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.