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.