Zero K, by Don Delillo

It is perhaps odd to talk about the late style of an author who is still alive and kicking, but Don DeLillo very much has one, and his newest novel, Zero K is very much in thrall to it. Gone is the expansive accumulation of sheer stuff that characterised his earlier novels, the trash-heaps of Underworld and the cereal boxes of White Noise. Rather, DeLillo now writes novels of silence, where what is left unsaid weighs more heavily than what is said. Zero K is perhaps not as brutally stark as his last novel, Point Omega, which takes the form of a haiku, and where an unnamed desert is as much a character as any of the three humans in the work, but his latest is a work of stark minimalism nonetheless.

Zero K, by Don Delillo
Zero K, by Don DeLillo

Far beneath the Russian steppes lies a buried city whose tunnels, simultaneously byzantine and decontaminated stretch on for unknown miles. This is the Convergence, where the dying come to be frozen, awaiting their revival in the future. Suspended animation is an old trope, and one that has been explored thoroughly, from the hardest of hard sci-fi, to Futurama, but few have explored it with DeLillo’s consummate mixture of lyricism, existential awe, and rich wit of sorts. It’s a novel about Ross Lockhart, billionaire visionary devoted to his underground creation which is part technological masterwork and part spiritual project, and about his wife, Artis, who undergoes the Convergence’s grisly treatment part-way through the novel, certainly. But it’s as much a novel about Ross’ son, Jeffrey, who cannot so easily forget the outside world. DeLillo’s late style has been derided as sterile and not without reason. In Jeffrey Lockhart’s bewilderment, though, we get a glimpse of wry, deadpan self-awareness from DeLillo—Lockhart seems to be someone who has been parachuted into the land of DeLillo and must make sense of its people who speak in rapid-fire metaphors and gnomic utterances, its bizarre, cold isolation, and its sheer, wilful refusal to make sense.

Zero K is a novel about loss. It’s a novel about Lockhart’s loss of his family, but it’s also a novel about loss of faith in death. Famously, White Noise obsesses over dying, the idea of the end, but in Zero K, we see this obsession recapitulated and played upon—death isn’t the obsession in the tunnels beneath the steppe, but rather, what comes after. Without the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life, well-meaning billionaires like Ross Lockhart and his team of gnomic prodigies step in, replacing grace, samsara, metempsychosis with “nanobots … embryonic stem cells … enzymes, proteins, nucleotides,” in a necropolis that may not be filled with cobwebs and eldritch horrors, but is every bit as oppressively Gothic as anything that H.P. Lovecraft wrote.

Don DeLillo, Zero K, Picador (London: 2016)

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