Book review: Zero K
At the end of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, astronaut Dave Bowman is reborn as a star child. As man has evolved over the centuries, Kubrick suggests, attaining more advanced states of being, this is the highest, closest to God. It’s a haunting image: a luminescent foetus in a glowing spherical sac, floating above the earth. Like an angel. A “superman”. In Don DeLillo’s Zero K, there is a similar vision of sublimity. A woman suspended in a casing, a body “lit from within”. “It was a beautiful sight. It was the human body as a model of creation.” And in a sense, the woman is also waiting to be reborn sometime in the unknowable future. In perfect, untainted, evolved form.
DeLillo’s novel centres around the theology of the body. Its corporeal form—in a way, this is his most guttural book, the most raw one, because we are inundated with bodily images, from the real to the unreal (the white, featureless mannequins littering its pages)—and its spiritualities relating to time and humanity.
The long first section of the book is set in a certain remote nowhereness. A barren landscape, which the narrator, Jeffrey Lockhart, fails to geographically contextualize. He has travelled a “marathon journey” by aeroplane, and been driven into seemingly unmapped territory to arrive at a compound of low geometric structures, bleached as the landscape. He describes them as “buildings in hiding, agoraphobically sealed”, blind buildings, “designed to fold into themselves...when the movie reaches the point of digital collapse”. It’s through this air of strangeness, and distance, that we enter the novel. As though narrator, and reader, are trapped in a movie set, everything imbued by the unreal.
Jeff is here to meet his father and ailing stepmother, and to say an “uncertain farewell” to her. In this unobtrusive phrase lies, so cleverly, the crux of the novel. For death brings the surest, most certain parting. But this is the place from which “Convergence” operates, an “endeavour”, a “faith-based technology”, a state-of-the-art hospice with a single, all-encompassing aim: to conquer death. It is a cryonic suspension facility where bodies are induced to “die” and are frozen in anticipation of that day when resurrection is medically feasible.
There is much in Zero K that would be familiar to faithful DeLillo followers: terrorism, language, signs, names, precocious youngsters, art and its consumption, money and power. Yet it feels like a struggle. At least to begin with.
DeLillo, scathing documenter and indicter of our contemporary world (or at least the US), seems dully trapped in Convergence, trying to imbue it with consequentiality and relevance. We follow our narrator around, wandering endless corridors, eating unidentifiable dishes in a soulless “food unit”, sitting in an artificial fibreglass garden where no leaves rustle. All the while the text reads dangerously, and often tediously, as philosophical treatise rather than fictional narration. But as always with DeLillo, there are also moments of beautiful writing. Out of this sterility, the two who emerge most “real” (as opposed to the handful of other characters Jeff encounters) are Jeff’s father, Ross Lockhart, and stepmother Artis.
In a section of DeLillo’s novel White Noise, a couple, Jack and Babette, discuss fretfully who should die first. It’s a strange kind of love, some might say, as they profess their feelings for each other in this manner. She wants to die first because she would feel unbearably lonely and sad without him. While he, without her, would be “miserably incomplete”. Later, though, he silently admits that in truth this is not the case: “Given a choice between loneliness and death, it would take me a fraction of a second to decide.”
Ross and Artis form an extension of Jack and Babette. Their dilemma, though, is non-hypothetical. Artis, suffering from advanced multiple sclerosis, is awaiting cryonic suspension. Later, she is the body “lit from within”. Ross, billionaire businessman, though claiming he wishes to join her, to be one of the “heralds” (persons who aren’t near a natural death yet who choose to be frozen), backs out at the end, and only two years later, returns to Convergence to complete the procedure.
In this time, we sojourn to New York. Suddenly vibrant and alive. And this is when we realize how masterfully DeLillo has structured the novel—after the clinical barrenness of the first section, where the battle is against death, here is life. In all its fleeting, fitful glory. Everything, in short, that will be loved and loathed and eventually lost.
Here, Jeff drifts, unemployed, unanchored, living in an old apartment building, dating a woman named Emma, who has a stubborn, adopted teenage son, Stak. The section brims with DeLillo’s astute observations of modernity—conversations in cab rides, TV screens that don’t switch off, the “blanked out eternities” of airports, eavesdropped phone calls. “Traffic jams,” he tells us, “are a philosophical statement.” We are dropped into the humdrum dailiness of the world.
So it was with some reluctance that I continued reading as Jeff journeyed back to Convergence. This time to say an “uncertain farewell” to his father. He is allowed further into the recesses of the hospice, to enter the rooms in which rows of human bodies stand in gleaming pods. Here, his guide tells him, since “we are able to think and speak about what can conceivably happen in time to come, why not follow our words bodily into the future tense?”
Though DeLillo isn’t known as a religious writer, it is moments like these that infuse his text with prophetic weight. As he does in most of his work, DeLillo asks the resounding questions—given the state of the world, is there anything to live for? Would life in the future be preferable to death? What does it mean to “stretch what is human”?—yet leaves us with a quiet stillness. In Zero K, this comes in the form of an ending, on a bus, that is powerfully moving. As much as the novel is about death, it is also, inescapably, about life.
Janice Pariat is the author of Boats On Land: A Collection Of Short Stories and Seahorse: A Novel.