Zero K by Don DeLillo

When the time comes…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

zero kAs the book begins, the narrator, Jeff Lockhart, is travelling to an isolated region of the world, somewhere in or near Kazakhstan, where there is a secret facility, largely financed by his billionaire father, Ross. The facility specialises in cryogenics, freezing people at the point of death so that, at some time in the future when medical science has found the way to cure their ills, they can be brought back to life. Ross has asked Jeff to come now to say goodbye to his step-mother Artis, who is about to undergo the procedure. But, as Jeff is to discover, the facility offers more than a simple medical treatment – it has a whole staff of scientists, philosophers and others working on what this second life, which they call the Convergence, will be like.

This is a strange book that takes one of the clichés of science fiction and turns it into something that is either incomprehensible or profoundly thought-provoking, depending on how willing the reader is to play along. For a good proportion of the beginning of the book, my cynical sneer was getting a great workout. The writing is excellent, with moments of brilliance, but the dialogue is entirely unnatural – these people speak in constant profundities. However, behind the cliché, a distinctly unsettling atmosphere of unease soon begins to seep out of the pages, as Jeff wanders alone through the silence of the facility, down long corridors full of doors with nothing to indicate what is behind them. At the end of some of the corridors are viewscreens, showing increasingly horrific images of disaster, destruction and death. And soon my cynicism turned into a fascinated absorption in the imagery and in trying to work out the meanings behind it.

“What was it beyond a concentrated exercise in bewilderment?”

The thing is, I reckon there are a few things the book is definitely ‘about’, but many others that individual readers will create for themselves in the spaces DeLillo leaves deliberately unfilled. It is primarily a reflection on the importance of death in shaping the way we live our lives. Is death not essential if we are to define life? Would we still race to achieve if we were eternal? Is it the aloneness of dying that makes us fear it? And, if so, is there something almost comforting in the thought of dying with hundreds or thousands of others in some catastrophic event?

“They sit in lotus position or run through the streets. A burning man running through the streets. If I saw such a thing, firsthand, I would run with him. And if he ran screaming, I would scream with him. And when he collapsed, I would collapse.”

It’s an exploration of identity – is there a distinct, immutable ‘I’ within us or are we purely a construct of our experiences and those things we adopt or have pushed on us – our names, our nationalities, being born into wealth or poverty, even our bodies? If all these things are taken away from us, what is left? If we find our way to immortality through becoming some kind of cyberhumans, will that fundamentally change the ‘I’ that we were as fully human mortals? If we are alone, unheard and unseen by any other, do we exist at all, or do we need the reflection of ourselves that comes back to us from other people to really be?

All questions that have been asked before, of course, but DeLillo gives them fresh urgency by tying them in with some of our most worrying contemporary concerns. The images on the screens are sometimes of environmental disasters, sometimes of terror, and sometimes of war at its most brutal. The time is now or the very near future, but somehow the world in the book seems to have shifted a few degrees closer to catastrophe. He hints at religious fundamentalism, at the evils of globalisation with its huge disparities between rich and poor, at the wilful continuance of environmental destruction. We see child soldiers, and we see them die.

“Here you are, collected, convened. Isn’t this what you’ve been waiting for? A way to claim the myth for yourselves. Life everlasting belongs to those of breathtaking wealth.”

There is also a mystical element to the new life being designed at the facility. It seems almost as if they are trying to find a way to create a new religion – an atheistic religion, with its own rituals and code; their attempt to produce physical immortality some kind of compensation for their lack of belief in a spiritual afterlife. But there are chilling aspects to this – will their attempts to reprogram the people with a new language and ethical code before they are reborn leave anything of the original ‘I’? Or will they in fact be forming a kind of extreme totalitarianism where cyberhumans are literally ‘made’ to obey?

Instead I wondered if I was looking at the controlled future, men and women being subordinated, willingly or not, to some form of centralized command. Mannequined lives. Was this a facile idea? I thought about local matters, the disk on my wristband that tells them, in theory, where I am at all times. I thought about my room, small and tight but embodying an odd totalness. Other things here, the halls, the veers, the fabricated garden, the food units, the unidentifiable food, or when does utilitarian become totalitarian.

DeLillo raises all these questions, and more, subtly, so that they arise out of Jeff’s attempts to make sense of what he’s seeing, rather than the reader feeling bludgeoned. Jeff is fascinated by trying to define the meanings of words and as the book goes on the words he focuses on become progressively harder to define, like the ideas behind them. The facility is also home to some weird and unsettling art with lifelike mannequins appearing in increasingly disturbing tableaux. The idea of a new language being created reminded me of the real case of Turkey changing its alphabet from Arabic to Latin just after WW1, with the result that later generations have apparently largely lost touch with writings from before then, and therefore with their literary history; and I wondered if in the new world of the Convergence, all that would be left of art would be these chilling visual images.

Don DeLillo Photo: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
Don DeLillo
Photo: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

I’m guessing you realise by now that I found this book fascinating and deeply thought-provoking, though in truth I found it frustratingly obscure too. Surprisingly for such a nebulous read, it has an ending that I found both beautiful and satisfying, not providing answers exactly but perhaps suggesting that in the end the answers exist within us. I suspect this is a book that will be hated by some and loved by others, and indeed early reviews seem to be all over the place. From a shaky beginning, I grew to love it, for the writing, the imagery and the intelligence of it, and am greatly looking forward to reading some of DeLillo’s earlier books.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Scribner.

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Book 9
Book 9

39 thoughts on “Zero K by Don DeLillo

  1. It certainly sounds as though this is one of those ‘food for thought’ books, FictionFan, no doubt about it. And with books like that, I think you’re right that what we think of it depends heavily on how willing we are to play along and let go of our expectations. Hmmm…..really interesting. Perhaps I’ll put it on the list for one of those times when I want to be more philosophical, if that makes any sense.

    • Yes, I think it’s a mood thing as much as anything else – at an another time, I could see this book having really annoyed me, but it got me when I was in the right mood for a bit of thought-provocation! It’s certainly left me keen to try some of his earlier books.

  2. Excellent review. The other reviews I have seen for this one are very mixed. I bought it, but I haven’t gotten around to reading it yet – one for a winter night, I think.

    • Yes, I was looking at reviews of it after I wrote this and they’re split right across the board – love/hate/OK but… I suspect some of it is to do with expectations – DeLillo fans seem disappointed with it on the whole, I think, whereas I haven’t read any of his other books so had no preconceptions going in. Gotten?!? Have you been brainwashed by the Americans?? Next you’ll be voting for Trump! 😉

  3. Oooh! Sounds intriguing. Maybe a bit Orwellian, in some respects? I am a bit tempted, truth be told, as I like a book to make one think. Perhaps it could serve as a warning…

    • In a sense, yes, but maybe more more about the individual than society. Hmm… or maybe not! It’s one of these ones that can be read in a lot of different ways, in fact, depending perhaps as much on the reader as the book. I think you might enjoy it, though as many people seem to be finding it rubbish as good…

  4. strange coincidence: I posted about this twice last week! Like you I had reservations, but also admired the astonishing leaps of prose. It’s perhaps over-packed with ideas and preachy ideologues, but still a highly rewarding read. But one does have to get over that long, stodgy first section. Rereading is worth while – it kind of makes more sense then. Terrific ending, as you say.

    • I popped over and read your posts – very interesting! You go into it in much more depth than I, but fundamentally I think we found more or less the same things in it, and found the same things frustrating about it. It’s my first DeLillo, so I didn’t really have a frame of reference and wasn’t at all sure where he was going at the beginning. But certainly it’s left me keen to read some of his earlier work.

  5. You have definitely put this book on my radar, where before I was just waiting to see what others thought of it. What interesting questions you ask in your review, which also makes me think DeLillo must be a deep thinker. I own ‘Underworld’, but have been nervous to read it, but now I feel excited about it. Great review!

    • I certainly found it thought-provoking, with all that kind of philosophical “human condition” stuff that I really enjoy. I get the impression from other reviews that it was a tougher read for DeLillo fans, so it may be that it’s not his usual style. But his prose is great and, yes, I expect all of his books will show the intelligence of this one. Hope you enjoy Underworld – I’ll be looking out for some of his earlier stuff too as soon as I can.

  6. “Frustratingly obscure” is a great way to describe this book. There was a short section that I loved and was terrified/impressed by, but I struggled to dig up enough patience for the more nebulous bits.

    • I struggled at the beginning, wondering where it was going and concerned about the unnaturalistic dialogue. But I seemed to click into the flow after a bit and from there on in became increasingly absorbed in it, even when it was all a bit too vague. I quite like books (sometimes) that leave things vague enough for the reader to fill in the blanks…

    • I haven’t, but I’ll definitely be backtracking to some of his earlier stuff. I get the impression from other reviews that this one has disappointed DeLillo fans a bit, so may be different from his usual style. Much though I enjoyed it and would recommend it, the impression I get is that it might not be the best one to start with to get a real feel for his writing…

  7. This sounds sounds absolutely fascinating – one to read when I feel I have the brain power for it! I’ve not read any DeLillo since Underworld about 15 years ago – time to give him another shot, I think 🙂

    • This was my first, but I’m looking forward to backtracking now. This was a ‘staring at the wall’ book for me – one of those ones that I kept stopping reading because he’d made me actually think about something! Doesn’t happen often… 😉

  8. This was an intriguing review, I can’t decide if I want to read it or not! Immortality sounds exhausting, I don’t want it for myself, although from your description, ‘I’ would no longer exist at that point anyway.

    • I’d only have immortality if they promised I wouldn’t have to work till I was 1,345,867,232 years old! If I could retire at 60 and just read and eat chocolate (immortality must surely imply we didn’t need to worry about health issues) then I’d give it serious consideration…

  9. Wow. My hat is off to you for plowing through this one, though, as you mentioned, it has fascinating elements. A creative way of looking at the big questions in life.

    • I love this kind of book that asks the big questions – especially if they don’t give nice, neat answers. And it helps if they’re well written so that they’re enjoyable to read too… 🙂

    • Thank you! This is the only book of his I’ve read so far so had no point of comparison. But I did love that ending, and although it took me a while to get into it, it’s one of the books that has really stayed in my mind this year. Looking forward to reading more of his stuff…

      Thanks for popping in and commenting! 😀

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