Don DeLillo’s most recent novel Zero K (2016) is one of his slimmer volumes, divided into two ten-chapter parts with an anomalous sliver of a section in the middle. In Part 1, the first-person narrator Jeffrey travels to a remote area in the former USSR to a facility known as “the Convergence,” where he’s meeting his wealthy titan-of-global-finance father, Ross Lockhart. Ross (whom Jeffrey refers to as such) is having his wife, Jeffrey’s stepmom Artis, cryogenically frozen as a way to preserve her life since she’s dying from complications related to multiple sclerosis. The facility is highly ascetic, with its defining features being tasteless food, female mannequins, knobless doors, an absence of windows, and screens playing a series of apocalyptic images. Jeffrey hears talks about the philosophy behind the facility from its twin-brother founders, who believe they’re at the forefront of a new consciousness, and, with a pseudo monk, visits the hospice section where people are waiting to die before being frozen. We get some backstory about Jeffrey being raised alone by his mother after his father left; she’s since died of a stroke. As a person Jeffrey is generally obsessed with numbers and labels, especially the fact that his father changed his name as a young man. He is very upset when his father tells him that he’s decided to go with Artis and be frozen himself, ending his life prematurely, but then at the last second Ross backs out and decides to return to New York City with Jeffrey. Right before they leave, Jeffrey sees a video of panicked people fleeing something on one of the screens and it occurs to him that the images aren’t real but digitally manipulated, but then apparently real people come barreling down the hall toward him, including the founding twin brothers.
We then get a brief section depicting Artis’s consciousness inside her Convergence pod, which consists largely of first-person questions stated as sentences and third-person italicized actual sentences, apparently reflecting her now split self:
She is first person and third person with no way to join them together.
In Part 2, Jeffrey is in New York City two years later, dating a woman, Emma, who has a 14-year-old adopted son from the Ukraine named Stack who only visits her rarely and becomes increasingly delinquent and/or disconnected, eventually quitting school. Jeffrey goes on lots of job interviews but eschews his father’s drive for money. His father is deteriorating in Artis’s absence and eventually tells Jeffrey he wants to go back to the Convergence, and Jeffrey, after finally taking a new job as a “compliance and ethics officer” for a college, agrees to travel with him. They go back right after Emma tells Jeffrey that Stack has disappeared, seemingly voluntarily. Jeffrey hears another lecture, this time from just one of the twin brothers, about how they’re escaping the world’s eventually ending in war, and then he watches as Ross is readied for his cryogenic chamber. He’s told by an escort how Ross’s benefaction enabled a lot of the work and shown the room with all the bodies in pods, then Artis in a special pod with an empty one next to her where Ross will go. He watches images of war unfold on one of the screens showing a bunch of soldiers, and one of them is Emma’s son Stack, whom he watches get shot and die. He returns to New York, picks up his job at the college and settles into a “soft life.” Emma tells him what happened to Stack and returns to live with Stack’s father, while Jeffrey doesn’t tell her he saw it happen and regrets not sharing more of himself with her, like his history with his parents, instead attempting to present himself to her “in isolation.” He witnesses the moment that occurs once a year when the sun’s rays perfectly align with Manhattan’s street grid and appreciates a possibly mentally disabled boy’s corresponding cries of wonder. The End.
I was partially inspired to start this blog by a bookseller’s comment that a novel didn’t “work”; that novel was Don DeLillo’s Great Jones Street, which I still haven’t read and probably won’t for awhile, after this most recent reading experience. The bookseller’s comment led me to declare a philosophy that in evaluating creative work my students and I are “not looking for what is ‘wrong,’ but for what it can teach us,” and, at the risk of sounding snarky, it seems like what’s predominantly to be learned in this case is that if you’ve published fifteen novels to general acclaim and are a familiar name, you can publish a book that if written by a nobody would never see the light of day, namely because it would seem like a hackneyed DeLillo ripoff.
I had to slog my way through this book–this is the term that recurred to me repeatedly as I listened to the audiobook, slog, and I don’t know that I would have been able to complete this slog through the print version. I was really only able to make it through with the hope that Part 2 was going to offer a significant narrative shift in which we leapt to the future and discovered what life was really going to be like for the people who had elected to cryogenically freeze themselves. The closest we get to this is the middle section with Artis’s narration from her pod, which for me was the most painful of the entire book. Her sentence-question “Does it keep going on like this” defines my experience, and the answer is, unfortunately, yes, it does keep going on like this. In a charitable reading of the novel, it seems like DeLillo is intentionally withholding what lies on the other side of the pod in a replication of real-life experience; after all, as Jeffrey puts it to a completely random figure who appears in a completely random simulation of an English garden after he’s struggling with his father’s decision to be frozen with Artis:
“It’s only human to want to know more, and then more, and then more,” I said. “But it’s also true that what we don’t know is what makes us human. And there’s no end to not knowing.”
This quote is also as good an example as any of the novel consisting predominantly of philosophy with a veneer of character so thin you can see the blankness through its eyeholes. Jeffrey’s defining characteristic of being obsessed with names and labels felt like quintessential DeLillo, and it also made me want to throttle him–and “him” can apply to both Jeffrey and DeLillo–before smashing his head–and my own for good measure–against a brick wall. To perform a DeLilloan quantification, the word “name” appears in the book 167 times. Clearly the “character” is trying to impose order on a disordered world, and the repetitiveness and redundancy of it is likely commentary on the redundancy of life and our struggle to make sense of it, but this is not packaged in any kind of a remotely compelling narrative.
Part of what seems to contribute to Jeffrey’s utter lack of compellingness is his utterly passive nature. He is a witness, a peripheral figure thrust into the center. While witnesses can certainly tell a more compelling character’s story–The Great Gatsby being perhaps the most famous example–Nick Carraway’s understanding of the world is irrevocably shifted by the events he bears witness to. While I could sense a technical reversal/revelation for the character of Jeffrey in the final chapter in his preferring to appreciate the ugly sounds of a disabled boy’s excitement over the more objectively beautiful source of that excitement, it left me cold as it must be in the Convergence pods. Which again seems like it could be the ultimate intent, considering the tile, explained thus:
The guide explained the meaning of the term Zero K. This was rote narration, with plotted stops and restarts, and it concerned a unit of temperature called absolute zero, which is minus two hundred and seventy-three point one five degrees celsius. A physicist named Kelvin was mentioned, he was the K in the term. The most interesting thing the guide had to say was the fact that the temperature employed in cryostorage does not actually approach zero K.
I did not feel Jeffrey’s shift, because I never felt like he was a real person. If it was DeLillo’s goal to execute a cold, emotionless novel, then well done, though I’m still struggling with what the purpose of this would be. Perhaps it’s a commentary on the lives that the people who are freezing themselves will ultimately be living, against the grand declarations of the facility. Though Part 1’s conclusion that as soon as Jeffrey starts to think the images on the screens are fake they prove to be real, further underscored in Part 2 by Emma confirming Stack’s death, seems to undermine this reading, since Jeffrey is a primary advocate of the idea that the Convergence is offering a false promise.
It seems that part of his character’s reversal at the end is supposed to be regret over his cold emotionlessness, for his presenting himself “in isolation” to Emma, but this reversal achieves no emotional warmth for a character who’s always been a hollow mask for the philosophy of what a slog life is. Perhaps we’re meant to perceive his embracing of a “soft life” in the face of his father’s grandiose ambitions to embody a heretofore unknown consciousness as heroic, but it’s hard to feel this without feeling him as an actual human being. Jeffrey seems to show the most emotion when Ross tells him his decision to be frozen with Artis, but this quickly devolves into nonsensical melodrama when he asks
“Do you understand how this reduces me?”
“I’m shamed by this, totally diminished.”
There’s not a clear context for why he feels this way, as he himself admits later:
“You thought you knew who your father was. Isn’t this what you meant when you said you felt reduced by this decision?”
“I don’t know what I meant.”
He has no clear fears or desires, and so does not feel human.
Then there’s the character of Artis, whose name is comprised of the words “art is,” seeming to offer art as a potential balm to life’s slog–she’s the one who gets Jeffrey’s money-grubbing father to appreciate art and history, after all–in which case DeLillo’s apparent goal to replicate life’s slog so exactingly seems doomed from the outset. It frequently seems like the meaning he’s aiming for is that words are meaningless shells, which for a novelist would be fairly self-defeating.
Of course, this is just one reader’s opinion. Joshua Ferris fairly drooled over the novel in his New York Times book review, concluding the polar opposite of what I have:
…it all adds up to one of the most mysterious, emotionally moving and formally rewarding books of DeLillo’s long career.
DeLillo’s characters can often sound more like delivery mechanisms for existential inquiry than like real people.
…Jeff is not so much his own man as a case study in contemporary alienation.
I confess that Zero K drove me a bit mad.
I feel less mad knowing I am not alone.