Zero K – Don Delillo
Release Date: 19/05/2016
Publisher (UK): Picador
Pages: 288pp RRP: £16.99 (Hardback)
Epub edition available here (£8.79)
Zero K is a book wholly focused on the end. Don Delillo has come close to this topic in his previous works, but here he has chosen to focus on death, and what the real point of it is. Whilst he may fall short of providing a satisfying answer, he still offers us something to consider.
Delillo presents us with Jeffrey Lockhart, whose father, Ross, is a major investor in ‘Convergence’, a remote cryogenics facility, where the intelligentsia are seeking an answer to the problem of death. Ross’s wife (Jeffrey’s stepmother), Artis, is dying and has been brought to Convergence to preserve her body, so that once technology has advanced sufficiently, she can be uplifted in a technological rapture. Jeffrey’s skepticism about this is prominent throughout the early stages of the book, and I found myself right there with him: something isn’t quite right with this picture.
For someone known for his examination of the mundane in contemporary urban life, Delillo is at odds when creating the enigmatic realm of Convergence. He’s given the environment this odd monastic quality, with an air of dread permeating it, and yet left it feeling sterile and flat. The characters that we’re introduced to feel like they haunt the facility, rather than occupy it. They’re given to making grand declarations on the meanings of life and death – such as a monk who frequently gives grim monologues on oblivion, and two scientists who evangelise the coming resurrection through almost stereotypical technobabble. I actually felt a small sense of relief when the narrative has Jeffrey leaving his father at Convergence to visit New York. There he spends time with his girlfriend, Emma, and her adopted son, Stak, who spends his time learning Pashto and betting on drone strikes. This section is Delillo in his element – where conversation flows, interweaving disparate topics into something greater. It’s just a pity that we end up returning to Convergence to close the novel – Ross decides that he wants to join his wife in cryogenic suspension, as what the staff refer to as a ‘herald’. An earlier sequence of the book, presented as a haunting interlude, has a poetic monologue from the perspective of Artis herself, still conscious inside her pod (the stupid part of my brain drew a crude comparison with Metallica’s ‘One‘). Having earlier tried to entice Jeffrey to join her and Ross in cryogenic suspension, an interesting ethical dilemma is presented at these points, but is sadly left behind all too quickly.
Delillo is asking some very interesting questions about death, its meaning and its purpose, and what it does to us (how in life we have little to no control, but at the point of death we’re finally in control). The problem is that the answers aren’t quite as interesting as the questions. The points he’s making feel oddly static – it feels like his focus on death has let contemporary culture pass him by, where the average person is far more interested in living. But perhaps that’s the point. To demonstrate what really focusing on the end of your life does to you.
It’s hard to find a satisfying conclusion in this novel, to the point that John Crace’s satirical summary of it in The Guardian is quite apt (spoiler warning: Crace covers almost the entire plot). Delillo’s strengths have always been his dialogue and his sentence construction; there are some great examples on display here, but largely only in the section set outside Convergence. He is known for not providing clear endings to his work, as is the case here. I get the feeling that Zero K is likely to be mulled over for quite some time, and might yet get that second chance at life that it describes so vividly.