My DeLillo shelf is home to White Noise, Underworld, The Body Artist, Ratner’s Star, and now the writer’s newest: Zero K. There are conspicuous absences, but I like this lineup. White Noise and Underworld, obviously stars of the show. Ratner’s Star, not as much. The Body Artist was just strange–a dollar at a used book sale and a way to occupy myself for an evening. And while I wouldn’t rank Zero K quite up there with White Noise, my favorite DeLillo, it was definitely one of the more perplexing and pleasantly odd reads I’ve worked through in a while. It was quintessential and vintage DeLillo.
Zero K is not an easy read. It’s deeply strange and the prose is about as dense as the ideas DeLillo is confronting. With any book, it takes a little while to really gain traction and move steadily forward through the text, but with Zero K, I never feel that I was fully digging in to the textual ground of the novel. I gained enough traction to move forward and reach the end, but it was like driving on black ice–my engine was revving and my tires were spinning at a rate that was not consistent with my apparent headway.
I will not take you through too much of the plot, as I want anybody who reads this post to read the book itself and experience it as I did, because it was a rewarding experience albeit a sometimes uncomfortable one (for reasons I will get into soon). What I will address is the overarching idea that drives the book forward and the subtle details that enhance this idea. The idea: immortality. The details: the emptiness of life without death.
The protagonist, Jeffrey, is taken to an underground cryonics facility (The Convergence) where his stepmother, Artis, and later his father, Ross Lockhart, are to be preserved and primed to become citizens of the future world. In their being frozen, they will become infused with knowledge, a deeper awareness that will allow them to become the leaders of the utopian society they’ll inhabit once they’re unfrozen. Ross is a successful man with plenty of wealth. He believes deeply in this mission while Jeffrey remains skeptical, engaging questions (in discourse with a “monk”) like “What’s the point in living if we don’t die at the end of it?”
This was the defining question of the novel for me. What’s the point? My answer, the answer I extracted from the text, was that there is no point. Without death to define life, we lose all of our meaning as human beings. I believe DeLillo supports this through his eerie and absurd descriptions of the labyrinthine hallways of The Convergence. First, there are painted doors all throughout the halls, yet none of them are real doors. They’re “art,” painted different shades of blue. Jeffrey wanders the halls, knocking on the doors. None open, there is no response except for one. Jeffrey, surprised that a man answered apologizes for having knocked on the wrong door. The man replies that they’re all the wrong door. The Convergence itself is pure facade–a shell–in its attempt to eradicate death, it loses its life.
There are also continual screens that drop down throughout the hall, displaying videos of natural disasters, death, monks lighting themselves on fire, etc. These are testament to the visceral reality and raw meaning of death. Particularly the image of the burning monks, lighting themselves on fire with purpose and conviction, guzzling gasoline down their throats. Through death, they are defined. This issue of definition is also recurring throughout the book. Jeffrey, as a boy and even into his adulthood, is always defines. He gives people names, asks himself to define concepts or objects, always looking to sturdily root concepts in their essence. Death is the language of the concrete.
The most unsettling art pieces that Jeffrey encounters throughout the halls are the mannequins and the garden. A mannequin is a pure manifestation of a human devoid of life. Still, blank, empty. Yet the mannequins Jeffrey encounters seem to have intention in being where they are. They’re still, but seem active. They inhabit a third space between human–live animation–and mannequin–motionless inanimateness. They are analogs to what the frozen bodies become, as when Jeffrey sees Artis, frozen in her pod, he compares her to a mannequin. She’s been reduced from human to this third space between alive and dead, as Ross will be.
The garden, also, deserves acknowledgement. Jeffrey, our semi-reliable narrator, comments on how it seems both real and not. How the plants seem alive, but plastic. As if they’re not weathered enough to be real–they’ve not faced the elements. There is no wind. Like humans, the beauty of a garden lies in its being weathered from wind and elemental force. A flower’s bloom is beautiful because it’s an ephemera. It’s not meant to endure for even an entire year, let alone eternity. Humans are the same way. These plants, like Artis, are in a third space, an unnatural and I think wrong space, where life is cheapened by its ability to endure past death. Like mannequin plants, they endure, and in this endurance they are not fully alive.
As DeLillo’s White Noise addresses the fear of death, Zero K addresses a fear of immortality. Death is necessity, no matter how much we may dread it, there should come a point where we want to die, where we feel we’ve had our time and are ready to return to the earth, dead. This novel explores the alternative, and does so through well-executed imagery and DeLillo’s signature near-perfect prose.