‘Til Human Faces Wake Us: Don DeLillo’s ‘Zero K’

For all that it is cold and disquieting, Don DeLillo’s Zero K is also his most sincere – his most human – meditation on death yet.

Zero K
Don DeLillo
May 2016

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 a 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, 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 backward 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, and 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 therefore, no word complete; similarly, the current reliance on digital technologies leaves 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 was 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.

The Art of Disorientation

If Zero K is, apropos of its title, a cold novel, it’s also a novel slowly thawing to reveal that there is still something beating at the heart of these characters who lurch through it. Early scenes are tantalizing hints at some dormant central heat. An early argument between Jeffrey and Ross turns uncharacteristically violent as Ross commands his son to “stop babbling like a fucking idiot”, and for just a moment the story turns red-hot. The excitement is not so much at the prospect of physical violence as it is of witnessing an openly emotional engagement in a DeLillo novel, itself something like watching for a rumored but rare plant that blooms once every 50 years and then only on the top of some obscure mountain.

Earlier still a conversation between Artis and Jeffrey about how, even hours before her freezing, she can think only of an early memory of water droplets spattering against a shower curtain, captures perfectly the dreadful sensation experienced by every child when they realize that traveling forward in time is literally effortless while returning to cherished moments that seem so close in memory is quite literally impossible. That they seem like those same droplets, spattering against the shower curtain only to slide down into the drain. That individual moments “are made to be forgotten”.

One jumps immediately to Bladerunner and Rutger Hauer’s lamentation of memories fading like tears in rain. But the poetics of that moment is strained, self-consciously tragic, where the language of DeLillo’s Zero K is so plain that it reminds how death, too, is of our world. It’s a beautifully dramatized moment that puts Jeffrey’s philosophy of the “the little drizzly details of the past” against Artis’s unconscious belief that the drizzly nature of self and life are a mark against their very reality, quiet and cold and achingly sad and deeply, disquietingly true.

What seems most remarkable is that, while DeLillo has not lost his penchant for writing beautiful sentences, perfectly constructed paragraphs, and the piquant turn-of-phrase (e.g., “the stone weight of a lifetime” encapsulates in a mere six words the gravity, physicality, and the difficulty of a life), his penchant for beautiful language is the least remarkable and least used tool in his aesthetic bag of tricks, this go-round. Rather, the key stylistic strength of Zero K is the same fragmentary language that has made Jeffery seem so unrelatable and his world so utterly unreal. It’s an unpleasant stylistic choice, to be certain, one not well understood or appreciated so much in the moment but that relies upon the slow accretion of details and a perfect pacing to deliver a kind of epistemological shock at novel’s end that redefines every moment before it.

On the night before his father decides to freeze himself, Jeffrey is led by workers of The Convergence to a hallway that terminates at a TV screen plastered with images of war-time atrocity. This seems nothing new: such TVs have been a fixture in Jeffery’s journey through the facility since the second chapter, the screen sliding open at opportune times to showcase various atrocities happening around the world. Fragmented, and fractured, these moments of history are robbed of their context and so exist as a standing monument to The Convergence’s philosophy that the human race has a blood-deep obsession with the war they can no more hope to be free of than their own unavoidable deaths. “Troops in black-and-white come striding out of the mist” only to transform into “stray dogs roaming the streets of an abandoned urban district;” shots of “men in robes and headscarves throwing stones at a target that remains offscreen” contrast at the same time they complement scenes of “riot police tossing stun grenades at people retreating across a broad promenade.”

This is a shocking tableau that derives its power as much from the discomforting juxtapositions and pleasingly choppy rhythm as from the brilliance of DeLillo’s description. This is vintage DeLillo. It’s powerful, yes, and disorienting, but it’s far from exceptional, coming from a writer who has made an art out of disorientation. Nothing about the images themselves is meant to shock. They are so anodyne they may well be exhibited in an art gallery. Even the final image, the one that ruins Jeffery, seems the B-roll from a war correspondent’s camera: “a figure, khaki field jacket, jeans and boots, spiky hair… shot and bleeding, stain spreading across his chest, young man, eyes shut.”

And yet this moment hits Jeffery with an immediacy that he can only describe as “surpassingly real”. For the figure on the video is actually Stak, Emma’s adopted and missing son, and his death is now not merely a possibility but a fact that is undeniable. Suddenly, Jeffery cannot simply slide away from this, as he would prefer. Death has become not just a matter to debate with his father but — to quote one of the leaders of The Convergence — “a compressed reality that would be mystifying if it weren’t so abruptly real.” There’s no rationalizing it, no making sense of it, for death is the absolute absence of all meaning and sense, something that cannot be talked of with any degree of accuracy (for it is the absence of all things), and yet something that nobody can ever escape.

Jeffery, then, so used to evading this fact, is reduced to a child, standing as he did in his youth in a darkened hallway, eyes closed in “total dark… trying hard to think of nothing.” He cannot, of course. The image of Stak’s death has hit his consciousness with a force that recalls an earlier passage about a televised suicide bombing described as a “blast, purely visually, seeming to rip the screen apart and shred the air around us.” Beautiful, horrifying, this same description might be applied to the impact this passage has on the astute reader, forcing them to confront alongside Jeffery a fact seemingly absurd and yet so absolute it defines all life.

It’s a risky narrative gamble, this extended delay of point and emotional satisfaction, and it’s not perfect: one would have to be almost gullible to believe that this makes Jeffery’s affair with Emma any more believable. Yet the final payoff is unequalled, worth any number of small losses along the way. By focusing on questions of death and language through the mind of a man who is more than a simple mouthpiece for his latest theories, DeLillo has finally found a story for which his language, his withdrawal and his peculiar style of materialistic mysticism are not merely appropriate, but perfect. One might be tempted to disagree, to recite Wittgenstein’s contention that any sustained consideration of death will lead to the discovery of “new images, new linguistic fields” and so nod along when one discovers The Convergence’s attempts to create a language that will “approximate the logic and beauty of pure mathematics in everyday speech. No similes, metaphors, or analogies. A language that will not shrink from whatever forms of objective truth we have never before experienced.”

The irony of it is that the semiotics of The Convergence are all unmistakably religious. Figures shrouded in chadors wonder the grounds of their compound, a man known only as the Monk who may or may not be the Wandering Jew (he talks with first-hand familiarity of “twelfth-century Jerusalem”, mentions his belonging to a small, clandestine group that has been “drifting… wandering” for ages and who “lust after” the Apocalypse) administers religious rights to those about to enter cryostasis, the compound is located in the desert for both the privacy it provides as for its “spiritual associations”. Much as they might contend that death is a material problem to be solved, their language, their symbols, give them away. They cannot help but implicitly acknowledge that, as the absence of consciousness and the absolute collapse of language, death is literally indescribable and so know that no register but the mystic might ever apply. Any attempt to capture it will come up short; any writer looking to say something about it must instead concern themselves with the way we deal with the one fact that will forever be beyond our ability to process.

In that case, DeLillo is the only contemporary writer truly equipped to deal with this, for he is the only writer so adamantly devoted to the mysticism of materialism, the only one who recognizes that the prophetic register he has so long practiced is the only register appropriate to deal with the last remnant of the mystical in a world that has systematically reduced everything we once wondered at to the crass facts of its material existence. In abandoning his old and misguided obsession with finding the spiritual dimension of crass consumerism, in focusing, for once, more seriously upon people and their own reactions to the last great mystery in life, DeLillo may have reoriented his vision more significantly now than he has any time in the last two decades.