Don DeLillo is an American author who has penned 16 novels, numerous short stories, essays and plays. His writing has won dozens of awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, The Frank O’Connor International Short Story Prize (now sadly defunct), and the PEN/Faulkner award. He has been nominated for almost every serious literary prize existing. At age 79 he is still as sharp as ever, as readers of his latest novel Zero K can attest.
The novel is set in some near future, or perhaps an alternative present, and is narrated by Jeffrey Lockhart, the only and somewhat estranged son of a billionaire named Ross.
The book opens with Jeffrey being transported to a secret location, somewhere in central Asia, in order to meet his father. Ross is one of the primary investors in a facility called the Convergence, designed to cheat death by cryonically preserving people’s bodies and keeping their minds alive through the use of nanotechnology, until an unspecified time in the future where they will be resurrected.
Ross’s wife Artis is dying and is preparing herself to transition into a transformed undead state. Jeffrey might be there to provide support for his hand-wringing father, but is too busy dealing with issues of his own and spends much of his time wandering around the empty corridors of the Convergence watching seemingly random scenes been broadcast on wall-sized screens and wondering about what lies behind the many, many doors.
Meanwhile, Ross, dealing with the grief of losing his wife, decides that if he can’t be with her in real life, at least he can join her in the artificial afterlife. The dying Artis invites Jeffrey to join them.
Up to this point the novel still held a lot of promise. I was eager to see what future DeLillo might conjure up and what role Jeffery might play there, but that was not to be.
Jeffrey is too cowardly to do anything in life and passes up on the Artis’s invitation for a promised technologically advanced and enhanced reincarnation.
We get a (mercifully) brief passage of inner monologue from a disembodied Artis, and then the action cuts back to Jeffrey, now re-established in what passes for his normal life.
Most of the rest of the novel becomes Jeffrey’s story, with Ross playing only a minor role, and Artis and her fate are barely referred to again.
The writing, particularly in the descriptions of the facility, is sparse and minimalist, conjuring up the modern architecture, and the atmosphere within, in a particularly stylish way.
But most of all, Zero K tackles big themes, or perhaps alludes to them, rather than actively grappling with them: What does it mean to be alive? What does it mean to die? What happens after death? Should we be able to choose the time and manner of our deaths? Is having billions of dollars a guarantee of happiness?
The themes are more suggested than explored. The writer gives the reader topics to think about, but doesn’t say how, or what to think – which is refreshing in many ways, being counter to the usual discussions of these topics which often revolve around dogmatic coercion and force-feeding of pre-digested opinions.
DeLillo doesn’t let us off the hook so easily, and we are left to grapple with these subjects by ourselves. That said, there is little resolution in the plot and the latter section of the book is so disconnected from the beginning that they are essentially two completely separate stories, with only tenuous links.
While DeLillo’s writing is haunting in its surgical beauty on a sentence-by-sentence level, this failure to provide answers, combined with a collection of deeply antipathetic characters, ultimately makes Zero K an unsatisfying read, though one whose images lurk in the mind, in the manner of something ingurgitated, but not fully or well digested.
Author: Don DeLillo
Publisher: Scribner, fiction