A review of Don DeLillo’s Zero K

I am suspicious of literary authority. Like political authority, it demands hierarchy, separates the worthy from the unworthy and imposes laws and restrictions upon behavior. For some time now–ever since his 1998 novel Underworld at least–the authoritarians of culture have bestowed the mantle of greatness upon Don DeLillo. Now 79 years old, DeLillo is considered one of the masters of the novel and reviews of his latest (and perhaps last) work, Zero K, have been on the cover of The New York Times Book Review, and in every major publication that still dedicates space to books. DeLillo has the stamp of literary immortality.

Which is ironic considering that so much of DeLillo’s work is about exposing the emptiness of power and the corruption of authority. Further, his early novels were either ignored or dismissed by many these same authorities (The Times called his third novel an “immense disappoint ment”), and for years DeLillo existed as a literary outsider. His eighth novel, White Noise, was a cult classic, but crossed over into mainstream respect with the 1985 National Book Award.

I suppose most writers are writing for immortality–they want their bodies of work to outlive their physical beings. For most of us, the ultimate authority is death. Some writers, however, get to live on. Zero K is all about trying to live forever and underneath the story of a compound of cryogenic delusionists is the story of a writer dealing with his own grasping at the straws of immortality.

Perhaps the greatest influence DeLillo has on other writers is his ability to create atmosphere. Typically doom-laden, DeLillo novels are filled with a dread for what’s coming our way. Sometimes it’s an “airborne toxic event” (White Noise) or mass psychosis (Mao II), and in Zero K the demise of civilization is always lurking: climate-induced disasters, catastrophic meteors and depictions of an outside world in chaos randomly appear.

A contingent of wealthy seekers has insulated themselves from the world by building an underground facility called the Convergence somewhere in the desolate part of eastern Russia. DeLillo effectively buries the reader in the compound and creates a claustrophobic world where people go to live forever. Eventually. First they must die. Zero K is absolute zero–the temperature never quite achieved by the process of cryogenics.

Billionaire Ross Lockhart has funded the Zero K program, and brings his son Jeffrey to witness his transition to a cryogenic state–Ross had previously reneged on a promise to “die” with his ailing wife and let her go on to the frozen future without him. The writing throughout most of Zero K is flat; there are very few literary flourishes and not much tension. DeLillo depicts the Convergence in dry, alienating prose befitting an environment that embraces the future and abandons the hope for a vibrant lifeaffirming present. The absurdly wealthy can no longer insulate themselves from the perils of their time and look to a future of medical advances granting immortality after they are revived. It’s a weird kind of utopia devoid of the problems of the poor–only the rich believers in the value of their precious lives will have invested in a cryogenic future.

DeLillo juxtaposes the dry desert-like environs of the Convergence with the son’s city life with his lover Emma and her son Stak. Only here, in the world where life is still finite, does DeLillo let his writing breathe with human desire: “Things people do, ordinarily, forgettably, things that breathe just under the surface of what we acknowledge having in common. I want these gestures, these moments to have meaning, check the wallet, check the keys, something that draws us together, implicitly, lock and relock the front door, inspect the burners on the stove for dwindling blue flame or seeping gas.”

DeLillo is not a writer to go to for emotional release or for tears. Zero K is not a novel of plotted sentimentality. Its emotional power is subtle. Is it possible the most moving moments include Jeffrey Lockhart’s repeated insistence on checking the expiration dates of his food and not in the deathless death of his father and step-mother? Oddly, yes. It is the small, repeated insistences on staying here, alive, that DeLillo embraces. The neurotic repetitions of life that keep us attached to our lives, however small, outweigh the narcissistic dream of living forever.

Still, it’s hard not to read Zero K as DeLillo’s grappling, at age 79, with his own desire for everlasting life. There’s a section two-thirds of the way through the novel that suddenly reads like aphorisms on the writing process: “What I understand comes from nowhere. I don’t know what I understand until I say it.” DeLillo is aware of the writer’s necessary narcissism; he’s just not charmed by it. The literary authorities have already determined that DeLillo will live on; Zero K makes me wonder if DeLillo thinks it’s such a great idea.