It's the opening day of the Don DeLillo Conference at the Diderot University in Paris, and the guest of honor stands at the back of the Buffon lecture hall. He wears a leather jacket, burgundy sweater, black jeans. He is 79 years old. I ask him: "Is it strange to attend a conference dedicated to yourself?"
DeLillo says: "Very strange. The truth is I'm not sure why I'm here."
I mumble something excruciating like, "Well, I'm glad you are." It's like we're on an awkward first date. I don't tell him that I'd spent a not insignificant sum of my own money to get the first Eurostar from London that morning just to see him, or that I think it's his clarity of thought and heart that makes him the world's greatest living novelist. It's a brief encounter, but hey, we'll always have Paris.
He walks off. Eyes follow him to the front of the hall, where he sits down stoically while a compère lists his novels and awards. White Noise. Libra. Mao II. Underworld. Pulitzer Prize finalist twice over. The Pen/Faulkner Award 1992. The PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction 2010. The Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction 2013. He looks embarrassed. When the introduction is finished, he asks if he can leave, and I'm not sure if he's joking.
He begins to read from his prepared notes, and he confesses to feeling uneasy. "What am I doing here, in Paris, in the company of literary scholars from a number of countries?" he asks. "I'm pretending to be the man I'm supposed to be."
DeLillo makes public appearances rarely and hardly ever shows up at conferences about his own work. In his early years as a writer, he used to carry a printed card for prospective interviewers that simply read: "I do not want to talk about it." Even today, photography has been strictly banned from this event. I ask one of the organizers why he thinks DeLillo is here. "I think he's getting to that stage in his life where he's becoming reflective," he replies. "Or maybe he just likes Paris." More likely, it's because he has a new book to promote: Zero K, which will be published this May.
The new novel, explains DeLillo, is set around "a structure built very close to the ground, sunken into the earth." He toyed with setting the story in the Rub' al Khali, the vast desert in the Arabian peninsula known as the Empty Quarter. Then his nephew returned from a trip to Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, and DeLillo was taken by the "strong grip that certain place names can exert." It became one of the two central settings of the novel along, of course, with New York City.
DeLillo, who was raised in the Bronx, seems always to be drawn back to his hometown. It's there in the slow limousine crawl of Cosmopolis—as multi-billionaire main protagonist Eric Packer drives around the city to get a haircut. Perhaps most famously, the sensational Polo Grounds set piece opens Underworld as the New York Giants play the Brooklyn Dodgers.
It was in Manhattan where DeLillo became a writer, after giving up his job writing ad copy for Ogilvy & Mather at the age of 28. He remembers the time fondly: "Working on a desk that was cheap formica. There was a fireplace that I never used. No air conditioning… The refrigerator was in the bathroom. Or the toilet was in the kitchen. Either way."
The protagonist of Zero K, Jeffrey Lockhart, spends a lot of time in small, featureless rooms. He finds himself walking the halls of the sunken structure—which is in fact a cryonics facility—where his father's sickly younger wife is waiting to have her body frozen when she dies. The hope that one day "scientific advances will be made to the point that those bodies are able to be revived and brought back to life" is, says DeLillo, "the crux, the heart" of his new novel.
Mortality is never far from DeLillo's work. "All plots tend to move deathward," he wrote in White Noise, a novel in which the characters obsess over obtaining Dylar, a drug that is said to be a cure for the terror of death. With Zero K, DeLillo invites us to contemplate whether cryonics is another possible panacea for avoiding the terror of fatality.
There is a sense of trepidation about picking up a new DeLillo—he's a writer who has been gifted extraordinary prescience. When he wrote his 9/11 novel Falling Man, critics pointed out he'd already foreseen the coming war on terror in 1991's Mao II. Cosmopolis's billionaire Eric Packer got rich on "the interaction between technology and capital" in 2003, a year before Facebook was founded. In 1982, decades before YouTube, camera-phones or live-streaming, a character says: "You have to ask yourself if there's anything about us more important than the fact that we're constantly on film, constantly watching ourselves." Little wonder Joyce Carol Oates called him "a man of frightening perception," or that Martin Amis wrote "the gods have equipped DeLillo with the antennae of a visionary."
DeLillo seems surprised it took him almost four years to write Zero K. Every phrase must be turned until it catches the light. Here he is talking about a sentence from the new novel: "Sky pale and bare. Day fading in the west. If it was the west. If it was the sky." "I wrote this sentence," he says, "then looked at it for a while… the curious juxtaposition of letters within words… It's probably crazy, but what I see in the sentence on the white sheet of paper in the old typewriter, somehow, semi-mystically, tends to resemble the sky I'm describing."
After reading from his notes, DeLillo takes questions from the assembled academics. He is gracious, but he recoils from joining in any dissection of his life's work. More than once he responds to being set upon with his own quotations with: "I don't remember writing that, but I believe you." It reminds me of his novel Great Jones Street, when his rock star protagonist Bucky Wunderlick tells a reporter: "Make it all up. Go home and write whatever you want and then send it out on the wires. Make it up. Whatever you write will be true."
The conference continues the following day, but DeLillo is gone. The academics dissect him in absentia. I don't know whether he ever figured out why he was here, but I'm glad he was, even if it wasn't for long. Meanwhile, the screens report the deaths of the writers Harper Lee and Umberto Eco. All plots tend to move deathward. This is the nature of plots.