Daily Book Review: ‘Zero K’

Wednesday, July 27, 2016 - 8:41pm

“Everybody wants to own the end of the world,” begins “Zero K,” Don DeLillo’s new novel. In American fiction, DeLillo has been the owner of the end of the world subgenre. Whether it’s the airborne toxic event in “White Noise” or the hydrogen bomb, his novels quiver with the threat of atrophy and destruction.

DeLillo is the contemporary saint of eschatological dread. Along with contemporary Thomas Pynchon, he’s the great American paranoiac. His earlier novels track the forces of American history, society and politics, and the ways in which these forces transform contemporary life. His novels are big, and when they flounder, it’s due to a surfeit of the grandiose. In DeLillo’s work, these forces are always heading toward collapse.

“‘All plots tend to move deathward,’ says Jack Gladney, a professor of Hitler studies and the narrator of “White Noise.” ‘This is the nature of plots. Political plots, terrorist plots, lovers’ plots, narrative plots, plots that are part of children’s games. We edge nearer death every time we plot. It is like a contract that all must sign, the plotters as well as those who are the targets of the plot.’”

Gladney’s thought could serve as a short manifesto for DeLillo’s fictional vision. In a Paris Review interview, DeLillo said, “If writing is a concentrated form of thinking, then the most concentrated writing probably ends in some kind of reflection on dying. This is what we eventually confront if we think long enough and hard enough.”

But, thank God, his novels aren’t all hearty doses of philosophical and social critique. In his mid-career social novels — “White Noise,” “Libra” and “Underworld” — he balances rigorous thought with an ironic vision of the social world.

After this little speech, Gladney asks, “Is this true? Why did I say it? What does it all mean?” Gladney’s detachment from his world and his constant reflection make him a typical DeLillo narrator, and it’s this ironic awareness that makes DeLillo’s novels work without collapsing from their own weight.

While his novels carry the pitch and tone of apocalypse, they concern themselves with the threat as a spectacle, and at their best, like in “White Noise,” they hover between the serious consideration of the notion of potential collapse and the comical distance from it. His novels falter when, like in “Mao II,” which follows the Salinger-like writer Bill Gray and remains quite a good novel, they get lost in their own intellectual and moral severity. At their worst, thought occludes story and character and they can feel like a thesis with a novel as a decoration. It’s the ability to locate contemporary the threads of contemporary life, conceptualize them and build the story organically out of them, that made mid-career novels so good.

But “Zero K” has little in common with those earlier efforts. The novel follows Jeffrey Lockhart, the estranged son of billionaire investor Ross Lockhart, whose latest investment is a cryogenic facility called the Convergence. Situated in an undisclosed and unknown location in Kazakhstan, the Convergence is a mausoleum for elites like Jeffrey’s father. The plan is to freeze those on the brink of death, to put them through an artificial death, and, when the world is finally free from its present crises (though there’s little thought about how much better that future will be), to bring them back to life. It plays as the depraved vision of Silicon Valley techies longing for immortality. One can see Peter Thiel burrowing into a cryogenic pod with a smile on his face.

Rightfully, Jeffrey, like Gladney, looks at this world with skepticism. It’s quite a strange place: videos of catastrophe play on screens around the compound, a monk-like figure hangs around to talk terminally ill patients through their coming immortality, mannequins stand throughout.

One of the first patients of the Convergence is Ross’s wife, Artis Martineau, his elegant and much younger second wife. Jeffrey admires Artis, and she serves as one of the few points of harmony between son and father.

Ross, after much deliberation, decides to join Artis in the Convergence, precipitating a fight between Ross and Jeffrey. But, at the last minute, he goes back on is word, he and Jeffrey reconcile, and a hallucinatory interlude of Artis’s thoughts in the Convergence — where she doesn’t know whether to speak of herself in the first or third person — takes us to New York in the near future.  

There’s little plot here. DeLillo’s earlier work showed the machinations of history in full swing, but his newest work slows everything down. “Zero K” feels like a prose poem or essay as opposed to a novel. It’s elliptical and cryptic; the prose is cold and uncanny. If anything, it’s a strange, ethereal meditation on technology and the human body. It may even be a defense of the body’s right to atrophy — a twist for a novelist always countering the forces of time — but it resists these categories. It’s a book that demands future visits.

DeLillo’s finest skill is to chronicle present life with precision and to reveal hidden truths about it. Because of this, his novels can feel dated as the object of his revelations fades away. Yet, as it has been noted elsewhere, the prescience of DeLillo’s later work makes his novels hard to gauge when they come out. For example, “Cosmopolis,” his widely panned 2003 novel about a billionaire asset manager, wasn’t considered a comedy until the 2008 financial collapse. It’s only when history catches up to him that DeLillo can be seen for what he is.

“Zero K” isn’t one of DeLillo’s best. But, in a few years when, perhaps, the global elite build their own Convergence and leave the plebeians to their mortal coils, it may be.