It is the fate of Don DeLillo to have written long enough and well enough for his style to become a template. Like Hemingway, or Cormac McCarthy, his voice elicits more than mere admiration but has become the stuff of parody. Calibrated neutrality of perspective, cosmic portentousness, autistic remove, frigid humour, mordant satire, photorealist detail: how beauty, wisdom and human feeling are generated from such unlikely materials never ceases to amaze.
Zero K, the author’s 17th novel in 44 years, should suffer from its repetitions of style and theme. Its pages explore DeLillo’s perennial concerns: money, consumerism, work, war, paranoia, politics, language – those systems that colonise our attention and shape our selves – in a manner familiar to anyone who has opened a copy of Mao II or Underworld.
And yet. In Zero K DeLillo has given readers another turn of the screw. If his best-known novel, 1985’s White Noise, has at its centre the question of our fear of death, seeing it as the force that paradoxically brings us to the table of life – that renders “every word and thing a beadwork of bright creation” – then his latest work grapples with a world from which death itself has been abolished.
This is the awesome, terrifying possibility explored by the novel, though it begins in a resolutely domestic register. We first meet Jeffrey Lockhart arriving at a complex somewhere in Uzbekistan. He has been flying for days and is disoriented by the strangeness and the scale of the place he has come to, a kind of subterranean ziggurat, archaic in structure yet filled with cutting-edge technology. He has come at the request of his father, Ross, a titan of global finance who abandoned Jeffrey and his mother when Jeffrey was a child. Jeffrey grew up in a room-and-a-half rental in Upper Manhattan. Ross grew rich and remarried a woman named Artis, an anthropologist by training whom Jeffrey came to love, even though he remains unreconciled with his father.
The complex turns out to be a remote, tectonically stable hospice in which the world’s rich give up their lives and undergo processes that will permit them to live out the looming disasters wrought by overpopulation and climate change in cloistered peace. A bewildered Jeffrey sits in on meetings with scientists and meets mystically minded monks, and gradually learns that his stepmother will undergo a procedure involving vitrification, cryopreservation and nanotechnology, leaving her a human shell with only a tremulous vein of self-awareness for the centuries of suspended animation to come.
“Are we simulating the end in order to study it, possibly to survive it?” asks one of the leaders of what we come to know as “the safehold”:
Are we adjusting to the future, moving it into our immediate time frame? At some point in the future, death will become unacceptable even as the life of the planet becomes more fragile.
“We are here to learn the power of solitude” the same speech concludes:
We are here to reconsider everything about life’s end. And we will emerge in cyberhuman form into a universe that will speak to us in a very different way.
Ross Lockhart has heavily funded the facility and done so in defiance of the 17th-century physician and writer Thomas Browne, who wrote that it “is the heaviest stone that melancholy can throw at a man, to tell him he is at the end of his nature; or that there is no further state to come...”. Jeffrey, meanwhile, cannot accept the implications of the project his father has brought to fruition in the desert. He watches on screens throughout the complex random images of war, violence, human displacement, natural disaster – and perceives the line between abstract image and real event to be breaking down.
These claustrophobic chapters cover a matter of days, an “extreme sublifetime” that the son gratefully escapes in order to return to America, New York, and “soporifics of normalcy ... days in middling drift”. We learn that he has a sometime girlfriend with a troubled adopted son. We learn, too, that Jeffrey’s desire for ordinariness is part of a striving towards that more banal immortality: a loss of the self to order and habit. Yet Jeffrey’s experience of the complex has unmoored him. It has exposed in him certain “felonies of self-perception”.
When, some time later, Ross himself grows frail, he asks Jeffrey to make one more visit to the safehold, this time to witness his father undergo the procedure and join Artis in suspended animation. The son agrees but cannot help challenging the staff about the virtue of their undertaking. Balanced against the quotation by Thomas Browne comes another, from St Augustine – the church father who argued that the worst possible evil “consists not in the separation of soul and body, but in the uniting of both in death eternal”. Never can a “man be more disastrously in death”, St Augustine concludes, than when “death itself shall be deathless”.
This complex series of rhetorical exchanges plays out against a surreal, de Chirico backdrop: the stillness of the sleepers allows Jeffrey to hear the tinnitus of looming global catastrophe all the more clearly. It is here, in a small oasis of human possibility in the midst of the desert, that the young man sees nothing but the “lunar afterlife of the planet”.
Though DeLillo does not permit Jeffrey full moral valency here. Isn’t he, too, embedded in a society determined to disappear into technology. “Haven’t you felt it?” asks one of the safehold staff:
“The loss of autonomy. The sense of being virtualized. The devices you use, the ones you carry everywhere, room to room, minute to minute, inescapably. Do you ever feel unfleshed?”
There is a grave minimalism to the final sections of the novel, a sense of longing that recalls the late prose of Samuel Beckett. It is language pared back in acknowledgement of its own limits. How to describe a world without place or society? How to shape story in a narrative taking place outside of history? The virgin solitudes at the heart of Zero K turn out to be a still, soundless projection of our coming world. AF
Pan Macmillan, 288pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 23, 2016 as "Don DeLillo, Zero K". Subscribe here.