Travelling at a wayward angle: Don DeLillo, ‘Zero K’. Pt 2 of my exploration

Part Two: Zero K, by DonDeLillo

There is an aggregate of past events that we can attempt to understand [p 167]

Jeff has left his father’s cult-like cryogenic facility in the desert of Uzbekistan after the death of his stepmother and the freezing of her body in a cryo-pod. He’s gone back to a drifter’s life in New York.

His new girlfriend’s stepson is called Stak. His obsessions – time, languages (he teaches himself Pashto), words, numbers, temperatures in random cities across the globe – resemble Jeff’s. When Jeff takes him to a bizarre art installation, the central exhibit of which is a large ‘interior rock sculpture’, a strange conversation ensues. Stak has dropped out of school; it’s ‘meaningless’. He’s ‘unlearned’ as ‘self-defense’ the ‘ten million faces that pass through our visual field every year…[Learned to s]ee them all like one big blurry thing.’ There are ‘very few’ exceptions.

He’s clearly disturbed, possibly traumatised.

Jeff looks at him and says:

‘Rocks are, but they do not exist.’

He repeats the mantra with other objects that ‘are, but don’t exist’. Trees. Horses. God. He doesn’t tell Stak that he took this formula as a college student from Heidegger. The Nazi sympathiser.

History everywhere, in black notebooks, and even the most innocent words, tree, horse, rock, gone dark in the process. Stak had his own twisted history to think about, mass starvation of his forebears. Let him imagine an uncorrupted rock.


He goes on, as he usually does when stymied by semantics or ontology, to challenge Stak to ‘define rock’:

I was thinking of myself at his age, determined to find the more or less precise meaning of a word, to draw other words out of the designated word in order to locate the core…The definition needed to be concise, authoritative.

Stak languidly proceeds to give a masterly linguistic definition, full of technical jargon – petrology, geology, marble and calcite. Jeff marvels as the boy seems to grow taller as he speaks, and the signifier and signified refuse to be other than arbitrary units:

He was alone with the rock, a thing requiring a single syllable to give it outline and form.

His mother is dismayed to find Stak has given up his previous obsessions; he’s no longer ‘involved’, he says mysteriously. He’s to return to his father and who knows what fate:

A son or daughter who travels at a wayward angle must seem a penalty the parent must bear – but for what crime?

 As they leave the gallery Jeff and Stak reconsider the meaning of his ‘Rocks are, but they do not exist’ conundrum:

It was a subject that blended well with our black-and-white descent.

DeLillo, Zero K cover

Even the cover of my Picador edition is weird: it has a semi-transparent plastic-paper dust jacket with the title and author’s name on the front, half concealing a mannequin’s face on the hard front cover of the book. Disturbing.

So, once again, what’s this novel Zero K all about? Is it not the dystopian sci-fi it masquerades as, but more about the nature of parenthood and childhood rebellion, the child’s struggle to find its identity in a dysfunctional world? The tyranny of genes and the competing impact of environment (which humans are systematically desecrating) on the developing psyche?

I don’t know.

I don’t now think it’s just these things. Or a so-so contribution to the genre of dystopian-cryogenic-existential-thriller, though it poses as that, too.

It is also, as I hinted in my previous post, a deeply philosophical meditation on mortality (among lots of other things: I looked at some last time) – hardly surprising for a writer touching 80. Problem is, the first section of the novel is just too often…well, tedious. Characters are ciphers, who mostly speak gnomic, phenomenological nonsense. Embodiments of philosophical positions. Epistemic puppets. It’s all rather leaden (thanks for the word, Belinda at Booksbii)

The novel can be seen, perhaps, as more of a meditation on religion, humanity’s thirst for spiritual clarity; faith, and the role and nature of ART. The novel or literature in particular. Here’s a random question in that section of the novel where the Scandi-twins, putative creators of the Convergence cryo-facility, tease the sceptical Jeff about the project’s likely impact on future human existence and the numerous questions this raises:

“Does literal immortality compress our enduring artforms and cultural wonders into nothingness?”

“What will poets write about?”

“What happens to history? What happens to money? What happens to God?”

It’s easy to dismiss Zero K, as I nearly did on first reading, as grand-sounding pseudo-mystical sci-fi. But there are so many resonant, beautiful sentences in it, the novel is worth reading just for the pleasure of savouring DeLillo’s prose.

Final thoughts about what it might all signify: Stak meets a terrible fate near the end. Jeff, back in the Convergence, watches it apparently captured on film on one of the screens that intermittently descend from the ceilings of the halls in the maze-like complex. He stands a long time once it’s finished, waiting for the hall to empty and go dark. He stands with his eyes shut in the dark:

I’ve done this before, stand in a dark room, motionless, eyes shut, weird kid and grown man, was I making my way toward a space such as this, long cold empty hall, doors and walls in matching colors, dead silence, shadow streaming toward me.

Once the dark is total, I will simply stand and wait, trying hard to think of nothing. [p. 264]

 This sounds to me like death. Near-death. Like those visions people claim to have when they ‘flat-line’ and enter that last tunnel towards the heavenly light that will be death. Out of the darkness.

It’s like Tarkovsky’s Solaris (a director name-checked by the sinister twins as one of the cultural artificers who’ll be used to implant new ‘memories’ in the resurrected cryo-corpses). It reminds me too of Ambrose Bierce’s Owl Creek story: all of the action takes place in the seconds it takes for the noose to tighten and the for the protagonist to die. Everything else is the human’s desperate desire to evade inevitable, ineffable death. A sort of dream, then, Zero K, the death-wish in reverse. The will to live. Or of Art to survive.

But that too is maybe too pat. For there’s one final chapter to follow this cryptic passage. Jeff back in the city considers whether his entire adult life has been a futile hippyish rebellion against his father and his ‘corporate career’ (the parent/child theme again, but it turns into something more mystical):

 I tell myself that I’m not hiding inside a life that’s a reaction to this, or a retaliation for this. Then, again, I stand forever in the shadow of Ross and Artis and it’s not their resonant lives that haunt me but their manner of dying.


The beckoning figure of a begging woman in the street recurs:

What is there to see that I haven’t seen, what lesson is there to be learned from a still figure in the midst of crowds? In her case it may be an issue of impending threat. Individuals have always done this, haven’t they? I think of it as medieval, a foreboding of some kind. She is telling us to be ready.

Sometimes it takes an entire morning to outlive a dream…Stak is the waking dream… [p. 267]

 Final judgement, as on a medieval church mural. Or a dream of it.

But there’s yet one more transcendent scene: as at Stonehenge at midsummer, the sun sets once or twice a year and the ‘sun’s rays align with the local street grid’ of Manhattan, shining in a ‘radiant moment’ through the high-rise buildings, flooding the streets with a ruddy brilliance. A young boy ‘on a crosstown bus’ on which Jeff is also travelling rises as if to greet the sun (son?), emitting ‘howls of awe’, and Jeff thinks of his father’s words when he first introduced him to the Convergence and its hallucinatory plans:

Everybody wants to own the end of the world.

Is that what the boy was seeing?

The ‘solar disk, bleeding into the streets’ – an image of the crucifixion? – lights up the tower blocks.

It’s no spoiler to give the final lines, for their meaning, like the rest of this uneven, challenging, often infuriating novel, sporadically brilliant novel, is obscurely beautiful:

I went back to my seat and faced forward. I didn’t need heaven’s light. [see – I said this was eschatological mysticism!] I had the boy’s cries of wonder.

The only other blog I’ve read on Zero K is this thoughtful piece by Belinda over at Biisbooks: do take a look.

Death is a tough habit to break: Don DeLillo, ‘Zero K’, pt 1 of an exploration of what it might all mean

Don DeLillo, Zero K (UK edition by Picador, 2016) 


‘Life everlasting belongs to those of breathtaking wealth’

‘Is it outright murder? Is it a form of assisted suicide that’s horribly premature? Or is it a metaphysical crime that needs to be analyzed by philosophers?’

 This place was located at the far margins of plausibility.

This post became so unwieldy in the drafting that I’ve broken it into two instalments. This is Pt 1.

cover of my copy of Zero KThis reflects the difficulty I’ve experienced as I grappled with its meaning. The struggle was exhilarating, but I emerged not exactly unenlightened, but not entirely clear what on earth I’d just read.

Zero K seemed to me on first reading to be a sporadically interesting but largely tedious sci-fi dystopia. It’s a well-trampled field.

But there’s also a subtext critiquing a hit-list of DeLillo hates: corporate capitalism; the increasingly depersonalising, invasive and debilitating influence of technology; eco-disaster and humanity’s spoliation of the planet; wars and the terrorism that arises out of or before them; the socio-cultural and political atrophy and ennui of modern life – the list goes on.

The ‘Convergence’ is located in a ‘strafed desert’. It’s a semi-submerged complex in ‘a wasteland’ (literary allusions abound in Zero K), possibly in Uzbekistan where cryogenic suspension is the gamble of the rich; they believe they can cheat death by freezing their bodies in pods, crypts or capsules, awaiting some time in the future when they hope technology will have advanced to the point where it’s possible to use ‘nanobots’ to ‘refresh their organs, regenerate their systems’ using ‘Enzymes, proteins, nucleotides’ and they will live again in ‘the billionaire’s myth of immortality’. Their decapitated heads will be restored to their torsos, eviscerated organs restored to their proper places. They will be reborn in ‘cyberhuman form.’ Probably.

‘Die a while, then live forever.’

Weird multinational scientists, philosophers and spectral, monklike figures in scapulars waft about the facility, that resembles an Escher picture, intoning psychobabble like

‘Death is a cultural artefact, not a strict determination of what is humanly inevitable.’/’Nature wants to kill us off in order to return to its untouched and uncorrupted form.’

The facility is portrayed as a cross between a starship and a nuclear bunker. Many of the tropes familiar from a thousand sci-fi stories appear: the canteen auto-dispenses clinical ‘food-units’ of unidentifiable mush. Access to different ‘levels’ is gained by an electronic wristband that resembles the tag used to track bailed prisoners. Elevators don’t necessarily travel in a vertical trajectory. Creepy guides or ‘escorts’ conduct the visitor like a psychopomp. Anonymous, disengaged and wordless sex is offered. The place is apocalyptic.

There’s clearly something deeply sinister about this setup: it’s more like a death-cult than serious experiment – or is it a refuge from a mad world, where meditation and contemplation have replaced acquisitiveness and aggression? The monk sits on his bench and considers himself reincarnated and sitting on that same bench. An empty room has murals depicting that same empty room. These are mises en abyme that typify this novel’s enigmas that take it beyond the realm of regular sci-fi.

The twin Scandinavians who seem to be the masterminds of the Convergence breezily claim that these frozen ‘units’ – the obscenely rich candidates for cryogenic suspension – will become ‘citizens of the universe’. ‘We want to stretch the boundaries of what it means to be human – stretch and then surpass…to alter human thought and bend the energies of civilization.’

Jeff Lockhart, 34-year-old first-person narrator and son of billionaire entrepreneur Ross, who is the prime source of funds for this project, has arrived at this ‘faith-based technology’ unit, summoned by his father. Ross deprecates Jeff’s aimlessness: ‘I hadn’t done anything yet. Hadn’t lived at all yet. All you do is pass the time, he said’. Jeff is, says Ross, justifiably, in a ‘determined drift, week to week, year to year.’ (Time and the means of measuring it are a recurring preoccupation for Jeff and this narrative.) His is a ‘noncareer’ – the opposite of his father’s.

And Jeff is sceptical; he’s like the Savage in Huxley’s Brave New World, the outsider-visitor who enables us to perceive what those within the system he visits are inured to, or in league with: the horror. The heart of darkness.

Here’s his reaction to the twins’ opening spiel:

They weren’t scientists or social theorists. What were they? They were adventurers of a kind that I could not quite identify.

But when Jeff asks if the subjects when reassembled in the future will be who they were before they entered the chamber to be frozen, the chilling response is:

‘They will be subjects for us to study, toys for us to play with.’

Jeff is both intrigued and appalled by these twin ‘demonologists in spirit’, with their predictions that ‘In time a religion of death will emerge in response to our prolonged lives.’ ‘Bring back death.’ There will be ‘voracious bloodbaths’ as ‘bands of death rebels’ will randomly kill these regenerated forms, mutilate and eat them, smear the ashes from their immolated corpses on their own bodies. It’s a vision out of Bosch or the Holocaust, not a Walt Disney fantasy. Yet the twins blandly answer the question: What will we find at the final reckoning? with:

‘A promise more assured than the ineffable hereafters of the world’s organized religions.’

Jeff is dubious:

This was their aesthetic of seclusion and concealment, all the elements that I found so eerie and disembodying. The empty halls, the color patterns, the office doors that did or did not open into an office. The mazelike moments, time suspended, content blunted, the lack of explanation.

These thoughts of Jeff’s are surely those of any sensible sceptic confronting this nightmare, this mad vision, with its SS skull prominently displayed – or revered. But there’s an allure to it, as his thoughts go on to show:

This was art in itself, nowhere else but here.

So far, so tedious. There’s a lot of pretentious guff about the nature of art, religion, identity, fate, technology. ‘Many other questions’, ethical and philosophical, arise, and the twins, Jeff or narrator chillingly recite them. What is art? Or Death of course. And ‘What does it mean to die?’, ‘What good are we if we live for ever?’ What about life, immortality and mortality: what do these terms mean? What do words signify? ‘Define X’ is one of Jeff’s default inner questions. Rhetorical ones.

Jeff learns that he’s been summoned to the Convergence by Lockhart for an unsettling reason; he tells his son he has chosen to join prematurely his dying wife Artis (see what he’s doing with characters’ names?!) by euthanizing himself and facilitating the process of ‘cryostorage’ that gives the novel its title – and going with her into a pod of his own. Even worse follows: ‘Come with us,’ Artis urges Jeff.

I nearly gave up on Zero K around p.90. I had no other books with me – I was on a trip – so had no option but continue. I’m glad I did.

Because the novel turned, at p.163, into a different one. Jeff leaves the Convergence (what a silly pseudo-religious, cult-like name), returns to the city, two years pass, and the story picks up his relationship with a woman who has an adopted son, rescued from war-torn Ukraine and now a troubled, obsessive teenager called Stak.

I hope I haven’t put you off with this not entirely positive start; do stay with me. In the final part of this exploration of Zero K I hope to look more deeply into its textures and puzzles, as I try to fathom what DeLillo may possibly have been up to in this, his seventeenth novel, as he nears 80. Is it a falling-off in his notorious ‘late period’, or a return to the form of a writer often hailed as ‘America’s greatest living writer’, as the blurb on the dustjacket calls him?

Is DeLillo toying with the reader, playfully duping us into thinking this is his grimly faux sci-fi take on Margaret Atwood-esque oracular visions, after watching ‘Solaris’, ‘2001’ and other dystopian tech-horror films like Alex Garland’s 2015 ‘Ex-Machina’ (all those disturbing ‘mannequins’ lurking in the Convergence hallways)? Or is it an eschatological, metalinguistic riddle? The crushing mindlessness of corporate jargon is constantly lampooned. Gnomic aphorisms abound.

I’ll continue with such questions next time and may even attempt some answers.