Zero K by Don DeLillo (2016) Scribner (2016) 274 pp
In Don DeLillo’s new novel, Zero K, The Convergence is a plush facility in the middle of Asia, close to Russia, specializing in life-extension via cryonic freezing. It feels cultish, deracinated and sterile, bled of unnecessary elements, and is run by wonkish figures overseeing their speculative project like voluble curators of a cutting-edge think tank. They’re interested in a new, speculative phase of evolution, one in which we refuse to accept the inevitable — death — and feel mortality is malleable, putty for the enterprising. Science, not God, is the new messiah, and for the bold, it’s a collaborative relationship as opposed to a deferent one. The bolder among us are now, those behind The Convergence would have it, equal to all impediments to their ultimate wants. Darwin has pushed those pioneers of mortal emancipation to the top of the pile for a very good reason: their money can buy them immortality.
Those running The Convergence include twin brothers whom protagonist Jeffrey Lockhart decides to call the “Stenmark Twins,” assigning them an identity in order to render them palatable founders and promulgators of the facility and what it offers its willing subjects. The twins at one point reel off, in seamless combination (“each yielding to the other in flawless transition”), a number of questions and apothegms pertaining to the meaning of life, the meaning of death, the justification for The Convergence and mortal intervention and assorted querulous musings as part of a stream of half-formed befuddling rhetoric. It feels like a sequence straight out of an earlier DeLillo novel, Ratner’s Star.
“What about those who die? The others. There will always be others. Why should some keep living while others die?”
“Half the world is redoing its kitchens, the other half is starving.”
“Do we want to believe that every condition afflicting the mind and body will be curable in the context of our boundless longevity?”
“The defining element of life is that it ends.”
“Nature wants to kill us off in order to return to its untouched and uncorrupted form.”
“What good are we if we live forever?”
“What ultimate truth will we confront?”
“Isn’t the sting of our eventual dying what makes us precious to the people in our lives?”
“Many other questions.”
“What does it mean to die?”
“Where are the dead?”
“When do you stop being who you are?”
“Many other questions.”
“What happens to war?”
“Will this development mark the end of war or a new level of widespread conflict?”
“With individual death no longer inevitable, what will happen to the lurking idea of nuclear destruction?”
And how about his zinger:
“Death is a cultural artifact, not a strict determination of what is humanly inevitable.”
Jeffrey Lockhart is visiting The Convergence at the behest of his father, Ross. Ross, a firm believer in The Convergence, is in temporary residence until his sick wife, Artis, has been shut down (thus dodging the looming Reaper) and placed in a preservation pod for an indefinite time period. Artis will, the idea goes, be woken up during a more technologically-advanced period and literally given a new lease of life (as will Ross, when the time arrives that his originally apportioned “time” is up). Jeffrey is understandably far from convinced about the notion, the speculative science, and we’re privy to numerous moral and ethical conversations about the nature of what The Convergence is affording, and denying.
“She’s completely ready. There’s no trace of hesitation or second thoughts.”
“We’re not talking about spiritual life everlasting. This is the body.”
“The body will be frozen. Cryonic suspension,” he said.
“Then at some future time.”
“Yes. The time will come when there are ways to counteract the circumstances that led to the end. Mind and body are restored, returned to life.”
“This is not a new idea. Am I right?”
“This is not a new idea. It is an idea,” he said, “that is now approaching full realization.”
The notion of the mind-body schism is explored during the opening stages of Zero K, but DeLillo initially seems more interested in what makes us individuals, and how we integrate ourselves into a subjective / collective environment. Jeffrey wanders the corridors of The Convergence listening to himself (and that distinction is interrogated constantly; how we listen into our performative utterances and communicative signals) linger over spoken words, imagining someone else uttering those words, unable to locate himself securely as the creator of the sounds but revelling in his ability (if it’s “him” doing it) to puncture silences with pleasing sonic interruptions. There’s plenty of the stock-in-trade DeLillo philosophical rhetoric (that part of his arsenal that puts so many readers off but which, for me, marks him apart as an essential voice), and much by way of semiological interludes and metaphysical discursions.
But there’s humor, the somber subject matter notwithstanding: at one point, in a startling and hilarious moment, straight from the pages of White Noise, Jeffrey at responds to a lengthy disquisition on death and The Convergence by quickly performing a few squat thrusts. That kind of irreverent tomfoolery works wonderfully on so many levels: it detonates a building sense of airless circumspection, it mocks the whole enterprise of dealing in such a preposterous-yet-obvious subject, and it pokes fun at how we can’t disentangle our ideas of mastery of our own lives without imposing a willful, spurious order on a relentless chaos that we know inevitably wins. Plus it’s just daft. In such an environment, built so seriously and with such gravely defiant intent, what better way to encapsulate the irreverence of humanity regarding matters of life and death than to have a protagonist start exercising when irked by too much death talk?
DeLillo has always been obsessive about names and signifiers, how the sound of them corresponds to the subject, how the sound of an act corresponds to the physical nature of its performance, how words are indistinct from any examined life and yet so far removed from the essence of it. Writers can never transcribe precisely to the page what they feel. What does that gap between intent and reality mean? In Zero K, as an outsider spending time among the patients looking to freeze themselves and diminish their worldly distinctions in order to become arrested points of static consciousness, Jeffrey instinctively clings to the Earthly, and to a quotidia to which he moors himself. He can’t think of the patients at The Convergence as anything but finite, sensate beings, and part of his traumatic response to the exposure to talk of a brave new world has him reverting to what he deems solid and immediate. Listening to an unnamed woman talking to a group of patients, he recalibrates the scene by giving her a fictional name. He also refers to an ex-girlfriend, who is less concrete at the point where he doesn’t know the correct spelling of her name.
I didn’t know whether her name was spelled Gale or Gail and I decided to wait a while before asking, thinking of her as one spelling one day, the other spelling the next day, and trying to determine whether it made a difference in the way I thought of her, looked at her, talked to her and touched her.
Jeffrey’s father, Ross, says of what lies immediately beyond the walls of The Convergence compound: “Once you know the local names and how to spell them, you’ll feel less detached.” To be alive in a traditional sense is to be located, but also to be at the mercy of standard geography. Ross and Artis have said their farewells to standard co-ordinates: Jeffrey can’t.
Words, for DeLillo, are linked together to form an apparatus, constructed and climbed as weatherproof architecture in order to establish a vantage from which to see more clearly that which can’t be apprehended, merely marveled at more fully. People are shaped by names, and the perception of those people is shaped by the reception of their names upon those observing them. Jeffrey learns that his father was not originally named Ross Lockhart but Nicholas Satterswaite. He tries the name on himself; he postulates as to a potential different life his father might have led. This is all to suggest that DeLillo finds people playing roles, playing “themselves.” Jeffrey instinctively instills everything with life. Having seen two women at the side of the road on the approach to the Convergence building, he finds himself mistaken.
“You saw something else, off to the side, maybe fifty meters away, before you entered the building.”
“What did I see?”
“Two women,” he said. “In long hooded garments.”
“Two women in chadors. Of course. Just standing there in the heat and dust.”
“The first glimpse of art,” he said.
“Never occurred to me.”
“Standing absolutely still,” he said.
“Mannequins,” Artis said.
“To be seen or not seen. Doesn’t matter,” he said.
“I never imagined they weren’t real people. I knew the word. Chadors. Or burqas. Or whatever the other names. This was all I needed to know.”
Jeffrey will later muse upon the converse idea of this, when he finds a figurative catacomb filled with mannequins. This is an unsubtle, but powerfully deployed, means of detaching the idea of people from their bodies. The blank confrontation of a prone mannequin in such a context is a powerful image; the bodies suspended in pods are not apparently different. Some bodies are dispensed with altogether: heads detached and isolated, cut away from useless, worn torsos and limbs and organs.
But for DeLillo, amongst all the talk of what constitutes a human, the worst thing about death, and the key to a lack of human essentiality, might well br the absence of words and sound.
In this regard, video installations Jeffrey is confronted by whilst patrolling the hushed passageways of The Convergence create a sense of dread-infused estrangement. All are silent provocations full of elemental disquiet, suddenly lowering down from the ceiling to fill an approached space. In one, a catastrophe unfolds and a flood destroys a town; in another, we see three men self-immolate, although in that instance one of the suicidal trio, who have doused themselves in petrol, cannot light his match. The wry, appalled discomfort of the viewer hinges on how quickly the last surviving member of the deathly group can “get it over with.”
Crucially, the final line of a sequence involving one such deathly video installation reads simply:
There was no audio.
It’s not merely the last line, either: it’s an isolated sentence. These examples of disaster well beyond The Convergence confines, from an occluded, precarious world, act as alien bulletins to those resident at the complex, reminders of the chaotic power of a world rendered toothless by a nascent elite. For Jeffrey, the images are incomplete and unsettling. It’s a world he hasn’t yet left behind. As horrific as the unfolding images are, they’re more unbearable for being diminished. An apprehension of the world fully lived in, DeLillo possibly argues, must be taken as an entirety. There is no big picture; there is one replete picture containing everything.
The first half the book, and our introduction to The Convergence, ends with seemingly the final conscious moments of Artis as she “dies,” and it’s a fascinating, if brief, section of the book. We get “her” thoughts about who “she” is, both first-person and third-person, in terms of “what” she is, “where” and also “when.” Here’s a sample of the kind of disembodied floating-consciousness ruminations we’re talking about:
Are the words themselves all there is. Am I just the words.
This is the feeling I have that the words want to tell me things but I don’t know how to listen.
I listen to what I hear. I only hear what is me.
I am made of words.
Does it keep going on like this. Where am I. What is a place.
I know the feeling of somewhere but I don’t know where it is.
What I understand comes from nowhere. I don’t know what I understand until I say it.
In the simplest terms the book is a summation in miniature of all the philosophical issues DeLillo has embroiled himself in since his debut Americana. It’s absolutely precise: it places perfectly judged vignettes, one after another, by way of gently teasing at all the old knots without ever loosening any. We get the power and curious autonomy of crowds, the impossibility of apprehending whether or not we invest things with us or whether they possess a distinct, hermetic identity, the way we moor and co-ordinate ourselves with and through objects, DeLillo’s continual ambivalence as to the possibility of “individuality” or “uniqueness,” the incalculable maddening involutions of grief. All the old, good stuff, given a gentle, meticulous strum, as though he finds such matters not only inexhaustible but endlessly elusive, a namechecking of issues he hasn’t and never could resolve.
Zero K also feels like a repudiation of the myth of the salvation of immortalizing art, the ability to create something from nothing whilst assailed by death, which summarily turns something into nothing, and the act of creation as life-extending: creation of something as a means of avoiding death. As DeLillo recently stated when asked about how he felt his books might have evolved over time, or come to mean something quite different to different generations, he demurred; to him, his books were nothing more than a “condensed object representing my life as I wrote the book.” Whether or not DeLillo’s work will endure or not, to him it’s no more than a potentially obsolete reference point, an “object” of no enduring value to him, alive or dead. I’m not so sure most artists would take that standpoint. And how many writers would say this: “My responsibility is not to people or characters but to language”? He is seduced and propelled by the opportunity to “make marks and shapes on white paper,” not to create a lasting testament, a statement to stand as an epochal standpoint. It’s about the visual sensation of words and their concomitant music, the process, the nitty-gritty.
I mention all this by way of emphasizing the deep reliance by Jeffrey Lockhart on sounds and words. The word precedes the world upon which it is written; people are the syllables that signify their totality. The names of countries and places are repeated as mantras solidifying their actuality; back in New York two years after Artis’s death, Jeffrey develops a minor OCD issue, checking and rechecking doors, no longer possessing a firm hold on the world: he languishes over the sounds of things as his assurity over their reality diminishes. He repeats things as though querying their authenticity. DeLillo emphasizes time and again: we are a chain of defined, cultivated apprehensions that slip away from us. Our consciousness, our spirituality, is our investment in objects and words. We are tethered to codifications that we interpret communally in order to moor ourselves: we live in words and sensations, who we are is inextricable from them.
What Zero K offers by way of something new is both the book’s weakness and strong point, a pleasingly paradoxical way to have wrapped things up, if this is to be DeLillo’s last work. And Zero K is both exhilarating and slightly deflating in this regard: the book is too emotionally raw. I think it aims for the tenor of Bellow’s Seize the Day and misses a little. There’s unquestionably a Beckettian element, passages that feel like disembodied ghosts overseeing lives from a stratospheric remove, scrupulous examinations of the very essence of the mind marooned in an alienated body hosting lugubrious maunderings. But there’s a Bellovian strain to this as well during the second half. There’s a determination to spin gold out of the ineffable by marveling in incidentals, the stuff of life winding on whether we see it or not; the ability to harvest a sense of wonder fogged by meaningless clutter. There is crisis followed, right at the end, by an overwhelming rapturous vision, a moment of sheer willful submission to mystery and romantic spectacle and possibility. And yet, that which is at stake is not the future of human beings as potentially half robot, or the fate of mankind, or the nature of individual and collective identities. It’s the simple stuff, the moment-to-moment act of living a life in a constant state of extreme flux and fragility. Or, as the author puts it:
Play a game, make a list, draw a dog, tell a story, take a step.
Some days are better than others.
There’s something thrilling about such a brilliant thinker boiling a world, and his take on it, down to such a simple essence. When I first read Zero K I saw it as a failure of nerve, a facile display of sentimentality, bet-hedging. The first half of Zero K seems to be building towards a dazzling and revelatory finale. But the revelations are not forthcoming. Instead we get a sense of gratitude and wonder at the impossibility of life and a deferent nod to the unknowable. Whether or not you think that’s a fitting conclusion, Zero K is unquestionably worth reading.