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


Prodigal Parish a Problematic Catholic Fantasy

Leo F. White
Book Baby, 302 pp.

Mine is one of many New England towns in which Roman Catholic churches are closing faster than standup comics with stage fright. It's also among those in which there is a small band of ageing parishioners who refuse to accept that they are too few in number and too shallow in the pocket to maintain their once-grand but now–crumbling church. It has been closed and desanctified, but quixotic lawsuits persist and the occasional guerilla occupation occur. It is its own statement that more Catholics these days fret over parish closings than the church's ongoing sexual abuse cover-ups.

All of this is to say that Leo F. White's murder mystery Prodigal Parish is no Spotlight. It's mostly a Catholic fantasy novel, and a wooden, clichéd, recycled one at that. It is set in Boston, where St. Theresa's–known as the "Poor People's Parish"–sits on Everton Street* uncomfortably near the well-heeled St. Matthew's. The diocese has already decided to close St. Theresa's once its elderly priest, Father Coniglio, dies. Forget the fact that few will trek to St. Matthew's, which is far too rich for the blood of those in a area that has crossed the line from being a down-market working class neighborhood to a social problems repository of drugs, rough bars, motorcycle gangs, and organized crime. In White's book, men more interested in pomp and money than in social uplift run the Boston Diocese. If Father Moore had his way, St. Theresa's would already be on the auction block. Alas, his otherwise hard-shelled superior, Cardinal Burke, has a soft spot for Father Coniglio, a friend from seminary. Instead, Burke and Moore appoint Father Wesley to be Coniglio's associate priest with the charge of being a combination caregiver/spy. (Moore also wants him to run the old barn into the ground.)

Wesley doesn't want the job for the very reasons Moore thinks he's perfect–it's the old 'hood he left in order to cleanse his long list of failures and sins: heartbreak, an alcoholic family, a stalled boxing career, a DUI fatality, prison….  Wesley is both street- and brain-smart; he realizes that Moore views him as the perfect patsy: the unsavory local who will engineer the demise of a beloved parish. Watch two old Bing Crosby films in which he portrays Father Chuck O'Malley–1944's Going My Way and its 1945 sequel, The Bells of St. Mary's. Mash them, take out the comedy, interject a dose of Karl Malden from On the Waterfront, a tiny bit of Father Ralph de Bricassant from The Thorn Birds, mix in some paste-up locals, and you've got Prodigal Parish. As readers easily surmise from chapter three on, Father Wesley has other plans for his return of the prodigal son act: interjecting new life to St. Theresa's and honoring her social mission. Let the cheap hooks rain down from heaven: a big mutt named Shagtyme, a gang leader with a heart of gold, inept hoodlums, wayward girls, parents with turn-of-the-20th-century, values, an aborted abortion, wide-eyed children…. And did you ever notice that young priests are always ex-boxers? There's nary a lacrosse, tennis, or video game player among them. (Of course, in today's world, there aren't many young ones either!)

This is a classic good-versus-evil tale pitting dreamers against schemers. I give White credit for tossing in a few plot turns I didn't see coming, but most of this book is as predictable as post-sunset darkness. To return to my opening comments, it's a Catholic fantasy novel in which it is possible to turn back the clock and reset the ethos that marked the church's prelapsarian glory days. It's easy to imagine White himself as a sit-in parishioner seeking a reset. 

White is better at plot than prose. He repeats words and phrases, skirts histrionic borders, descends into sentimentalism, and oversimplifies conflict resolution. Subplots involving violence and swindle are engaging enough to make Prodigal Parish a non-taxing summer read for Catholic lads and lasses. Alas, I'm not Catholic and I read it in November.

Rob Weir

 * Postscript: There is an Everton Street in the Dorchester section of Boston and both a St. Matthew's (Ashmont/Dorchester) and a St. Theresa-Avila (West Roxbury). They are not close in distance (6.5 miles) and I have no idea whether White used these as models, though sections of Dorchester fit the social profile he assigns for St. Theresa's Parish.  


The Nix: Riding Toward Doom?

THE NIX (2016)
By Nathan Hill
Knopf, 625 pages.

The Nix is an inventive novel,  but first a bit of Norwegian folklore to enhance the background. Christianity supplanted older Norwegian religions in the 11th century but, as in many parts of Europe, it never succeeded in destroying them. Nature spirits, elves, imps, and other such magical beings remained part of the vernacular. How much people believed in them is a matter of debate akin in modern America to that over the efficacy (or not) of luck, superstition, intuition, and prayer. Most scholars argue that common folks throughout history outwardly profess sanctioned religion and privately practice a belief smorgasbord.

In Nathan Hill's novel, two spirits collide: the nisse and the nix. It's up to you to decide whether these are for-real Old World spirits, metaphors, or a bit of both. Nisse are mischievous spirits akin to English brownies–house sprites that reside in the cellar and raise small havoc like moving things and causing chimney back drafts. They're usually benign, but they hate to be dissed or get wet, so be respectful and if you spill water, apologize immediately. The nisse are powerful, short-tempered, hold grudges, and can place a curse on you. You definitely want to avoid the nix–a Germanized version of the Norwegian nøkk–which are malevolent. They appear as beautiful horses, but woe to those who mount one as they rush headlong into the sea and drown their riders.

The Nix revolves around mother and son Faye and Samuel Andresen-Anderson: double Norwegian Americans, if you will, and each other's nix. The story is non-linear; hence we meet Samuel in 2007, when he's 34, still harboring a grudge over the fact that his mother disappeared when he was 11. He's also failing to complete a book, pining over the loss of the love of his life, and holding a monstrous mortgage on a now-worthless apartment, courtesy of the housing market collapse. He teaches literature at a third-rate college in Chicago whose students would rather juggle hamsters than read Hamlet, and a few of them are toxic nasty. To top off the pain, Samuel's publisher for his non-existent book threatens to sue for the return of a long-spent advance. Basically, Samuel's a loser whose sole pleasure has become addiction: he compulsively plays an online fantasy game called Elfscape. (I gather this is based partly on Pure Pwnage, a Canadian mockumentary about an obsessive video gamer. Elfscape's best player calls himself Pwnage.)

We also meet Faye in 2007—aged 61 and the center of a media frenzy when she hurls a handful of gravel that strikes red meat Republican Sheldon Packer, a mash between Paul LePage, Scott Walker, and Donald Trump. Suddenly Faye is the "Packer Attacker" and a manufactured terrorist–courtesy of a Fox News surrogate that propels Packer to the fore of the POTUS wannabe pack. No real info on Faye Andresen-Anderson? No problem–find a few old photos, set loose the shock jocks, and invent a back story. Or better yet, let Samuel off his debt hook if he agrees to an instant biography exposing his mother's unfit parenting, her radical past, and her propensity for violence. Not easy when you've not seen someone since you were 11, but not necessarily a deal-breaker given that such a book has already been mostly ghost written and it's his name that's wanted, not his prose!

If you think I'm giving away too much, you're wrong. This is just the setup to Hill's sprawling novel. The Nix has spawned comparisons to everyone from Charles Dickens and Thomas Pynchon to David Foster Wallace. Those seem a stretch, but let's toss in John Irving for the careful plotting and the shit-just-happens circumstances of the main characters, and perhaps a dollop of E. L. Doctorow for the deft mix of fictional and historical characters. Hill moves us back and forth from Samuel's Iowa boyhood, his intense friendship with rich bad boy Bishop, his obsession with Bishop's sister, and his mother's mysterious disappearance. Hill takes us even deeper into Faye's past: the burdens of being female before and during the 'liberated' 1960s, her fixation on Allen Ginsberg, her escape from Iowa, and a few months of college in Chicago, just in time to be swept up in the drama of the Yippies and the chaotic 1968 Democratic convention. Real-life figures such as Hubert Humphrey, Walter Cronkite, and Mayor Daley are woven into the narrative. So too are sadistic cops, hints of the COINTELPRO program, and many other late 60s references.

Many readers will enjoy Hill's take-down of contemporary culture even more than the history lesson. His send-up of the fake news cycle and the tools of modern fascism are, perhaps, too chillingly real to be as amusing as he intended, but he's not letting liberals off the hook either. He has nothing good to say about political correctness, coddling college campus culture, the cult of money, or the shallowness of the pop industry. Hill serves us a roll of Sweet Tarts–candy whose sweetness gives way to sourness. He seems to be saying that if want to know why things are they way they are, it's because we're too distracted to pay attention. Our distraction might well be the American nix.

Rob Weir