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.


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

  1. [“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.”]

    Hi Simon, this brought to mind a comment you made last summer on Sara Moss and her novel. Capable writing, but too much talk, talk, talk, about abstract questions. Not enough letting the characters act, breath, live. In comparison, Camus, in “The Plague” delineates his concrete characters and their actions in a way that expresses his thoughts without him saying “Yes, and here I am telling you.. etc. etc.” But his positions on the underlying questions can be deduced. Hope you are well………… “Winter [fall] is coming…. ”

    I am pasting the Leonard Bishop comments here form the Moss comment, as I was reminded of it again:

  2. Oops! Lost my Bishop stuff. Here it is:

    Happened to come across a reference to just this topic yesterday in a rereading of a wonderful writing book (my all-time favorite) called “Dare To Be A Great Writer – 329 Keys To Powerful Fiction,” by Leonard Bishop.

    In a section called “Polemics and Sermons,” Bishop, in his typically incisive and meaty fashion cautions against these additions for two reasons:

    a.) The reader may or may not agree (at least initially) with the opinion or attitude of the writer, and “[A]ntagonsim of this type alienates the reader from deeper involvement with the book.”

    b.) “It is an intrusion. It hinders the flow of the story, the scenes, the action. It forces the reader to think about content that does not emerge from the novel’s inherent content.”

    Bishop concludes “It is not that the writer’s attitudes or beliefs have no place in the novel. The writer’s responsibility to his craft obligates him to develop characters who convey the writer’s beliefs, in their own language, in their own time, through their own situations, based on their own solid characterizations. The writer must remain where he belongs-in the background, writing.”

    • Pertinent thoughts, Maureen. I’m not familiar with Bishop, but this is a useful way of seeing the enigmatic Mr D’s novel. It did – does – truly puzzle and intrigue me. Not often a work of fiction does that in so interesting a way. But it does also have some irritating qualities.

  3. Whatever you think of Zero K in the end, it certainly makes you think! Fascinating thoughts Simon. I also found the first part of Zero K cold and stilted and missing or incomplete in some way. Then I wonder about the ‘Convergence’ and how many of DeLillo’s earlier works figure in it, like a kind of dying echo. In the end the book made me feel very sad, but I’ve read practically everything else by the man (Ratner’s Star I’ve failed at twice, and Americana I still haven’t got around to) and it felt like he was consolidating and killing his earlier work. To what end I’m not sure. I read a comment from someone somewhere about how the name Artis could be a condensing of the Latin term “Ars Longa Vita Brevis” Art is long, life is short and I think this was a very observant comment. I think this sits at the heart of what this book is, but you have to dig pretty deep to see it.

    • Thanks for this carefully considered thought, Belinda (hope that’s right). Yes, the dialogue with earlier novels is evident – air-born toxins, squat jumps, tv screens in taxis, etc etc. Is this some kind of summary swan song? I don’t know. It’s definitely about Art & Artists, as you say, & about art’s endurance in a toxic, changing, tech-fixated world. I’m still trying to figure it all out. But why weigh it down with that turgid first first 160 pp? Maybe I’m not reading well.

      • I missed the TV screen in the taxi, I’ll have to watch for that next time. I agree, the entire first section is leaden and bewildering, I feel like DeLillo had something in mind, was reaching for something, and he may well have reached it (it took him a long time to get this novel out, so I suspect it is exactly what he intended) but I don’t think I’ve grasped it and I think very few people have or will. I struggled with the book until the monks scene, and like you I almost gave up but that scene made me pick it back up again. And it reminded me in many ways of Ratner’s Star, which I haven’t been able to read all the way through yet. Something very clever and very odd about it. But what is going on? I’m glad I’m not the only one who still doesn’t know what to make of it. I will have to read it again (but would rather read The Names again first!).

        • I reread most of it as I tried to figure it out. Nearly didn’t write the post, I struggled so with what to make of ZK, but trying to formulate some views helped gain a little – limited – purchase. Good to know I wasn’t alone in nearing abandoning it. If I hadn’t been away from home without an alternative read I probably would – but I’m glad I persevered. Second section much more coherent – fewer preachy speeches & pronouncements. Certainly is an odd, uneven but interesting novel. Thanks for these useful contributions.

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