Zero K, Don DeLillo, Picador
For some, Don DeLillo’s work seems like pretentious, heavy-handed philosophising. For others, his work is a profound insight into the undercurrents of modern society, especially the insidious nature of technology and consumerism, the influence of global monetary systems, the indiscriminate sweep of power, the transnational threat of terrorism. For some readers such as myself, it can be a mix of both. Certainly plot and characterisation come second in a novel like Zero K, in deference to ideas. Characters in DeLillo’s work often simply sound like Don DeLillo; there is little difference between the prose without quotation marks and the parts with them. Characters are mouthpieces for DeLillo’s view of the modern world. They test different permutations of the ideology. That is not to say that his books including Zero K are not enjoyable. It is merely to say that reading Don DeLillo is a particular experience. For those of us who like DeLillo, Zero K will be a pleasure. But there was also the recurring sense for this reader of wondering, ‘is this profound or just pseudo-profound?’ I am not sure what the following means: ‘…the unseeable texture of a life except that I was seeing it’. There are other instances of such ‘it was but it wasn’t’-isms which sound like a parody of Don DeLillo but aren’t. And yet…
From the start there is the unmistakable DeLillo style – syncopated, but meditative. I find myself slowing down in a DeLillo novel, at least the recent ones. The typical DeLillo sentence abounds here, with its tight rhythm and groupings of triple words – ‘We’re working on the day, the hour, the minute’. (Recall White Noise‘s haiku-ish triplets of brand names that fall almost randomly into the narrative.) And there is a skewed reality mirrored in the dialogue. Not only do characters talk like Don DeLillo, but they seem to inhabit spaces that are slightly off-kilter, veiled and even absurd. They are like the world viewed through a security camera. Zero K’s plot revolves around Jeffrey Lockhart, the son of a billionaire, Ross Lockhart (who has of course made his money in the murky world of international finance), who has travelled to the Middle East (one of the ‘stan’ countries) to a medical centre – ‘the Convergence’ – that Ross has partly financed, and whose purpose is cryogenically freezing its patients in the hope of future medical advances that will prolong life, perhaps indefinitely. Ross’s terminally ill wife has come to put her current life on hold here and Ross is deciding whether to join her. This centre is a parody of such facilities for the rich, an example of DeLillo amping up the absurdity. It is described in monastic, hermitic and hermetic terms. Amongst the clean white spaces, windowless rooms and unobtrusive staff sit pieces of modern sculpture, and at intervals in the long corridors, large TVs display images of war, natural disaster and other horrors, one assumes in order to contrast with the clean and safe environment of the Convergence and to make the patients feel that their decision to be in the facility and leave the contemporary world behind is the right one.
The facility is described in religious terms, unsurprisingly as the patients have come in search of ‘eternal life’. Meetings of patients are conducted with religious fervour and one of the staff is described as a monk who has come to care for the ‘pilgrims’. A park bench in the facility’s garden looks like a church pew. But the eternal life on offer is not a heavenly one; it relies on technological advances of future generations in this world. Unlike the old religions, a staff member claims, this one ‘works’ and is ‘real’. Unlike the dreams of pharaohs this immortality is tangible. But despite the reassurances of the managers of the facility that all bases are covered and a utopian future is now inevitable, patients must make a leap of faith that human progress will deliver what is promised. I suppose they are convinced by the mix of money and expertise. Here DeLillo slyly critiques the idea that the super-rich can (or should?) extricate themselves from the troubles of this world, and that they have the right to a ‘better’ life, and that they can buy security of the future. The sceptical Jeffrey simply labels it a ‘cult’.
There is an interesting mix in the Convergence of cold-eyed technological efficiency and frenzied ideology. There is also an interesting contrast with the real-world existence of the son Jeffrey, who is looking for work, drifting somewhat, but also mildly obsessive-compulsive. He sees the facility as an example of ‘mass delusion’, in a neat flip, perhaps unintentionally on DeLillo’s part, of the claim that religion is a delusion made by the latest batch of prominent atheists, themselves often in thrall to the idea of human progress.
The Convergence is a place where death is confronted, but only under the premise that the confrontation will eventuate in death’s defeat. Death as we know it is to be rendered inoperative. Saint Augustine’s idea that death should not remain deathless is quoted. And the staff members talk in terms not far from the New Testament’s concept of a (new) Kingdom of God. Not only is death to be defeated, as a ‘cultural artefact’ that can be left behind; the facility is the catalyst for and the pioneer of a new type of society. The Convergence is the Ark, a ‘safehold’ that will let out its occupants into a post-diluvian landscape where even language will be completely reconstructed, in order to know the world as it really is. In NT language, the scales will fall from the patients’ eyes. But as Jeffrey notes, this is probably a new vision of an apparition. It is a mirage. ‘Ordinary moments make a life’, DeLillo writes. And in the NT, Jesus also has a concern for the everyday and the here and now. Jesus’ concern is with the ethical connotations of the moment-by-moment existence, not just with the profundity of the Sabbath moment or the ultimate fate of the soul. Zero K’s promotional blurb suggests that the Convergence is contrasted with the beauty of everyday life. That may be pushing it. DeLillo may be merely suggesting that the everyday life is inescapable and should hold our attention.
Other themes spiral off these central ones. There is DeLillo’s abiding interest in art, particularly sculpture, installation art and other modern forms. Jeffrey wonders whether the Convergence is in fact just a giant art gallery. The garden at the facility is completely synthesised, faked. Mannequins eerily dot the garden, mirroring the fact that the patients go to their frozen states of limbo naked and hairless. In New York City Jeffrey visits an art exhibit of a boulder placed in a gallery. Here is a rocky object in a humanised landscape, whereas the Convergence is a human object in a rocky landscape. The almost timelessness of the Earth, the deep time embedded in its rocks is contrasted with the fleeting nature of human life. The Convergence staff members try to rectify the fact that human lives are so short that, as one staff member suggests, we can count the seconds.
There is also comment on mass media. The TV screens show images of disaster that are available to us whenever we want, that are foisted on us, that eventually become numbing. Tellingly, the TV screens have the sound off. We are bombarded by images but communication is stifled. Despite all the information we have, there is little dialogue. Jeffrey notes of one of the Convergence’s staff that he ‘narrates’ rather than ‘talks’. Back in NY, the difficulties of communicating in the real world are confronted. DeLillo is attentive to words and to the difficulty of meaning, exemplified by the various job titles Jeffrey has accumulated in his lifetime that are just management mumbo-jumbo.
There are also resonances with other DeLillo works, or recurrences of DeLillo motifs. A woman meditating on the streets of New York recalls the elusive Falling Man performance artist (from the novel of that name about 9/11). A long description of runners on one of the TVs recalls the virtuoso description of an American football match in End Zone.
To quote from the novel Libra, there is a world within a world here. There is a richness of content that stands proudly aside from any conventional narrative arc. There is no great denouement, only DeLillo’s intricate and characteristic musings, which sometimes have the feel of covering old ground. Whereas in decades past DeLillo might have been unearthing something below the surface, these days it is in plain sight, sometimes hidden, sometimes not. So pointing it out can be seen as stating the obvious. But then our culture has become immune to the obvious, snowblinded by the frenzy of information. As far as the book’s central theme goes, we still avoid the obvious conclusion of death. I suspect DeLillo would share the idea that Christianity’s confrontation with it – the promise of immortality – is a delusion, but he does share Christianity’s concern with how we live in the day-to-day.