Zero K

Image of Zero K: A Novel
Release Date: 
May 9, 2016
Reviewed by: 

“DeLillo’s genius, brilliance, and madness is nothing short of amazing . . .”

Zero K is one of those books you finish, pause, and think, “Wow!”

Zero K opens with the protagonist Jeffrey Lockhart being delivered to a super-secret facility in the desert of an unnamed Central Asian nation. Andrew says of his trip, “I was drowsy, stupefied, half-dead. I’m not sure whether to next stage was stop or non-stop. I’m not sure how many stages in the entire trip. I slept, dreamt, hallucinated.”

The unnamed secret institute isn’t just a medical facility; it is a secret institute that is reimagining the future. The members of this community believe that death is not an absolute but a process. In the future at “The Convergence,” frozen bodies will be unfrozen, revived, and cured. Though Jeffrey does not actually hallucinate, what he relates to the reader is, without a doubt, hallucinatory.

Jeffrey is here at the request of his father. At this facility, Jeffrey’s stepmother Ardis, suffering from MS, is about to be frozen to zero degrees Kelvin at the instance of death. The reader is nerdily informed that Zero K refers to zero degrees on the Kelvin scale, the coldest temperature possible, though Jeffrey’s stepmother will be frozen not to zero degrees K but to a more scientifically reachable temperature, 3 degrees K.

Beneath the mystery and horror is a simple story of a dysfunctional family. As with all dysfunctional families, there are unresolved issues, in this case, between Jeffrey and his father. Though for DeLillo, dread and unease—tempered with the right amount of humor, is more important than a “believable” plot.

For readers who are familiar with DeLillo’s oeuvre, Zero K is not science fiction in the same way Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is not science fiction. Science fiction is used as a framework for exploring issues in philosophy and ethics, in this case, death and what death means if death were to die.

DeLillo’s language is creepy and spare, a mix of Beckett and Kafka, amongst others. Early into Zero K this reviewer had to double-check the author’s name (the all too common problem of too many books, too little time), having at one point confused the author for Thomas Pynchon, who has a similar style.

Chapters are kept short. In one chapter Ardis has a conversation with herself in the interstices between life and death, strike that, between life and purgatory. Her conversation is expressed as poetry, not prose, structured into pairs of stanzas. The first stanza in normal font - Ardis speaks directly to the reader, the second in italic -Ardis speaks of herself in the third person.  Where is Ardis? asks Ardis, “She is the residue of all that is left of an identity.”

Like a good horror story, it starts at simmer and gets dialed up—if Ardis’ organs are frozen in separate enclosures called “pods”—done to optimize the freezing process, will Ardis’ brain be frozen in its own “pod” (and if so, then in which pod will Ardis’ poetry-as-conversation take place)? Then there is the hint, strike that, the implication that Ardis’ death might be induced to efficiently match the methods of preservation. Wouldn’t a coroner be needed? Why not the Munchkin coroner from the Wizard of Oz?

More seriously, what does happen if death were to die? Zero K presents the reader questions on the human relationship with death posed as koans, jokes, non-sequiturs, and the aforementioned poetry. Later, Ardis asks, “Who will I be at the reawakening? Will my soul have left my body and migrated to a body somewhere? What’s the word I am looking for? Or will I wake up thinking I’m a fruit bat in the Philippines? Hungry for insects.” This quote indirectly refers to the essay “What is it like to be a bat?” by philosopher Thomas Nagel, and gives evidence that this reviewer’s deductions aren’t overreaching through imagined relationships and connections.

The word Ardis was looking for is provided, and is not “transmigration” but metempsychosis. Where is the author going with this? Was metempsychosis chosen because it’s scarier, containing the word psychosis? The Wikipedia entry explains metempsychosis is the Greek word for transmigration, and provides more, listing a number of literary references. The word metempsychosis is used in Joyce’s Ulysses, and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (the character “Madam Psychosis”), and also by Don DeLillo himself in The Names.

There is more evidence to Zero K’s philosophical underpinnings. DeLillo provides a significant amount of description of Jeffrey’s perceptions, which in philosophy would be called “phenomenology.” Jeffrey offers up a Heidegger quote, acknowledging Heidegger’s Nazi affiliations and points out that that does not necessarily detract from its value.

Jeffrey has a fascination with names and naming—the philosophical connection would be the difference between noumena and phenomena. Given all of the evidence, this reviewer deducts that DeLillo just might be an existentialist. (See NYJB’s review of At the Existentialist Café by Sarah Bakewell).

Despite the philosophy, which can be easily ignored if you are not tuned for it, the singularly sane reaction to horror is humor. There is plenty of that here. Jeffrey is residing in a secret facility in the desert of an unnamed nation, waiting for his stepmother to be converted into a popsicle, her body to be placed in one pod, head in another, organs possibly distributed across others. Jeffrey is isolated and adrift, sleeping a monk’s cell, nestled amongst other monk’s cells secreted behind locked doors arranged in a maze-like structure. Doors open by sliding into walls, elevators go sideways. In the hallways, on screens that appear in walls or lowered from the ceiling are broadcasted scenes of death, disaster, war, pestilence, volcanoes, floods, meteors, and tornadoes, Are these images real, digital simulations, or are they cinematic recreations?   

Down one hallway, Jeffrey watches voyeur-like through a slot in a wall at a seminar where two futurists lecture with over-the-top assertions such as, “They will be subjects for us to study, toys for us to play with” and “We will colonize their bodies with nanorobots.” Jeffrey says of the lecturers that they are “demonologists in spirit” and “devil’s advocates.” However, the two lecturers refer to each other as, “Two standup comics.”

The stylistic problem with this type of storytelling (if one considers this to be a problem at all and not simply a condition of being Don DeLillo), is that the characters all have the same tone of voice. They converse by tossing off cryptic unemotional telegrams, strike that, cryptic unemotional tweets. The father, the stepmother, the son, the incidental characters, all have an Aspergery tone of voice, a flat affect, a lacking in emotion that anyone would expects given the horrific circumstances.

The effect of lack of affect on the reader is strangeness. Strangeness also shows up in the breaking of society’s rules. In one chapter Jeffrey has sex with a female “minder” who had previously guided him down passageways to the wall with the slot. Did she have sex with Jeffrey to harvest his sperm for Nazi nanobot experiments?  

Zero K ‘s chapters are divided into two sections, before Ardis’ freezing, and two years later. In the second section Jeffrey is back home in NYC. The mood is different. Jeffrey, though unemployed has money, wears a suit, rides in taxis, and spends time with his girlfriend who is divorced with an adopted son. The reader is presented with Jeffrey living a relatively normal life, a life that might even be considered dull. Jeffrey reflects, “None of this led me to life itself. But why should it? How could it?”

The second section is nearly twice the length of the first, and nothing much happens for most of it. The reader might wonder, where is the author going? Which events (trivial as they are), will be significant later, and which will not? The reader is puzzled, waiting, like Jeffrey, in limbo—like Ardis; something has to happen, but when?

Cliché but true: It’s the journey, not the destination. So let’s enjoy the journey. Jeffrey’s narration includes a constant stream of self-analysis; the reader might as well wonder whether Jeffrey’s life has any correlation to the author’s. Both Jeffrey and Don DeLillo live in NYC. Both smoke cigarettes. Cigarettes? Yes, cigarettes. Jeffrey says of his habit, “I’d stopped smoking twice and wanted to start and stop again. I envisioned it as a lifelong cycle.”

Here’s another possible clue. Although financially secure, Jeffrey needs a job, and as he is unsure as to his skills, he lists his strengths: observation, analogy, metaphor, poetry, and storytelling. Excuse me? Observation, analogy, metaphor, poetry, and storytelling? . These are the attributes of a writer. On top of this, the job Jeffrey eventually does take is of “compliance officer,” which to anyone who has ever met a compliance officer, is a living death.

Limbo ends. Jeffrey’s father, who had the beginnings of Parkinson’s in the first section is now far along enough to have himself frozen. The father and son conflict is resolved. The reader is presented with more philosophy. The reader is presented a list of the many ways one can die (think: Spike TV’s 1000 Ways to Die).  

Despite DeLillo’s best efforts at misdirection, this reviewer couldn’t but help but keep thinking of the Red Sox’ slugger Ted Williams, who had is his head removed from his body after death and frozen. This really did happen. Wikipedia notes that through the care of the Alcor Life Extension Foundation there are a thousand or more frozen bodies or heads waiting for The Convergence, (and yes, at least once, a patient had their death hastened prior to freezing). Consider what happens to frozen vegetables when thawed (they turn to mush), and though Wikipedia says though the problem of thawing has been overcome, the problem of freezer burn hasn’t.

DeLillo’s genius, brilliance, and madness is nothing short of amazing in his ability to walk the tightrope between horror and humor for spectacle and for meaning.