Mortal Panic: On Don DeLillo’s Zero K

Alan Michael Parker

New York, NY: Scribner, 2016. 288 pages. $27.00.

Over the fifty years Don DeLillo has been publishing novels, thoughtful readers have come to consider each new book of his in relation to each of his best books, an assumption of canonical value earned by and reserved for writers of great literature, as opposed to those damned to the bin of “contemporary fiction,” and subject to remainder. DeLillo has come to be read against DeLillo, a mark of awe if not a tacit admission of readerly incomprehension. In truth, it’s not easy to see what the man’s up to each time, because he’s so much smarter than we are at the sentence level. His books can make a careful reader feel not worthy, the local effects so astonishing as to blur the larger ambitions. As a result, even those who cherish each new DeLillo novel default to a kind of Hall of Fame bar game: is the new one as good as Libra? Underworld? Of course, it can’t be as good as White Noise . . . or my secret love, The Body Artist, but how good is it? Or, conversely, dare we rank it with Cosmopolis? Such is the case with his latest, Zero K, a death-defying riff upon the coolest abstraction, and the end result of so much that DeLillo has long considered, death itself. Which is to say that Zero K is not White Noise, but it certainly belongs in all the libraries.

The nature of DeLillo’s comedy also confuses how his books have been received. It matters whether his characters’ patter constitutes shtick, Post-Modernist affect, or satirical comeuppance, or as James Woods petulantly averred in the New Republic in 2000, the novels may be labeled “hysterical realism”; the seriousness of DeLillo’s subjects at times has been read at cross purposes with the splendor of his deadpan. Worse, and better, as he has aged—he’ll be eighty in November—his comedy has also matured, the narratives less dependent upon sight gags, his narrators more entertaining than their surroundings. This is true, too, of Zero K, which makes the book funnier and harder.

Death remains humanity’s great subject. Death as a spiritual transaction has long been DeLillo’s obsession, deliberated and pronounced upon by a panoply of relatively ennobled protagonists and ignoble ensemble characters, everyone squirming in the Half Nelson of Late Capitalism. In Zero K, our narrator for all but six pages (more on those six pages soon), Jeffrey Lockhart, offers an ostensibly young man’s perspective on death, cryogenics, and the future, as he journeys to witness his stepmother’s passing and her body’s preservation, all at his father’s behest. That the father, billionaire Ross Lockhart, has funded the research (and ultimately underwrites his own suicide-by-money) provides us with the central familial drama of the novel. Jeffrey’s a bit of a word-drunk ne’er-do-well, content to slip along with his signifiers, and to name and rename a world he fails to understand, our proxy more than our protagonist. He’s funny, in a recognizably DeLillo way, which means witty as a storyteller and plangent as an observer.

The first part of Zero K is more theatrical than either Part Two or Part Three, which presents us with a problem, since the novel’s often about death—a subject that usually ratchets the dramatic tension as we go. In the first part of the novel, Jeffrey travels to an underground research station located putatively in the former Soviet Union, in order to learn about the “Convergence,” a sort of cult-like mass suicide by virtue of cryonics. In Part Two, in a shortened, lyrical passage, the dying stepmother, archeologist Artis Martineau, speaks, most probably from a place of suspended physical animation. In Part Three, Jeffrey returns safely, albeit rattled, to New York and a provisionally domestic present day, with a girlfriend named Emma and her adopted son, Stak.

So much sturm at the outset makes us anticipate more drang. But Zero K is working otherwise, as sensational events yield to the quotidian, and the longer section of Part Three is decidedly less torn-from-the-headlines—headlines that are projected upon various screens and surfaces in the underground facility in Part One. In the midst of all this, Artis’s soliloquy operates as a last word but not the final say, a kind of Molly Bloom moment at the mid-point and fulcrum of the novel.

Such formal ambition, in other hands, might appear narratively paradoxical if not downright suspect. So what’s the genius up to? DeLillo’s formal concerns here seem to be offering a metaphysical reply, the quotidian as epilogue: Jeffrey’s smaller life in New York in Part Three, and his daily anxieties (fraught as they are with DeLillo’s familiar fear of various conspiracies and the excesses of institutional power), seem so normal that they defy the death-defying of Part One and Part Two. The everyday is apparently a spiritual answer to our human, mortal panic.

Critics have been a bit flummoxed by Zero K, as even the most considered of the reviewers—to my mind Sam Lipsyte in BookForum, Christian Lorentzen in New York, and Joshua Ferris in the New York Times—have responded more strongly to the sensationalism of Part One than to the lyricism of Part Two or the quietude of Part Three. It’s understandable: the first section of the novel may be seen within a lineage that includes the finest DeLillo novels, expressly Libra and White Noise. Beset by the advances of technology, captivated by a wheeler-dealer financier, captivatingly droll and dissociative, the characters in the opening of Zero K have a PoMo charm, familiar and startling as the best of DeLillo’s eccentrics—even though Jack Gladney will always occupy a special place in my affections. But what’s fascinating is how even these excellent novelists and critics have largely ignored Part Two, the song-form of Artis’s consciousness barely treated; Lipsyte goes so far as to say that “This novel is split into two parts . . . Between the two sections is a brief interlude in which what seems to be Artis’s voice takes control . . .” (15). Seems to be? The second section is called “Artis Martineau,” and it begins, “But am I who I was,” a Joycean aria notable for its compression and musicality.

Moreover, Section Three has been wholly ignored by many self-confessed DeLillo fans writing about the novel. That’s fascinating—for it speaks to the shift in DeLillo’s concerns as powerfully as it does the desires of his readers. Section Three thwarts us, or at least challenges our assumptions; asynchronous in its drama, symptomatic and surprisingly sympathetic in its rendering of urban and domestic cares. That Jeffrey survives to talk about eating sliced bread isn’t as glamorous as the talk in the underground research facility, where B-movie proclamations abound, or the allure of the pioneering cryonics to which Ross and Artis have fallen prey.

DeLillo’s Zero K had better not be his last novel, because I’m not done rereading all of his others. But it does place this reader in a quandry: even as a middle-aged person, I feel a little young for this book’s macabre pageantry. Nevertheless, writing and rewriting various aspects of his own literary production—another idea ever-present in this novel, suitable for a different essay I might write one day on DeLillo’s use of conversation as a literary trope—DeLillo has given us a new way of thinking about the old guy in the hooded cape, who may yet turn out to be a billionaire technophile trying to freeze us all to death as we boil ourselves off the planet.

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