Jeffrey Lockhart's father, Ross, is a billionaire in his sixties, with a younger wife, Artis Martineau, whose health is failing. Ross is the primary investor in a remote and secret compound where death is exquisitely controlled and bodies are preserved until a future time when biomedical advances and new technologies can return them to a life of transcendent promise. We are born without choosing to be. Should we have to die in the same manner? Isn't it a human glory to refuse to accept a certain fate? These are the questions that haunt the novel and its memorable characters. Don DeLillo's seductive, spectacularly observed and brilliant new novel weighs the darkness of the world-terrorism, floods, fires, famine, plague - against the beauty and humanity of everyday life.
How is it that readers discover books at opportune points in their lives? Youngsters read biographies or coming of age novels that inspire them to reach their own ideals. I recall now, Sinclair Lewis’ ARROWSMITH and Jack London’s MARTIN EDEN.
As I enter my 8th decade of life I more frequently reflect on life, its temporariness and final chapter, death. This is not a remorseful experience, more one of reflection and appreciation for what life has offered.
Don DeLillo, one of the great American novelists of his generation published ZERO K as he entered his 9th decade of his life. This book resonates my own present moment.
Zero K tells the story of a son whose father is a billionaire investor. Divorced from his mother he is dedicated and in love with his 2nd wife Artis, an anthropologist, who is dying from an unspoken disease. Not wishing the end, Ross, invests untold millions of dollars building an advance facility in the middle of the steppes bordering Russia and Asia. There, scientists and conceptual artists erect an underground fortress where the dying can be frozen in cryonic suspension waiting for a future date when science will allow rejuvenation.
As his wife enters this final stage of suspension Ross summons his son, Jeffrey, to the facility. There Jeffrey explores the hidden hallways and nooks designed by the Stenmark twins, futurists and conceptual artists/scientists who designed the interiors: hallways that end nowhere, doors that do not open, calming blue collared walls, faceless mannequins and video screens depicting natural and man-made disasters. While encapsulated in cryonic suspension the subjects are programmed:
“Nano-units implanted in suitable receptors of the brain. Russian novels, the films of Bergman, Kubrick, Kurosawa, Tarkovsky. Classic works of art. Children reading nursery rhymes in many languages. The propositions of Wittgenstein, an audiotext of logic and philosophy. Family photographs and videos, the pornography of your choice. In the capsule you dream of old lovers and listen to Bach, to Billie Holiday. You study the intertwined structures of music and mathematics. You reread the plays of Ibsen, revisit the rivers and streams of sentences of Hemingway.”
As in his earlier novels. END ZONE depicting the specter of nuclear war and WHITE NOISE environmental disasters, here too DeLillo’s characters are confronted with ominous threats to civilization and human kind:
“hundreds of millions of people in the future billions who are struggling to find something to eat not once or twice a day but all day every day…the loss of forests, the spread of drought, the massive dieoffs of birds and ocean life, the levels of carbon dioxide, the lack of drinking water, the waves that envelop broad geographics…biological warfare with its variant forms of mass extinction…refugees everywhere, victims of war in great numbers, living in makeshift shelters, unable to return to their crushed cities and towns, dying at sea when their rescue vessels capsize.”
Yes, we all recognize these threats, we read about them in our daily newspapers and see such videos and photos daily on cable TV. It is DeLillo who chooses not to ignore these horrors but to create a fictional world in which people react and respond with thoughtfulness, wistfulness, honesty and fear.
Indeed, this has become the ongoing theme of DeLillo’s work for many decades now. He offers up both humor and philosophy to comment on the depth of these realities.
“Half the world is redoing its kitchens, the other half is starving”.
“Isn’t the sting of our eventual dying what makes us precious to the people in our lives.”
And, “Is a man of epic wealth allowed to be broken by grief”.
Additionally DeLillo waxes on age when the billionaire Ross, contemplating his being separated from his beloved 2nd wife Artis:
“People getting older become more fond of objects...Particular things. A leather-bound book, A piece of furniture, a photograph, a painting, the frame that holds the painting. These things make the past seem permanent. A baseball signed by a famous player, long dead. A simple coffee mug. Things we trust. They tell an important story. A person’s life, all those who entered and left, there’s a depth, a richness.”
This all rings so true.
So Ross has invested part of his wealth to create this facility called The Convergence, described as “the merger, breath to breath, of end and beginning.” He asks his son Jeffrey, intending to explain his rational, “we are born without choosing to be. Should we have to die in the same manner?”
Ross decides, though in good health, to join Artis. At first this shocks the very father-son relationship that had been earlier fractured when Ross divorced Jeffrey’s mother. Again he summons Jeffrey via private jet to The Convergence, the guarded, fortified facility built in the middle of nowhere. Here Jeffery is escorted to the inner sanctum where the frozen persons are suspended. Rows of hairless bodies, of various skin color and body shapes, suspended in pods, cooling at a temperature of zero k, all lined up in the same direction
He sees an
“archaeology for a future age…here was a civilization designed to be reborn one day long after the catastrophic collapse of everything on the surface…Here was science awash in irrepressible fantasy”,
…so observes the awe struck still skeptical yet open minded son. In the end he too finds some solace as he rejects the wealth his father meant to leave him choosing instead a ho-hum simple life as an ethics and compliance officer at a middling liberal arts college in Connecticut.
On some level, Ross’s quest is pure escapism. In the face of world chaos dying people of means put off the ultimate ending hoping for a better eternal future.
As I enter the 8th decade of my life, here in Zero K, I have discovered a tale created by a master that resonates upon my own making peace with the temporary yet magnanimous meanings of life and death.
These are the opening words of author Don Delillo’s latest novel, Zero K. They are spoken by billionaire Ross Lockhart to his son, Jeff, a young man somewhat adrift in the world and the narrator of this tale. But he is not referring to some huge disaster although he has made his fortune ‘analysing the profit impact of natural disasters’; he is referring to controlling death itself. He is inviting Jeff to a facility called the Convergence to say goodbye to his stepmother, archaeologist Artis Martineau who is suffering from several fatal diseases. She is to be frozen only to awaken some time in the future when a cure is possible.
Ross has great faith in this and has invested a great deal of money in the Convergence but, when Jeff arrives and is shown the facility in all its sterile cold vastness and heard the almost cult-like explanations of the staff, he is horrified:
She would die, chemically prompted, in a subzero vault, in a highly precise medical procedure guided by mass delusion, by superstition and ignorance and self-deception.
Delillo’s novels are, at least to me, almost impossible to categorize and Zero K is no exception – the closest I guess would be literary science fiction. He writes about death, yes, and our fear of it and life and our fear of that too. There is a kind of existential mysticism (if that is a thing) in the descriptions of the Convergence by the people who run it which seems at odds with Jeff’s descriptions of the facilities as cold and sterile ie. a convergence of two distinct and in this case seemingly incompatible entities brought together for a single purpose. The question, of course, is this a real convergence or just the image of one. The story seems apocalyptic but only in a possible future as if it is the very possibility that makes it an inevitable reality. In the end, there is only the possibility of either the promise of the Convergence or the threat of an apocalypse – there are no real answers to the many questions that Delillo raises, only more questions leading to more possibilities seemingly ad infinitum…and that seems somehow appropriate about a novel that looks at death…
Or I have read this completely wrong. All I know for sure – I finished this novel several days again and I am still trying to suss out what I read. So let me just finish with this – this is a beautifully written novel full of questions and ideas. Delillo uses language in amazing ways creating pictures that feel fully formed whether it is a sterile facility or a museum containing only one exhibit – at times, it is mysterious, lovely, ephemeral, even satirical, at others as sharp and precise as a scalpel cut. Zero K is not an easy book but it is well worth the effort if only for the beauty of the language and for the questions it raises. I give this a high recommendation for people who love beautiful writing and/or challenging stories.
Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for the opportunity to read this novel in exchange for an honest review
Don DeLillo is an American novelist, playwright, and essayist. He was born in the Bronx, NY in 1936. Significantly to me, his influences are listed as Thomas Pynchon, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Vladimir, Nabokov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and last, but certainly neither least nor last, James Joyce. This is powerhouse-central for my reading satisfaction. I haven’t reviewed some of these authors, because I last read most of them before the beginning of “Likely Stories.” I think I will dig some up for a much needed second reading.
Zero K tells the story of Ross Lockhart and his second wife, Artis, and his son Jeffrey from his first marriage to Madeline. Ross has amassed a huge fortune, but Artis is dying of cancer. He becomes involved as an investor to a program known as the “Convergence.” This organization, hidden deep underground somewhere in central Asia, has developed a process for preserving a body in deep freeze -- hence “zero K” for zero degrees Kelvin, or absolute zero. When Jeffrey learns of this plan he is, at first intrigued, but when He learns his father will join Artis even though he is not ill, he becomes horrified. To make matters worse, Artis and Ross ask Jeffrey to “go with them,” even though he is perfectly healthy.
DeLillo’s prose has an urgency to it, as he slowly unveils secrets about the organization. Jeffrey has had some personal difficulties lately, and he is also looking for a “new world.” Much of the novel involves discussions and speculation about time, death, re-birth, and immortality. I also sensed that Jeffrey might have some degree of autism.
Jeffrey, the narrator, wanders around the complex with a wrist monitor, which restricts his access to a highly limited degree. He attends lectures for family members about to die. Few of these people have names, but Jeffrey wants to give each a name. DeLillo writes, “Artis has spoken about being artificially herself. Was this the character, the half fiction who would soon be transformed. or reduced, or intensified, becoming pure self, suspended in ice? I didn’t want to think about it. I wanted to think about a name for the woman [speaker]. // She spoke, with pauses, about the nature of time. What happens to the idea of continuum – past present, future – in the cryonic chamber? Will you understand days, years and minutes? Will this faculty diminish and die? How human are you without your sense of time? More human than ever? Or do you become fetal, an unborn thing? // She looked at Miklos Szabo, the Old World professor, and I imagined him in a three-piece suit, someone from the 1930s, a renowned philosopher having an illicit romance with a woman named Magda. // ‘Time is too difficult,’ he said” (67-68).
With the ever growing number of states allowing a patient to make the decision to end his or her life, this topic has been on my mind whenever I see a friend or family member kept alive with machines. Don DiLillo’s latest novel, Zero K, is an excellent story to spark a discussion about end of life. 5 stars.
Zero K isn't a light novel that can be summarized in a few sentences. I marveled at the language and the author's linguistic proficiency throughout, but the story itself, though fairly straightforward, is totally built for post-novel reflection. I can't even begin to summarize it. It's tech-y, spiritual, futuristic, hyper-wordy, and imaginative. My recommendation would be to read it for its sentences, appreciate the story, do some thinking about it, and appreciate the mastery of Don DeLillo.
Delillo says thing in ways that no one has ever expressed them. Yet, when you read his words, they are so perfect you can't imagine why everyone in history has not used those words, precisely those words. The only other living person I ever say that about is Leonard Cohen. I love words, and so there is no way I could not love these perfect words. I listened to this on audio, and it was actually quite good, but I wanted to think more about the words so after I finished the audio I went out and got the print version and started over from the beginning. The words are that good. The humor and the well drawn story arc are a bonus.
Jeffrey Lockhart is summoned by his billionaire father, to a compound, (somewhere in Russia),where his ailing mother is living her last days. This is a place where an individual can choose their moment of death and then they are preserved in a cryogenic state.
I really wanted to like this novel more. DeLillo is such a craftsman and the premise here is very interesting. His writing is smart and agile, but he also rambles into territory that left my eyes glazed and my mind cloudy. Maybe, my brain is unable to untangle his various forays and tangents, so I will have to leave it to bigger intellects. Hey, I heard James Patterson has a new book out...
Like many folks I've read White Noise and Underworld. This is just the third novel of his that I've read.
His first-person narrator is impeccably and consistently constructed, such that I can't really tell where authorial viewpoint ends and character viewpoint begins.
The novel's postmodernist viewpoint on global issues is shot through with nostalgia at best, and suffused with almost unbearable amounts of white privilege. I say this as a white male and indeed privileged reader—I feel the character is lacking any kind of grounding or consciousness about his own identity. This seems partly by design but also partly something the novel doesn't seem to want to deal with even though much of it is fairly obsessed with global cultural cross-currents.
There is a such a flattening of specificity to many passages. Mount Kailash in Tibet is described in detailed without ever being named. Cliches of terrorism and Islamism are presented without nuance or names. There are passing references to the Islamic State that never name it. Intellectual & learning disabilities in children are repeatedly grist for the mill, but never differentiated. The novel ends in a passage that romanticizes an unnamed boy's severe autism—without calling it autism. I can't tell whether this approach reflects most tellingly on the novel's stance, or its idea of who the protagonist is, or the novelist himself.
The protagonist seems to ache for the girlfriend who has drifted out of his life, but when her son disappears, he does nothing to mobilize his father's immense wealth and resources to help find him, even though it's very clear that he could do that. The character does not even consider the possibility, so again it's hard to tell whether DeLillo has. I can understand why some readers find this character too trapped in his head.
One review I read mentions that the Convergence—the futuristic cryo-preservation facility where much of the action is set—calls to mind very clearly the setting of Alex Garland's film Ex Machina. I share that feeling and suggest that the novel seems to share with the film some kind of nostalgia for the erasures and pure constructions of modernism.
"We will approximate the logic and beauty of pure mathematics in everyday speech," says the wisdom figure Ben Ezra in one scene—a thought that is recapitulated late in the text. It brings to mind a passage from Robert Musil's 1943 novel The Man Without Qualities: "mathematics, which is the new method of thought itself, the mind itself, the very wellspring of the times and the primal source of an incredible transformation."
It's a serious piece of work and worth engaging with, but it did leave me wanting something more–a novel born of these times and yet not engaging with them on the level I aspire to. It artfully, elegantly traces the contours of today's euphoric surfaces rather than deconstructing them.
Ross Lockhart is a billionaire whose great desire is for his second wife, Artis, and himself to transcend their finite state. He has funded a facility, The Convergence, in the apolitical wasteland of the former USSR to pursue this end with extreme diligence, for himself and others with the funds and foresight to buy in. When Artis incurs a life-threatening illness, Ross brings his estranged adult son, Jeffrey, to join him as he bids au revoir to Artis. Ross will in due course follow Artis into suspended animation with the clear hope and intent of reviving in a far distant future. Jeffrey is bemused.
With a purposeful detached style, DeLillo follows Jeffrey’s puzzlement and consideration of The Convergence. It is a strange place where unseen scientific developments go hand in glove with daunting philosophical and sociological arguments about ends and the end. It is so otherworldly that it might just as well be set on another planet. Indeed the living inhabitants of The Convergence have even developed a future language more perfect than any available to us as yet on earth, though incomprehensible to Jeffrey. DeLillo’s ambition is huge, though the result feels more like a Tarkovsky film, which is either a sign of brilliant success or abject failure depending on your inclination.
I found myself unenthused by the novel despite acknowledging its technical brilliance. Perhaps novels are not the best fora for exploring challenging philosophical platforms such as the transhumanist agenda even if they are essential for prompting the necessary aporia that might make further serious philosophical investigation worthwhile. And in this light, I gently recommend this novel.
I especially loved the first half of Zero K: It was powerful and captivating, typically alienating and strange.