Zero K: The Master Speaketh


Every time another Don DeLillo novel is published I wonder if it will be his last. He is 79 this year, the author of 16 masterful novels, three plays, and a story collection. I eased into his latest novel Zero K with the master’s age in mind, reading gingerly at first, cautious; it pains me to imagine DeLillo’s mighty pen reduced by the erosion of age. But soon I’m reading at that familiar tempo that lives in his novels, a pulse of language that carries the reader through, slowly, returning over almost every sentence to examine the breadth and beauty of them.

Just as the pulse of language runs through each novel, there’s also a feeling, an ethos of paranoia, intelligent detachment, but also something unique to each work. White Noise makes us afraid and self-aware, Great Jones Street isolates us. We are particles adrift in the great expanse of Underworld. All DeLillo’s works carry an electric hum, Kubrickian overtones, post-modern antiseptic, and the desperate search for perfection. Zero K is no different. What makes it unique among DeLillo’s works is its ability to pull humanity from inhuman subjects and abstract space. It’s largely a novel about science, or cryogenics, in particular. From the book jacket:

Jeffrey Lockhart’s father, Ross, is a billionaire in his sixties, with a younger wife, Artis Martineau, whose health is failing. Ross is the primary investor in a remote and secret compound where death is exquisitely controlled and bodies are preserved until a future time when biomedical advances and new technologies can return them to a life of transcendent promise. Jeff joins Ross and Artis at the compound to say “an uncertain farewell” to her as she surrenders her body. 

“We are born without choosing to be. Should we have to die in the same manner? Isn’t it a human glory to refuse to accept a certain fate?” 

These are the questions that haunt the novel and its memorable characters, and it is Ross Lockhart, most particularly, who feels a deep need to enter another dimension and awake to a new world. For his son, this is indefensible. Jeff, the book’s narrator, is committed to living, to experiencing “the mingled astonishments of our time, here, on earth.” 

Don DeLillo’s seductive, spectacularly observed and brilliant new novel weighs the darkness of the world—terrorism, floods, fires, famine, plague—against the beauty and humanity of everyday life; love, awe, “the intimate touch of earth and sun.” 

But as with all DeLillo’s novels, it’s about so much more. It might not be his final novel but it is one of his best. DeLillo masterfully weaves readers through themes of suspension (physical and metaphysical), re-immersion, immortality, and our growing dependence on technology. But there’s also something soft at work here, burrowing, delicate as human flesh. There is love and grief and human sacrifice. The novel cuts but kisses our wounds. And I’ll probably not forget it for months.

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