'Til Human Faces Wake Us

Don DeLillo's 'Zero K'

by Austin Price

20 May 2016

For all that it is cold and disquieting, DeLillo's latest is also his most sincere -- his most human -- meditation on death yet.
cover art

Zero K

Don DeLillo


The literary critic James Wood once described Don DeLillo as “a didactic writer who wants to be honored for not being one.” (“Against Paranoia: The Case of Don DeLillo”, The Broken Estate, 1999) In a way this criticism rings fair. DeLillo himself has argued that he wants to “impart a sense of the magic and dread lurking in consumer culture”, and his style seems cultivated to do exactly that.

Recall Murray’s monologue about the religious importance of supermarkets in the early pages of White Noise, how “everything is concealed in symbolism… how well-lighted everything is… sealed off… timeless”, and how this “inevitably makes (him) think of Tibet”, where “dying is an art”. Or the moment in Underworld when waste management specialist Brian Glassic comes to stare at the Staten Island landfill and fancies himself a “member of an esoteric order… adepts and seers, crafting the future…”

In both cases, DeLillo has chosen to expound at length on his own mystical interpretation of consumer culture and yet in both cases he has settled on illustrative examples that do not match his own lofty thoughts. In neither case does he reveal the esoteric facets hiding in fixtures of modern life so much as override their mundanity with vaguely religious aura they never deserved. Too often the result is a kind of parody; DeLillo at his most indulgent sometimes sounds like a cheeky college student’s riff on Baudrillard. Or worse, a parody of DeLillo himself.

But the problem with DeLillo’s style is not inherent to it. The problem is that DeLillo is so intent on his cerebral musings and his prophetic register—all omens and portents—that he doesn’t seem to understand his subjects are more often than not unequal to both. White Noise’s lampooning of academic hairsplitting is as funny as it is pointed, but too often the novel’s register is so abstruse that it sounds sympathetic to rather than derisive of the academics who view “”cereal boxes as the only avant garde we’ve got left.” 

Wood was not wrong when he excoriated Underworld, because he felt the massive sweep of the novel and the paranoid pitch of its warning about conspiracies served as their own kind of conspiracy to silence people and culture both, much in the same way that DeLillo feels the conspiracies that drive real history do. Yet if both novels are flawed, they are far from failures; there’s nothing accidental about the fact that they persist as cornerstones of American fiction. There’s an element of those novels in which DeLillo can write not just beautifully, but convincingly, an element where his mystical timber is not merely appropriate but perfect. That element is death.

White Noise is never better than in its closing chapters, where Jack confronts the creator of Dylar and discovers that the unsettling price one pays to avoid the fear of death is a complete dissociation from your own sense of self and the world around you. The real tragedy of Underworld is not the vast governmental conspiracies that bury people, but in the way the novel’s very structure, how it moves backwards from the final meeting of Nick Shay and Clara Sax to their brief first meeting and showcases along the way how every life, no matter how varied or fascinating or full, must, inevitably, end. It buries them. It seems little accident that the book’s opening chapter is titled “The Triumph of Death”, or that the book is cluttered with descriptions of waste management, reminders that even the most valuable of possessions ends always as trash. For DeLillo it would seem that death is the real conspiracy, the great plot by which the very universe runs.

Zero K, DeLillo’s latest novel, concerns itself with those who would seek to resist this conspiracy. In particular, it focuses on the efforts of a shadowy organization of technological boosters, transhumanists (or “transrationalists” as they dub themselves), linguists and elite financial backers known as The Convergence who have decided to pool their considerable resources and find a solution to death. Though the most obvious method they propose is an elaborate cryostasis program located under a desert facility, their larger plans involve a number of projects designed to change the very shape of culture and consciousness.

Wars are “a grotesque kind of nostalgia”, carried out by people who are so mired in tribalism and a devotion to their pasts that they would rather die literally than give up the metaphorical lives of their identities. Current languages are insufficient, compromised because of the complex system of references that leave each word dependent on other words for definition and no word able to stand alone and, therefor, no word complete; similarly, the current reliance on digital technologies leave people “hyper-connected” but ultimately “disembodied”, “virtualized”, “robbed of their autonomy”.

The Convergence may fancy themselves a Utopian ideal that will unite all of humankind, but the true convergence they preach (“You [will] become, each of you, a single life in touch with only yourself”) is the ultimate endpoint of solipsism in which the entirety of the world can be reduced to a single person. To, literally and metaphorically, a singularity. (It’s clear DeLillo has little to no love for those who preach technology and the “technological singularity” as the salvation of the human race, and god bless him.)

Quick to adopt this philosophy are the multi-billionaire financier Ross Lockhart (a man who built his portfolio by “analyzing the profit impact of natural disasters”) and his wife, Artis, an anthropologist in the final stages of multiple sclerosis. Less convinced is Ross’ son and our narrator, Jeffrey, a man who sees The Convergence as simply a new faith peddling “mass delusion… superstition and arrogance and self-deception”, a man who fancies himself the trickster god of this new pantheon. (“Isn’t that why I was here, to subvert the dance of transcendence with my tricks and my games?” he asks himself as he lampoons one of the founder’s major speeches.)

Jeffery, an avowed fan of Heidegger, lives a life utterly “possessed by meaning”: In his philosophy, death is not so much a matter of a failing mind as it is a matter of a failed language and, consequently, a failure of one’s own sense of identity. When only the “simple timelines” of ritually repeated behavior possess any power to “shape the day and deepen… presence” and only a name can give you identity, reality must seem so unstable one might slip through the cracks between words and the world and cease to exist. Hence, Jeffrey’s propensity for assigning everybody he meets a name and past based only on their appearance and language; hence, a teenage decision to fake a limp so that others would identify him entirely with the word; hence, a childhood obsession with words so great he confesses he would have “died trying” to recall the meaning of a word were he much younger.

His internal monologue is fittingly broken and distrusting; if it sounds familiar it’s because this is the voice of all of DeLillo’s protagonist. The same voice that critics such as B.R. Meyers have derided as aloof, clinical, like the thoughts of “visitors from another world”. What these critics miss, however, is that DeLillo’s characters are not detached. They are dissociated. A subtle distinction, but an important one. For the detached individual makes no attempt to engage with the world; they watch it merely as a curiosity. By contrast, the dissociated individual’s peculiar perspective is a matter of deep doubt; the world is made up of so many contradictory but equally demanding realities—each one granted a kind of hyper-reality—that it resembles more a montage they must impose meaning upon if they are to ever make any sense of it. They do not view the world as clinical observers but as the befuddled viewer trying to make sense of a movie that seems somehow both utterly random and yet paradoxically guided by some arcane system of rules.

Like Jeffery, the world is something they might “drift into” and out of, with no investment or real consequence. DeLillo allowed earlier characters—Jack, Nick, Klara, Lee Harvey Oswald—the benefit of coy evasions and the abstraction that comes with distance . For these people, the thought of their own mortality was a hypothetical, almost always represented by some greater symbol, and so they felt some invasive element not native to their world. He allows Jeffery no such succor. The word games that Jeffery constructs may seem to grant him some freedom from the ugliest human reality, but they are finally his own elaborations; DeLillo has stopped trading in these long enough to write a novel that doesn’t allow easy escape. The ugly, cold and utterly inescapable fact that sooner or later, we all must die stamps every page of Zero K with a chilling certainty.

Yet this finally affords DeLillo the chance to explore these broken people with an honest and an intimacy that has often eluded him. Do not be mistaken. DeLillo has not turned sentimental; anybody excepting a cuddlier author will be immediately disappointed to find his surface as icy as ever.

Jeffery is a man who cannot directly engage with life. When he discovers that his father might commit a kind of suicide by volunteering to enter cold storage prematurely, he fears not that he will miss his father, only that he himself will be “diminished”. When standing before a mirror with his lover, Emma, and experiencing a transformative intimacy, he does not feel this change: he instead “understands that this [is] a telling moment.” In his world nothing is stable, no door is locked until he has checked it three times, and his key cannot be reliably said to be in his pocket if he cannot feel its outline through his pants. His is a strange headspace to inhabit, especially for nearly 300 pages; these constant attempts to make certain the world is working the way it should and that Jeffery exists in it can be exhausting. Though we are deeply embedded in his head, it often feels as if we know more about Jeffery than he knows about himself, moments where the “zero” of the title seems not to refer to the point at which all molecular motion stops, but to the cipher that Jeffery must seem even to himself.

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