Don DeLillo is thinking about death.
Admittedly, that’s not breaking news. DeLillo has been thinking about death — his, ours, America’s — over the whole span of his extraordinary career. But now, at 79, the author of such modern classics as “White Noise” and “Underworld” has produced his most funereal novel.
“Zero K,” a slim, grim nightmare in print, opens with a trip halfway around the world. The narrator, a young man named Jeffrey Lockhart, has been summoned to the Convergence, a compound in the desert near the capital of Kyrgyzstan. There he’s greeted by his powerful father, “a man shaped by money,” who has poured his billions into creating a secret facility that’s part laboratory, part mausoleum — “science awash in irrepressible fantasy.” Designed to keep human bodies frozen in cryonic suspension for millennia, the Convergence is the most ambitious life-after-death scheme since the pharaohs built the pyramids.
Jeffrey has arrived just in time to speak with his sick stepmother before her failing body is chilled close to zero degrees Kelvin and encased in a glass tube in hopes of being resurrected after the last trump sounds. “Nothing here is speculative,” Jeffrey’s father says with his typical arrogance. “This place was designed by serious people. . . . It’s real, it’s true, it delivers.”
This being a DeLillo novel — Disney’s “Frozen” for the hospice crowd — each of those three claims is highly problematic. It’s never clear what’s real, what’s true or what might deliver here in a facility “located at the far margins of plausibility.” We experience this “concentrated lesson in bewilderment” only from Jeffrey’s skeptical point of view. The Convergence feels like a hospital designed by Steven Millhauser: endless, almost identical corridors radiating out in every direction. Looking for his father’s office, Jeffrey chooses a door at random and knocks. When a stranger appears, he apologizes and says, “I must have the wrong door.”
“They’re all the wrong door,” the man tells him.
As Jeffrey ambles around in this Twilight Zone haze, he encounters other enigmatic characters, particularly an orphic monk who serves as a counselor to the dearly befrozen. And there are satiric set pieces, too, that remind us that DeLillo began as an advertising copywriter: “Die a while, then live forever!” In a conference room, philosophers, biologists, geneticists, ethicists and futurists consider the demands of eternity, led by a set of pale-skinned twins who declare: “We want to stretch the boundaries of what it means to be human — stretch and then surpass. We want to do whatever we are capable of doing in order to alter human thought and bend the energies of civilization.” During a sales pitch to prospective human popsicles, the proponents of the Convergence promise, “Life everlasting belongs to those of breathtaking wealth. . . . It’s no longer a teasing whisper you hear in your sleep. This is real. You can think beyond the godlike touch of fingertip billions. Take the existential leap. Rewrite the sad grim grieving play script of death in the usual manner.”
If the Convergence sounds like L. Ron Hubbard at Davos, DeLillo keeps the wackiness smothered in a blanket of despair. We’re never allowed to forget that as crazy as this scheme is, it’s a response to a world gone insane. All along the halls of the complex hang video monitors showing a montage of environmental collapse, military destruction and social upheaval. Sure, this facility offers “a highly precise medical procedure guided by mass delusion, by superstition and arrogance and self-deception,” but as Jeffrey asks himself, “Doesn’t the fact of imminent death encourage the deepest self-delusion?” One of the sentinels of the Convergence points out, “Half the world is redoing its kitchens, the other half is starving.” Given this “psychological pandemic,” who wouldn’t want to fall asleep during today’s slow-burning apocalypse and wake up thousands years hence, clad in a fresh body in a world of perpetual peace?
The trademark DeLillo themes are here, of course, coolly updated for the Internet age: “Haven’t you felt it?” one of the directors asks. “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? All the coded impulses you depend on to guide you. All the sensors in the room that are watching you, listening to you, tracking your habits, measuring your capabilities. All the linked data designed to incorporate you into the megadata. Is that something that makes you uneasy? Do you think about the technovirus, all systems down, global implosion? Or is it more personal? Do you feel steeped in some horrific digital panic that’s everywhere and nowhere?”
That passage is an almost perfect crystallization of this author’s abiding concerns, but the whole novel offers up phrases that are sure to be recycled in reverent tweets for years. From “the soporifics of normalcy” to “the numbing raptures of the Web,” “Zero K” captures us “trapped in our own obsessive clamor.” At its sharpest, the book is truly provocative; at its weakest, it sounds like another hectoring issue of Adbusters, e.g. “Technology has become a force of nature. We can’t control it. It comes blowing over the planet and there’s nowhere for us to hide.”
You’re spoiling my latte, old man.
And yet I don’t mean to give the impression that “Zero K” is merely a shadow play of technological and environmental paranoia. Indeed, if you first sampled this novel through the excerpt that appeared in the New Yorker in February, you know that it has a more humane and personal side, too. Much of the story focuses on Jeffrey’s intense struggle to define himself in relation to his father, who left the family years ago. Back in America, after his unsettling sojourn in the desert, the young man finds himself drifting, unable to decide on a job or to hold together a relationship. Far from the novel’s sci-fi opening, the story concludes in the most pedestrian setting, but with Jeffrey’s cry of exquisite insight in a crippled world.
If there’s a certain lack of surprise in “Zero K,” it’s only because we’re now so fully infected with the anxiety that DeLillo diagnosed decades ago. But time has done nothing to diminish this writer’s casually epigraphic style, his daring narrative choreography nor his sensitivity to the swelling fears of our age.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
On May 3 at 7 p.m., Don DeLillo will be at Sixth & I, 600 I St. NW, Washington. Call 202-364-1919 for tickets.
By Don DeLillo
Scribner. 274 pp. $27