Don DeLillo's 'Zero K' Is a Joyless Novel About Billionaires Freezing Themselves

The giant of American letters' newest offering is a cold, stark book about money, art, and living forever.

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May 3 2016, 9:58pm

Don DeLillo. Photo by Joyce Ravid/courtesy of Scribner

If you leave out the novel he co-wrote under a pseudonym where an attractive woman plays professional ice hockey and sleeps with a lot of different men, Don DeLillo's Zero K, out today from Scribner, will mark the author's 16th novel. It's no great prophecy to say that Zero K will be respectfully and honorably received: Over the past half-century, DeLillo, who will turn 80 in November, has created a reputation in American letters that's as close to unimpeachable as one can imagine. Born in 1936 to south Italian immigrants in the Bronx and rigorously educated by Jesuit teachers, DeLillo worked as an advertising copywriter before quitting to drift about the city. For the most part, drifting meant going to theaters in order to absorb the latest waves of excellent contemporary European cinema, reading modernist literature, and, eventually, composing a novel. He lived in Midtown Manhattan in the mid 60s and paid $60 per month in rent. DeLillo's first novel, the slightly overstuffed but grimly hilarious Americana, whose WASP protagonist drops out of his well-paying job in network television to go on a Godardian road trip into flyover country with a squad of misfits, was published in 1971.

From then on DeLillo would lead an existence that's all but unimaginable today: He has made a living purely as a literary novelist, teaching no classes whatsoever. In the 70s, he would publish a total of six stylistically rigorous and tonally bleak novels to modest critical success, but it was only in the 80s, in the wake of a Guggenheim fellowship spent in Greece, that DeLillo would fully come into his own as an artist, stepping out of relative obscurity to become one of the primary figures in American fiction. The Names (1982), a dazzling, elaborate, meditative thriller centered on the nature of language and political terrorism in the Middle East, broke things open. There followed White Noise (1985), focused on the mutations in perception of family and death occasioned by relentless exposure to all-seeing, all-saying television. After Libra (1988), a fictional biography of alleged JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, no serious reader could deny that DeLillo possessed a vision of America—violence-riddled, commercial-saturated, radiant with dark humor—whose range, acuteness, consistency, power, and beauty were rivaled by few, if any, of his contemporaries.

It's a blessing for authors to write one masterpiece, let alone four, and their lesser works can reveal just as much about them as their greatest.

The publication of Underworld (1997), a multi-tracked 800-page chronicle of American society that aimed, gloriously and successfully, to embrace in retrospect the entirety of the Cold War period that had recently passed, marked the ultimate ascension of DeLillo into literary godhood, as well as the beginning of his relative decline. DeLillo's too fine of a sentence-maker to ever write a truly bad book, but the end of the Cold War seemed to have stripped him of much of his timeliness, most of his drive, and almost all of his sense of humor. Compared to the masterpieces of the 80s trilogy and Underworld, the novels DeLillo has published in the new century have been terse and delightless affairs reminiscent of the 70s novels in their restrictive tone and vision, yet drained, now, of any profound social relevance. Which is fine: It's a blessing for authors to write one masterpiece, let alone four, and their lesser works can reveal just as much about them as their greatest. But there was no chance that the pale composition of The Body Artist (2001), the futurist sculpture of Cosmopolis (2003), the accomplished but limited Falling Man (2007), or the denuded Point Omega (2010) could rise beyond mere competence and permanently shift a reader's vision.

Unfortunately, though hardly unexpectedly, DeLillo's latest novel continues this streak of stark, monastically joyless novels. The aimless protagonist, one Jeffrey Lockhart, is whisked into the wastes of ex-Soviet Central Asia to meet with his estranged father, Ross, a finance billionaire who has channeled much of his fortune into the development of the Convergence, a vast underground cryonics project: For the right (unfathomably high) price, men and women will have their bodies frozen so that they might be revived in a future where technology permits them to live eternally. Ross's wife and Jeffrey's stepmother, Artis, wasting away from terminal illness, is to enter the deepest level of the project whose name matches that of the novel, and the drama of Zero K centers on Jeffrey's struggle to accept her entrance into the frozen system as well as that of Ross, who, though still healthy himself, decides to join her, extending an offer to his son to join them. It's a promising story, and the master metaphor of preservation lends itself to entrancing speculations: not just on the internet, where data, often personal, is frozen indefinitely to be potentially retrieved, but on art itself. Much as the Lockharts' surname spells out their emotional reticence, Artis's given name is a more-or-less blatant indication that the reader is intended to envision art, DeLillo's in particular, as another mode of cold containment and storage for future use.

Bland and blandly self-aware, still sulking over his parents' divorce and his mother's death, Jeffrey casts up what arguments he can against the impending frigid disconnection, but it soon grows clear that his author's will is closer to those who construct and justify large, forbidding, rigorous, complex structures than to those who seek to exit them or offer alternatives. The various bot-like advocates who call the Convergence home, their visions of withdrawal and transcendence animated by a pessimistic reading of ever-intensifying global disasters, possess a conviction that Jeffrey, on his own or in conjunction with his New York girlfriend, Emma, and Stak, the Ukrainian war orphan Emma adopted, proves unable to match. DeLillo, in his late period, has preserved much of his mastery of individual words, but his gift for shaping compelling individual characters (as opposed to loquacious system functionaries) out of those words has diminished greatly since the days of Libra and Underworld: In spite of the maudlin ending tacked to the end of the novel, its language, plot, and lack of character make it clear that the coldness has won out.

Lord save us from demanding more from our idols than they can give—still, I can't help but confess that I miss the old DeLillo. A book like White Noise didn't just freeze the life of its time so that later readers can access it through a pale blue filter; in its reverence, comedy, and seriousness about death and TV, White Noise could thaw out the present day, grant a young reader fluency in the reality surrounding his or her own, entirely current life. Though no one can write like Don DeLillo, he's inspired countless younger aspiring writers, each searching for a way to represent a national reality whose senseless violence and conglomerate delusions seemed beyond literary representation—to believe that words still could be found to encompass, clarify, and in some measure redeem the kooky desolations of American society. In light of this, it perhaps seems more important to discover and develop new gifts rather than to mourn the elder's decline. Cryonics and minor novels aside, it's already clear that DeLillo, through his masterpieces, will endure; the open question is who else can follow his example in living forever.

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