Zero K: Mixed Feelings about a Cold Novel

ZERO K (2016)
By Don DeLillo
Charles Scribner's Sons, 281 pages

New York Times critic Joshua Ferris nailed it when he said that we don't read Don DeLillo for "plot, character, setting" or other conventional novelistic devices. His characters face dilemmas, but these are often more zeitgeist-related than personal or moral. Few writers are as skilled at presenting existential angst as DeLillo, but his postmodern sensibilities and sense of emotional detachment often leave readers feeling empty. For me, Zero K fell into that ambiguous category of an impressive novel that I didn't like very much.

It would be bad wordplay to say that Zero K left me cold, as it is a book about coldness. Its title derives from theoretical absolute zero on the Kelvin scale (-459.67 degrees Fahrenheit), the temperature at which atoms would no longer move. It's a clever title for a book about cryogenics. Is cryogenics, like absolute zero, a concept that exists as yet-unrealized theory? Or is cryogenics the ultimate realization of Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal (1957), a way to play chess against Death and win? What is the mind? What is the body? Is there a soul? One can't even begin to formulate an opinion about cryogenics without first wrestling with such ancient philosophical conundrums. And, if there is an independent mind and soul, where do they go when their hosts are flash frozen?

DeLillo isn't writing science fiction. There is a facility in Scottsdale, Arizona, where (at last count) 144 frosty bodies lie in state–including the head of baseball legend Ted Williams. Tech guru Ray Kurzweil is among those wishing to check in when his hourglass drains its last grain of sand–that is, assuming his technological fix for death is not yet possible. Kurzweil believes that at some point, we will be able to do brain and memory dumps onto computer hard drives. Add new twists to the ancient philosophical queries: Can the mind exist independently from a body? What is the quality of a mind-activated avatar life? All (current) cryogenics rest on the assumption that science is the new god everlasting–stay frozen long enough and science will develop a cure for what killed you.

Zero K centers on the character of Jeff Lockhart, the not-even-close-to-doing-well son of billionaire finance capitalist Ross Lockhart, from whom Jeff has been semi-estranged for many years. He is invited by his father to accompany him and his dying second wife, Artis Martineau, to Convergence, a secret facility somewhere in a remote section of Asia Minor built with Ross' money. There, Artis will undergo assisted suicide and immediate internment in a freezer capsule. Jeff is free to investigate most of the facility and contemplate Artis' last challenge: "Come with us." Ross isn't quite ready, but Jeff returns two years later when Ross goes into the capsule beside Artis. As he awaits his father's procedure, Jeff views montages of the world's horrors on large TV monitors: floods, earthquakes, executions, epidemics, and wars. It's hard for Jeff to watch all of this, given the nature of his own life and a recent end of a weird relationship.

DeLillo didn't invent the concept of Convergence either. In 1987, followers of various beliefs loosely labeled "New Age" awaited the "Harmonic Convergence" when the planets went into their once-every-10,000-years alignment. Synchronous mediation across the globe was supposed to usher in an age of peace, ecological balance, and universal tolerance. (The comic strip Doonesbury parodied the Convergence in a series of strips that recently re-ran.) These days, the concept of Technological Convergence has become fashionable–the now-familiar idea that improvement in one area of technology often leads to advances in other areas. (A Swiss Army knife is one example; your multi-purpose cell phone another.) 

DeLillo's novel is where the two convergences come together in a Kurzweilian way. At its best, Zero K is creepier than a Stephen King horror offering and as surreal as anything Franz Kafka wrote. It is certainly provocative on many levels, including the question of where the lines lie between skepticism, narcissism, religious seeking, life, and death. But then we touch upon other questions: How does one feel about postmodernist prose that is simultaneously elegant and sterile? Is DeLillo's novel ultimately nothing more than a literary strip tease? Or worse, is it just a frozen zombie book? Worse still–are the questions raised in this review more intriguing than the book?

Many critics have placed this on their Best of 2016 list. As for me, I'm a bit like Jeff Lockhart; I can't decide. If this sounds like something you'd like, give it a whirl; if not, walk away. But do not think of it as you would most novels.

Rob Weir

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