Zero K by Don DeLillo
I’m not entirely new to reading Don DeLillo. I like the idea of reading DeLillo and I have read the first quarter of his 1971 debut, Americana, for my Annabel’s Shelves project. I was really enjoying it; it started well – we were introduced to top TV executive David Bell – who, if he’d been an ad-man, would have been Mad Men‘s Don Draper. Then Bell gives it all up to make a documentary film of a road-trip exploring the disintegration of the American Dream and how it is presented on screen. This change of tack was where I paused reading, and I’ve not managed to pick up to finish the book yet.
DeLillo is now 79 and his seventeenth novel Zero K probably isn’t the best starting place for readers new to him, but given its futuristic sounding premise, I was interested in giving it a go, secretly crossing my fingers for something skirting the realms of SF as Margaret Atwood does …
Virtually every DeLillo story concerns death in one way or another, but in Zero K he confronts it head on utilising the SF trope of bodies being frozen to be revived in the future once a cure for the thing that killed them is found. However, here those über-rich folk being frozen are submitting to it voluntarily, making a kind of pilgrimage to the secret location deep inside the former Soviet Union. Billionaire Ross Lockhart has put a lot of serious money into the Convergence as it is known. As the novel begins, he is telling his son Jeffrey, our narrator, about the trip he will be making there with his second wife, Artis, who is dying from multiple sclerosis.
Jeffrey lets himself be persuaded to make the complicated journey to the Convergence to say adieu to his stepmother Artis. Once there, Jeffrey encounters a man in a cowl, who works in the hospice levels of the facility and calls himself ‘the hospitaler’ – reinforcing the sense of pilgrimage…
This place may not have been intended as the new Jerusalem but people made long journeys to find a form of higher being here, or at least scientific process that will keep their body tissue from decomposing.
Only certain parts of the facility are open to Jeffrey to wander freely. Confused by what he is experiencing as he waits for Artis to be moved to the lower levels, he wanders the halls which are full of art installations about death; eerie statues, films of people dying terrible deaths. To Jeffrey, this facility operates more like the creepy head office of an art gallery all about death – indeed it is curated by conceptual artists that Jeffrey calls the Stenmark twins, (presumably after the Australian models, right). Artis doesn’t have long now…
They would come and take her. They would wheel her into an elevator and take her down to one of the so-called numbered levels. She would die, chemically prompted, in a subero vault, in a highly precise medical procedure guided by mass delusion, by superstition and arrogance and self-deception.
I felt a surge of anger. I hadn’t known until now the depth of my objections to what was happening here, a response obscurely coiled within the rhythms of my father’s voice in his desperate reminiscence.
He is even more confused and angry when his father says he is thinking of joining his wife.
At this stage, the novel could have jumped off into a full-blown SF thriller, (it reminded me at times of how much I loved Robin Cook’s Coma back in the day). But, it doesn’t. We leave the facility to explore Jeffrey’s life instead with his girlfriend Emma and her adopted Ukranian orphan son Stak who is troubled and troubling. After the weirdness of the first half of the novel, this segment is deliberately mundane – for Jeffrey is a man without a clear vision of his own future – in contrast to his father, he can’t see predict his own ‘Last Things’. Some twists in the tail though, allow the conclusion, but I won’t say any more.
Zero K is very thought-provoking. The imagery is really intense and full of eschatological references to death from Christian theology and other creeds and religions. The more I thought about the Convergence, the more it felt like a death cult for rich people – they were all so earnest about it and I really didn’t like that.
He captures the strained relationship between Jeffrey and his father very well – Ross having abandoned young Jeffrey and his mother Madeline, whom Jeffrey doted on, and was mostly absent while Jeffrey grew up, making his millions. Jeffrey was hard to warm to though and this coolness prevails throughout the novel in all senses.
I found no humour at all in DeLillo’s writing in Zero K – it was all so beautiful and serious, but icy cold. His descriptions though did allow some funny images from elsewhere to pop into my brain – Futurama‘s heads in jars (see right) and the plastinated corpses exhibited by Gunther Von Hagens – I had to find some grim humour somewhere.
I’m glad to have read this novel. If I’d loved it, I would have reviewed it for Shiny New Books, but didn’t love it enough for that. It does have a cracking first line though… (6.5/10)
Everybody wants to own the end of the world.
Source: Publisher via Amazon Vine
Don DeLillo, Zero K (Picador, May 2016), Hardback, 288 pages.