sense of half of it. It’s almost like a badge of honour to get through. DeLillo’s work is different in that it’s able to seduce the reader into doing the work required to understand it. It’s all well and good to create something that’s incredibly oracular and may possibly have all these truths hidden within it — like say Finnegan’s Wake or something — but in the 21st century you’ve got so many things competing for your attention and you’re being so assailed by instantly pleasurable forms of entertainment that you’ve really got to find a way of enticing your reader into labouring through your magnum opus. You need to assure them their efforts are going to be redeemed.

Tom: Yeah, I almost completely agree with you. I do like DeLillo; he’s one of my heroes, and I can’t stand Pynchon or Gaddis. With them it is a slog, in a way that Underworld can be at points. But there’s nothing in Underworld like getting through a Pynchon novel. I’m willing to work very hard because the writer has presumably worked very hard themselves, and I agree it’s the readers contract to work with the author and meet them half way. But if I have the sense that I’m working harder than the writer did, and if I don’t have a fantastic feeling at the end or some enlightenment, I’m really going to be upset about it. I did find Underworld long and hard to get through, but it did pull together. I can envision, if I have enough years in my life, reading it again. Those other guys, I don’t really care if I read anything by them again. They didn’t grab me in the same way at all.

Thom: And I think a lot of those big bastards are actually vainly designed to be read twice, too. You can’t truly appreciate what’s going on the first time around. It takes a second reading to work out all the mechanisms at play. At the end of Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann, he says in his afterword something along the lines of “Well geez thanks guys for getting through this, now go back and do it all again.” But there’s no way you want to do that at the end of Gravity’s Rainbow, by then you’d rather —

Tom: Lie down in a dark room.

Thom: Or watch Keeping Up With the Kardashians, just do anything else that’s so mindless it’s soothing. Whereas Underworld might be able to lure you back.

Tom: This might seem ridiculous — and it may seem like I’m offering DeLillo advice, which I wouldn’t presume to do — but I don’t think he did himself a favour by opening Underworld with 80 pages or so of absolutely incredible and compelling and unbelievably good writing. It’s just fantastic. And I think it sets up, for the reader, an unrealistic expectation. I don’t think any writer could maintain that for 800 pages. Even if it was possible, I don’t think it would be desirable, because you don’t want to be going at that pace for that length of time. But I think, after that nice walk in the foothills, people struggled through the long, hard ascent that followed.

Thom: For lack of a better word, the novel is bookended with a brilliant start and an illuminating end where it all magically comes together. What’s in the middle is this great unknown, and you kind of have to put your faith in DeLillo and trust that he’s not going to waste your time.

Tom: It’s true. I want to return to Libra, one of our mutual favourites. For me, everything in DeLillo’s world came together in that one, because there’s the language, several incredible stories that merge together, and some of the writing is absolutely hypnotic: when Oswald’s mother laments towards the end, going on and on, it’s just fantastic writing. I think it resonated for me because I was very familiar with the actual historical elements of it. Kennedy’s funeral fell on my 10th birthday, so it meant a lot to me as an American. So I’d like to go back to the whole question of how a younger person who lives in New Zealand appreciates it.

Thom: Tricky question… DeLillo once said that JFK’s assassination represented a huge change in American consciousness. It was after the sort of mysterious death of the president that the age of conspiracies and 60’s paranoia began. From then onwards, people started trusting their government less, they felt like it was keeping things from them. There were so many shady, unbelievable things happening at that time — Marilyn Monroe sleeping with both Kennedy brothers, Frank Sinatra and the head of the Chicago Mob; the fact that the most powerful man in the world could get shot in front of the press and masses of people and no one could agree on how many times he was shot or how many shooters there were; and then there was the fishy autopsy report that raised more questions then it answered, the whole “magic bullet” thing, and the government’s refusal to release the Zapruder footage — there just seemed to be so many withheld truths that rumour and speculation became rife. And this all coincided with a change in technology, which allowed news to become entertainment. Jack Ruby was shot on camera, and the footage played out throughout American households again and again, mesmerizingly. I don’t think people had really been able to see the story before, and there’d never been a story quite like this one. It was the beginning of endless image repetition, where an event captured on film could assume a life of its own, becoming distinct from an actual occurrence and those who experienced it. And a lot of DeLillo’s work focuses on how these two things, how fear and technology, especially image-based technology, have created powerful new narratives. I guess because America is the world’s media nucleus the effect of this, the way significant events are reported and the way a lot of us inherently assume were not being given all the facts, has been far reaching.

Tom: It’s an interesting thing, because the assassination was clearly a worldwide story. I’ve seen lots of images and photographs of people around the world when the news of Kennedy’s assassination was announced. It clearly struck a nerve in a lot of places. But, really, no place was like the US when it happened. It was certainly a great cataclysm. And I don’t know if I completely agree with you that it’s what launched the world of conspiracies, or mistrust in government. But I do think it shook the US out of a slight age of innocence and optimism. Because post WWII the US did emerge as the world’s major power, and it was certainly poised in a way that the UK was not — the UK was physically and financially damaged, whereas the US came out well both ways. So it was poised for this huge ascent. And throughout the 50s you could feel this great optimism and the whole thing with the space race, where whatever we set our minds to do, we could do. And Kennedy was a great embodiment of that. And to have been killed in such bizarre circumstances, where things aren’t perfectly clear cut –

Thom: Like you woke up from the American Dream.

Tom: Yes. You know some people say the 60s began with the Kennedy inauguration and ended a few years later in 68 when his brother and Martin Luther King were killed. In that way the 60s lasted about eight years. But the whole time there was the youth revolution going on, other movements were happening.

Thom: And there certainly was a lot of paranoia and conspiracy at that time, was there not? I mean that’s certainly what all of Pynchon’s work is all about.

Tom: Sure.

Thom: The thing about conspiracies is they can be quite comforting. People like to believe in them because they represent a faith in a higher order: there’s a group of elite people out there controlling things. And while they may be plotting to do nefarious stuff, at least society is being governed by organised forces; whereas it can be quite discomforting to think we are at the whim of random, chaotic occurrences. To see Oswald as this disenfranchised loner who couldn’t read and was incapable of fitting in, who just decided to kill the most powerful man on earth. It’s far easier to believe in grand, malevolent plots instead of anarchy.

Tom: Or even an unwitting pawn in a grander scheme.

Thom: Exactly.

zero k


Tom: So, Steve said he wanted us to talk for an hour or so. It’s half an hour. Should we talk about his other titles, or just delve straight into Zero K?

Thom: We could keep talking about the paranoia of his novels, could be a good segue, right? He was famously called by the New York Times “the chief shaman of the American school of paranoid fiction,” usurping Pynchon for the title. Do you think his books are all that paranoid?

Tom: I think his books are about a lot of things, but that is one aspect he likes to circle around. Sort of related to what you’ve just posed is the idea that no other American writer has been so prescient, or able to describe the current day quite the way he has. There is a kind of mass paranoia going on, and he has captured that. It’s sort of an odd thing, in Mao II there are terrorists and a kidnapping. Now terrorism had existed before then and what he describes isn’t exactly the same form as what has occurred, but there is something to his predictive ability. And you can drive yourself crazy trying to connect the dots thinking that he mentioned this, and this one character did that it another book, and then that thing actually happened later.

Thom: True. In my review I called him a literary Nostradamus. And his clairvoyance is really on show in Mao II when he says that the ability of the novelist to influence culture consciousness will wane with the rise of visual technology. He claims these new mediums are better exploited by terrorists than authors, and he is kind of right. When acts of terror are planned now, plotters will try and maximise the amount of news coverage their attacks receive because they know that the more times their acts are shown, the more fear we will feel — increasing the hold their agendas have over us. I recently questioned a trip to Europe after the Paris, Brussels attacks even though my smoking and poor driving habits are immeasurably more likely to take me out. But these two threats get less sensationalist exposure, so they’re less compelling. It’s sad, but compared to the impacts such events can have, I’d have to agree that authors are no longer able to grip society; and novelists are definitely no longer the mainstream force that shapes the contours of a culture. For DeLillo to perceive this back then, as you said, took great prescience.

Tom: Well, he gave it meaning. It’s easy to predict that terrorism will occur somewhere, but that terrorists would understand the power of technology and how to use media , is something else.

Thom: Which is exactly what you see with ISIL. They’re able to exploit multimedia in frightening new ways. Their whole recruitment campaign is based on social media, and they’re been very successful at it.

Tom: So let’s move on to non-favourite DeLillo. I had great hopes for Falling Man.

TS: I haven’t read Falling Man yet. Apparently it is his worst one, according to Goodreads, at least.

Tom: Oh really? Paula has very strong opinions about Goodreads. She would say a low ranking on Goodreads puts it on the top. But in this case Goodreads, that anonymous collection of people who may or may not have read the book, is probably correct. Falling Man is a 9/11 novel and the title, of course, comes from the famous image of the man in mid-air. It was published in 2007, quite a few years after the event, and I had put a lot of hope into it. Bruce Springsteen had done some things that were quite meaningful — not redemptive but helpful, and I was hoping DeLillo would do something similar. But to me he just didn’t do it at all.

Thom: Did you read the thing he wrote for — I think it was the New Yorker — in the wake of 9/11? It was about experiencing New York at that time, and it’s a beautiful piece of writing. He so poignantly captures what it is like to be alive in such a devastated place. So I guess you would’ve expected him to turn this tragic event into another great exhortation, something that could give a small piece of closure. But clearly he fell short.

Tom: For me it just didn’t work, and the good readers at Goodreads agree. In the case of Libra, he was writing about the Kennedy assassination a good 20 years afterwards. So maybe, with Falling Man, just not enough time had passed.

Thom: Yeah, you need a significant amount of time to elapse to really gain perspective. It’s hard to be objective and know all the consequences when you’re in the throes of something.

Tom: And also, it’s interesting when we were talking about — well no one else may find this interesting except for you and me at this point — but when we were talking about DeLillo’s ability to anticipate things. Libra, great achievement that it is, does look back. It’s an after the fact interpretation of events, in the same way that Falling Man is, it was a return to an historical moment, and yet he fell flat with Falling Man.

Thom: Well, I guess Libra is based heavily on the Warren Commission reports; 26 volumes worth of research went into JFK’s death that gave him a lot of material to draw from. I know a lot of the dialogue in Libra comes directly from the reports, for example DeLillo worked very hard to replicate the unique way Oswald’s mother spoke in her recorded interviews. He often referred to the Warren Commission reports as perhaps the greatest American novel ever written, because of its immense scale and its Joycean array of eclectic regional dialects. It includes details as bizarre and seemingly irrelevant as Jack Ruby’s mother’s dental records. So it could well be that he didn’t have the same resources to work with when it came to Falling Man.

Tom: Yeah, the record’s not quite that complete, but there was a huge congressional report produced after 9/11.

Thom: Oh really? Was it declassified?

Tom: Most of it, I think, although there are parts that weren’t declassified. There was a big release of much of the report — the part of it that focused on the perpetrators. The parts that remain classified are those that generate the most interest and suspicion now; for example, the complicity of high- or mid-level Saudi authorities. Anyway, this is probably for another conversation. So, Zero K. You’ve mentioned a few times the whole idea of videos playing and the repetition of disastrous scenes and so on. In the Convergence, there are these screens that pop down from the ceiling and play apocalyptic events and the accumulative affect of this becomes quite devastating towards the end. What do you think he’s playing at there?

Thom: I think it’s the double-edged nature of technology. On the one hand it promises a certain salvation, it is here to serve us and enhance our lives, and in the world of Zero K it may even be able to grant us immortality. But on the other hand, technology has the capacity to bring about our downfall. Have you heard of the Fermi paradox? Basically a bunch of astronomers and mathematicians got together and did some calculations and came to the conclusion that statistically there has so be some other form of intelligent life out there in the cosmos. So the question is: why haven’t we had contact with them yet? And one possible explanation, called The Great Filter, says advanced civilisations will eventually be confronted with a tipping point when the technology they’ve developed has the ability to destroy them and everything they’ve achieved, like with nuclear bombs or singularity-terminator style robots and what not. The only way for a global population to overcome the Armageddon their uncontrollable technology may unleash is to band together and form a unified planetary order. The theory speculates, though, that most societies are incapable of doing this — they can’t control the powerful tools they wield against themselves. And I think a similar idea is being explored by Zero K, the great promise of technology and all the dangers lurking behind it. Also, because technology in this book is treated with such religious like reverence, you can see it as being similar to an Old Testament God, equally capable of brining eternal paradise to its people or smiting them.

Tom: It’s one of the great recurring images in the book, I think. But I’m not sure what to make of it. Because the whole idea of the Convergence is to find, if not everlasting life, then at least extended life, and yet people are exposed to these horrible scenes. Is the idea, do you think, that when you’re resurrected all of this violence and terror will be over, or will we be re-entering a different age?

Thom: It’s interesting, in researching for my review I found out about this research centre being set up by a Russian billionaire that sounds eerily like the Convergence lab in Zero K. The whole purpose of both centres is to enable rich oligarchs to live forever by uploading their consciousness into machines. And the founder of the real place has made statements like: “we live in a war torn time and are being confronted by environmental disasters”,  basically saying we’re residing in the last days of man. He’s actively trying to bring benefactors together to fund this project to let the rich escape humanity as it tears itself apart; the very idea at the heart of the novel.

Tom: You know when Ross Lockhart decides to go into the Zero K programme, he says initially, before he changes his mind, that he couldn’t stand to live without his wife. But by choosing this early path it doesn’t change anything, because when they’re resurrected they’ll be together. So it doesn’t matter if nature takes its course and he has this done to him as she has. Unless he thinks that they’ll be able to be together during their cryogenic suspension. You see what I mean?

Thom: I don’t know. There are a few lines that might help to explain it. The first line is “everybody wants to own the end of the world” and then there’s another line in there, “death is a hard habit to break.” I think a lot of themes in this book revolve around man attempting to use technology to exert their influence over death. Powerful men are able to impose their will upon the world in a fantastic ways, yet death is still this inexorable force whose will they can not resist. I guess in Zero K man is searching for a way to control death in some way, embrace it on his own terms. The great unknown becomes a manageable thing. But of course Ross has a change of heart and realises he cannot go through with it ‘the habits of death is hard to break’ it’s still something to be feared. No one wants to die unless less they have no choice.

Tom: Not to dwell on it too much, because there may not too much it, but surely Artis, his wife, decided to take charge in way. She’s going to die anyway, but she allows herself to die in a particular way. So I just don’t understand Ross’s motivation for entering into it. What I mean, Artis in her own way is still owning her death in a way.

Thom: Perhaps it’s because, I don’t know, Ross is akin to a lot of other characters that appear in DeLillo books. He’s a man who controls vast elaborate empires from the security of a small room, the impact of Ross ripples across the world around him. And to someone with that kind of bloated ego, death just becomes one more biological thing that can be treated systematically – like balding. Then when he fails to go through with it, in the second half of the novel, he becomes a diminutive man, a hollowed out ghost, perhaps because he failed to live up to his egos vision.

Tom: And what do you make of Jeff?

Thom: He’s basically an ironist which is very important in a DeLillo novel. He’s able to hear these mystics and experience the convergence for himself and yet can never quite take the leap of faith and believe in its message and ethos. He’s suspicious of it, in a way.

Tom: And he never gets over that suspicion.

Thom: Exactly. It’s Jeff’s purpose to doubt.

Tom: And how does that fit in with his manner, that was present from his earliest age, of naming things, even assigning names to things just as a way to order them. Is it a matter of control? He names things in order to get a handle of them.

Thom: Yeah, that’s it. It’s language as a form of control, as another way for man to impose himself on the world. There’s that one point when Jeff’s trying to pinpoint the location of the Convergence and he’s informed it’s near these hard to pronounce Kyrgyzstan cities and told that once he’s become comfortable with these names he’ll feel less displaced. Of course, with DeLillo, there are all sorts of language stuff at play here. Right at the end of the novel there’s that small child who witnesses the phenomenal event where the sun reaches a certain angle and New York is set ablaze.

Tom: It’s called Manhattenhenge.

Thom: Right, and then the child starts speaking in a primordial language that has no coherence and resembles no form of intelligible speaking. So what do you make of that? This return to simplified language of grunts and indecipherables.

Tom: DeLillo’s talked about that, actually, in his Rolling Stone interview. Anthony DeCurtis, the interviewer, asks “What about the fascination with children in your books?” To which DeLillo says, “Well, I think we feel, perhaps superstitiously, that children have a direct route to, have direct contact to the kind of natural truth that eludes us as adults. In The Names the father is transported by what he sees as a kind of deeper truth underlying the language his son uses in writing his stories. He sees misspellings and misused words as reflecting a kind of reality that he as an adult couldn’t possibly grasp. And I think he relates this to the practice of speaking in tongues, which itself is what we might call an alternative reality. It’s a fabricated language which seems to have a certain pattern to it. It isn’t just gibberish. It isn’t language, but it isn’t gibberish either. And I think is the way Acton felt about his own son’s writing. And I think is the way we feel about children in general. There is something they know but can’t tell us. Or there is something they remember which we’ve forgotten. Glossolalia, or speaking in tongues, you know, could be viewed as a high form of infantile babbling. It’s babbling which seems to mean something, and this is intriguing.” So he’s talking about something that he touched on in The Names that he now revisits in his most recent book. I think that last scene — and it is literally the last scene in the book, and occupies the last page and a half of the book or so — I thought it was fantastic. This is not a particularly difficult book to get through, and it’s a fairly short book, but for me that last scene really buttoned it all up. It was almost like the takeaway message from the book, because I found it quite optimistic and quite hopeful. And I think Jeff decides that — I don’t know if he’s going to stop naming things or stop trying to control things — the message is: we need to live life.

Thom: Exactly. Language is basically the primary system explored by DeLillo’s work, and like all complex systems it can create a level of detachment between people and objective reality. One of my favourite scenes in the book is the interlude when Artis has entered her death pod, and she finds her mind’s still active but devoid of all physical sensations, and she’s essentially stuck in this solipsistic nightmare. It’s what life would be like if you lived in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, all Artis has are her empty words which are now disconnected from the real world because she can’t feel a thing. Her mind and her body have been truly separated. And in the last few pages you have this purely lived-in moment, where consciousness and the elaborate system which occupy the mind are no longer precluding an appreciation of what it’s like to be alive. I think for most of us, we’re at our happiest when we’re living in the moment. I know that’s a horrid cliché, but no one’s ever exuberantly happy if they have spent extended periods alone with nothing else to occupy them but their own self-conscious thoughts, you know? Solitary conferment often drives inmates mad. We’re at our happiest when the mind and body are at peace with one another.

Tom: There needs to be some opportunity to interact with the outside world or possibly with another person. I think that that section with Artis, which is a bit of amazing writing, undermines Ross’s thoughts, because I think the suggestion is that, in fact in, this state, you are actually alone. And it’s possible once you are reanimated or whatever the proper term is, you still may not have contact with others in the way you had, because you will have had things done to your brain, re-programming, and so on.

Thom: Exactly. You’d lose a huge part of your humanity. I think that’s what the book is really about.

Tom: I think that’s right. I probably should have had this conversation before I wrote my review for The Listener! Well it looks as if we’ve talked for an hour, which is plenty. Should we talk about anything else, you think?

Thom: We could get into the philosophical stuff, Lacan’s mirror theory, and I think the ideas of Wittgenstein and Heidegger are important in this book too, but I don’t think that stuff would be particularly interesting to bang on about.

Tom: No.

The Spinoff Review of Books is brought to you by Unity Books.

The Spinoff Review of Books is proudly brought to you by Unity Books, recently named 2020 International Book Store of the Year, London Book Fair, and Creative New Zealand. Visit Unity Books Wellington or Unity Books Auckland online stores today. 

Mad Chapman, Editor
The Spinoff has covered the news that matters in 2021, most recently the delta outbreak. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

Get The Spinoff
in your inbox