AnalysisJuly 21, 2016

DeLillo Week: The world we may soon wake up to, as warned in Don DeLillo’s latest novel


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: Thom Shackleford appraises the master’s new novel, Zero K.

For over 50 years, Don DeLillo has dedicated himself to the task of transcribing the seedier side of contemporary life. Throughout a career spanning 17 novels, three plays and one short story collection, he’s stalked the shadows of America’s consciousness by exploring the topics which exist in the fringes of its collective mind: JFK’s assassination; the threat of nuclear annihilation; the countercultural forces of investment banking, pornography, and rock’n’roll – to name a few.

And while many other authors have attempted to do the same, rising and falling from favour over the years like false prophets, DeLillo has been able to produce consistent works of complex beauty by devoting himself to his craft with monk-like fastidiousness. When David Foster Wallace besought him for advice, asking how one finds the resolve to overcome the internal struggles of artistic creation, like a true Zen master DeLillo counselled that “at this point discipline is inseparable from what I do. It’s not even definable as discipline. It has no name. I never think about it.”

He famously shuns the literati scene; when accepting the National Book Award for White Noise he merely said, “I’m sorry I could not be here tonight”, and returned to his seat. He prefers, instead, to live simply, in reverence of language and its humble powers. Every day he sits alone in a room, cloistered from distraction, searching for ways to stretch the scope and meaning of words so that they can encompass the enormity of the modern world. And in his latest book, Zero K, he manages to not only describe the contours of our current mental and physical landscape, but the one we may soon wake up to.

zero k

The novel begins when Jeffery Lockhart, the leading man, arrives at a cryptic compound called The Convergence, a subterranean complex located in an obscure Central Asian desert in a former soviet state. DeLillo once said “fiction without a sense of real place is automatically a fiction of estrangement,” and desolate isolation is exactly what The Convergence gives us.

As a facility, it’s somewhere between a research-lab run by Gnostic priests and an avant-garde art installation designed by the most pretentious art student you’ve ever met, “a model of shape and form, a wilderness vision, all lines and angles and jutted wings, set securely nowhere”. Whatever it is, it’s under the patronage of Jeffery’s father, Ross, a character who embodies all the classic DeLillo troupes: a self-made man, who speaks in pithy declarative sentences and likes to impose his ego upon the world through the elaborate systems he controls from remote rooms. (Anyone familiar with DeLillo’s work will know the guy is obsessed with the idea of men, in rooms, planning momentous things).

Ross is temporarily residing in The Convergence, and investing his considerable fortune into it, because he believes in its purpose and vision: it is a concerted effort to thwart the pesky force which has been the bane of all powerful men throughout history. Death. The great equalizer. The inexorable fate awaiting serfs and kings, alike.

“All plots tend to move deathward. This is the nature of plots,” said Jack Gladney in White Noise, and indeed all of DeLillo’s novels have revolved around the existential disintegration of their main characters. In End Zone, Gary Hawkins goes on a hungry strike for no particular reason, an act of ontological fasting; in Running Dog, Selvy becomes the instrument of his own destruction by drawing his assassins towards the training centre that formed his apperceptions. But in Zero K, death is no longer glanced at obliquely, through the light it casts on DeLillo’s subjects. It’s the subject –the central concern that an ascetic, like DeLillo, spends his whole life preparing for. At The Convergence, Ross and a group of likeminded plutocrats are actively funding research into cryogenic suspension in a grand attempt to outwit death.

And while typically DeLillo’s protagonists are pared down to the barest essentials of their being before they meet their end – the more of Eric Parker’s personal fortune he gleefully squanders in Cosmopolis, the more liberated he feels before his murder/suicide– here, in the crypt of estrangement, the process is reversed and the deconstruction of the self is taken to a new extremis. Bodies are divested of their hair and organs, becoming empty shells – suits of uninhabited skin – that are stored in space-age pods until they’re ready to be resurrected and reborn into the world of tomorrow.

It was the terminal illness of Ross’s wife, Artis, which drew him to this endeavour, and Jeffery has been summoned to the centre in order to bid farewell to his step-mother before her refrigeration. He soon discovers, however, that Ross has been so seduced by the place’s ethos that he’s signed up to become a “herald” in the Zero K unit, a special programme where otherwise healthy individuals enter the cryogenic abyss before their time is up. The consequences of this decision are explored in-depth by the pious custodians Jeffery encounters at The Convergence who, like most of the ensemble, are prone to lengthy discussions on matters like mortality, mysticism and eschatology.

Central to all of this, is the belief in what is referred to as “faith-based technologies”. The notion that we no longer have to rely on Gods or messiahs for salvation and eternal redemption; in the 21st century, we are our own redeemers and saviours. Our technological miracles shall enable us to lay claim to our futures by liberating us from the fetters of ephemeral flesh. And thus in the hallowed vaults of The Convergence we find what man has long searched for in doric columned temples with friezes and in little white churches on Sundays: the promise of infinite life.

As this is a DeLillo book, the sound and feel of the language are just as important as the themes and philosophies being explored. His writing method is akin to the way an expressionist painter searches for form, or the way a jazz musician seeks out new rhythms. He types each paragraph on its own sheet of paper using an antiquated typewriter, focusing on the way the letters looks beside each other and the internal lilt established by every sentence – in a pursuit to establish the perfect balance of syllables in his reader’s minds.

The result is a honed style of prose which rings through your ears like a jingle or marketing catechism. “Half the world is redoing its kitchens, the other half is starving. . . I wanted a cigarette. I’d stopped smoking twice and wanted to start and stop again. I envisioned it as a life long cycle.” The humour of such lines serves to lighten the darkness of the backdrops Zero K creates. In the first section of the novel, though, the texture of language used is quite different from the laconic grace of his other work. It is austere and abstract, reflecting the nature of the complex Jeffery spends his time exploring, with it’s bare rooms – “scant roomscape[s]” – and endless halls lined with pastel doors that seemingly open on to nowhere. The result is an uncomfortable, sterile environment, which feels a bit like being left alone in MRI room, waiting for the imposing machinery to start spinning. Like Jeffery, the reader wonders listlessly around this postmodern labyrinth trying to decide what to make of it; waiting for the story to being or for something to occur.

It’s this part of the novel that has received the most critical flak. One reviewer states, “For all his prophetic genius [DeLillo’s] a chronicler of reality, not a high-concept fantasist, and his lavish verbal resources seem to me wasted on trying to imbue this glorified meat-safe [The Convergence] with consequentiality.”

But such sentiments fail to recognise the ingenious structure of this book, and the higher purpose the “meat-safe” serves. While admittedly these chapters can test a reader’s patience thresholds, after producing cultural time-capsules like Underworld and Libra DeLillo should have earned some credit with his audience. And if readers can only keep the faith, they will find their efforts redeemed and rewarded many times over.

For one thing, to treat The Convergence as unrealistic, inconsequential sci-fi – as some critics have done – is to deny DeLillo’s prophetic prowess. The guy has already proven himself to be a sort of a literary Nostradamus. In Mao II he predicted that the ability of the novelist to exert an influence over social consciousness will wane in a world dominated by endlessly reproducible imagery; the privileged position of the author becoming usurped, he contends, by the role of the terrorist who is better able to use zeitgeist mediums to create frightening new narratives and impose their visions upon the world. In White Noise, he foresaw the rise of environmental disasters begotten by industrialisation and man’s impotence in the wake of such crises.

His prescience seems to come from an innate ability to see the relational undercurrents beneath the surface of reality. And so it should come as no surprise that in his latest book he’s once again calling to our attention to a spectacle which may one day dictate the shape and fate of our cultures, and the selves we construct within them.

Novelist Don DeLillo (Photo by Rob Kim/Getty Images for Norman Mailer Center and Writers Colony)
Novelist Don DeLillo (Photo by Rob Kim/Getty Images for Norman Mailer Center and Writers Colony)

If you happen to be a fabulously wealthy individual who is opposed the concept of death, and you’re generally unhappy about having to dispel your spirit into the ether, you can now make a down payment on your own posterity through a shadowy project called the 2045 initiative.  Founded by Dmitry Itskov, a 35 year old Russian billionaire who looks halfway between a cyborg and the Milky Bar Kid, this mission enables investors to fund research into neuroscience and human consciousness, with the ultimate aim of allowing oligarchs to upload their minds into everlasting robots.   Itskov calls this is “the next evolutionary step for humanity,” and apparently he’s even had discussions about his vision with the Dalai Lama, who’s well interested in the idea. Eerily enough, he is currently looking for Ross-like benefactors to help establish an international research centre somewhere in Russia.

While the link between cybernetics and eastern spirituality may seem rather incongruous to most people, DeLillo has been saying since the 80’s that “the purest of sciences brings out a religious feeling in people.” And what Zero K really represents is a maturation of this theory, illustrating the consequences of the new age belief in technological deliverance. By replacing sandal wearing oracles in linen with bespectacled wonks in lab coats, we may be able to deceive ourselves into thinking we’re at the precipice of evolving beyond human pain, but in reality such faith forgets why we choose to believe in the old gods in the first place: because to be human is to be in a state of constant conflict which we seek to escape from. The promise of eternity is the promise of a hereafter – something better than the human experience. And artificially extended life can not transcend this; it can only enhance and prolong our sorrow.

The first and second halves of the novel are connected by an interlude, a soliloquy, told from the disembodied perspective of Artis, who now exists in a liminal state of abeyance. Her mind has been separated from her body in the most Cartesian way possible. So while her soma resides in its creepy pod, her mind continues to whir in an inaudible silence where she is deprived of all sensory stimuli. Without physical sensations her existence has become intangible and all she can be in this state are the words of her thoughts; words emptied of meaning because they’re untethered to the worldly phenomenon’s that once made them real. She is essentially trapped in the solipsistic hell of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus: lost in an infinite conversation with herself.

It’s in novel’s second half that DeLillo’s full vision is revealed, illustrated through his favourite hometown setting of New York. It’s been two year’s since Artis entered her pod, and we find Jeffery sharing a cab with his new love interest, Emma, and her child Stak, an adopted Ukrainian orphan. While the language and tapestry of the first half is sparse, remote even, the scene described here is dense, pulsing with humid amounts of life and information. New York is presented as a heaving medieval city, overpopulated with failed forgotten souls ranting on the streets and mysterious women silently supplicating to higher orders.

The precocious Stak engages the Afghani taxi driver in conversation, and the taxi driver is nonplussed by the fact this Western child speaks Pashtu because “this was New York. Every living breathing genotype entered his can at some point, day or not. And if this was an inflated notion, that was New York as well.”

It’s full-bodied writing, capturing the sights, sounds and smells of living – all the small ambient sensations that colour our lives and let us know we’re alive: “fresh towels on the racks, nice new bar of soap, clean sheets on the bed.”

The appreciation we have for this section comes form the novel’s elegant design. The structure is the book and the book is the structure; the same can be said of the prose. By beginning with The Convergence, with cold abstract death, we feel as if we’ve survived a drawn out chess game with oblivion –giving us a lust for life, a longing for even the smallest of moments which comprise our days and compose our identities.

As Jeffery says to Emma: “Those blanked-out eternities at the airport. Getting there, waiting there, standing shoeless in long lines. Think about it. We take off our shoes and remove our metal objects and then enter a stall and raise our arms and get body-scanned and sprayed with radiation and reduced to nakedness on a screen somewhere and then how totally helpless we are all over again as we wait on the tarmac, belted in, our plane eighteenth in line, and it’s all ordinary, it’s routine, we make ourselves forget it. That’s the thing.” She said, “What thing?” “What thing. Everything. It’s the things we forget about that tell us who we are.”

The main thrust of Zero K, the message the 80-year-old prophet is seems to be conveying, is that life is not something which needs to be overcome. The convergence between man and machine would, in reality, rob us of everything that makes being human worthwhile – the embodied company of others, the textured moments of physical sensation, the warm lived-in stimulations of existence – by keeping us in a desolate world with only our self-conscious egos for comfort. Life is not supposed to be extended beyond its own terms, and death “is a tough habit to break.”

What is able to outlive us, and has the potential to transcend and consul us, is art. And there is certainly a case to be made that writing accomplished novels, such as this one, is the more humane way to ensure some part of the mind lives on forever – Non Omnis Moriar. A way to ensure the hard learnt facts of life and death are passed down from one who’s given his life to their discovery, to those who wish to be enlightened. As the great man once said, “Art is one of the consolation prizes we receive for having lived in a difficult and sometimes chaotic world.”


Zero K (Picador, $34.99) by Don DeLillo is available at 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