Gimme Something to Read: Zero K by Don Delillo
Suspense, action, mystery, resolution. This novel has none of those things, yet I can’t help but think that a story like this one has a place with viewers like you. (No spoilers contained within).
Everything I don’t know is right here with me but how do I make myself know it.
If you don’t know Don Delillo, he began publishing in the 70’s and is often mentioned as a key player in the postmodern literary movement. In my efforts to conquer this genre, I have read 6 of his novels so far, including Zero K, published in May of this year. Unlike many of his genre-mates, Delillo typically keeps things short. At just 274 pages, Zero K is a simple but dense novel, where nothing is purposefully obfuscated, and much is left for interpretation.
At the core of the novel, or what you could consider the ‘plot’, is Jeffrey Lockhart, the son of a very wealthy man, who is pulled into his father’s investment, which involves cryopreservation of humans. By no means is this a new concept, and Delillo seems to hint at this early on, but he brings something new to the conversation by not falling into a sci-fi plot, instead using it as a way to discuss the ethics of death. In fact, much of this novel reads more like philosophical musings disguised as fiction. There is a noticeable lack of superfluous description in each delicately crafted sentence.
This is what I did in any new environment. I tried to inject meaning, make the place coherent or at least locate myself within the place, to confirm my uneasy presence.
The contrast between the two settings, the cryogenic facility and New York, is possibly the most important piece of the story. The novel is a first-person account, so you only ever know as much as Jeffery, which at the mysterious facility in middle-of-nowhere Kazakhstan, is very little. Instead of using this position to have characters explain every little detail of the world to you (see Ellen Page’s character in Inception), Delillo uses it to do the opposite of the “world-building” concept that is so popular in modern fiction. There are locked rooms that will never be given purpose, there are weird sightings that will go unexplained, but you will realize early on that the events themselves aren’t the important part, it’s the intended perception of them that have purpose. The meticulously designed building is purposefully alienating and confining, leaving nothing to chance.
The logical step of being in this position (being forced to witness a dramatic step in human history) would lend itself to some deep contemplation on Jeffrey’s part. Does he agree with the practice of freezing humans for later use? Again, Delillo disregards convention, making Jeffrey’s internal monologue hazy and unfocused. He observes and participates in many conversations that are supposed to explain something to him, but instead of asking more questions, he seems to already understand everything and typically has his own unclear agenda. He subverts the most serious topics with his mental games and distractions, like giving people fake names and defining words. All of this makes the interactions in the story very unique, unpredictable, and inhuman.
Here, there were no lives to think about or imagine. This was pure spectacle, a single entity, the bodies regal in the cryonic bearing. It was a form of visionary art, it was body art with broad implications.
So what’s the point? This is the inevitable question upon finishing a book like this, which doesn’t even have a conflict to resolve. The point has to be in the themes, and there are many. Is it ethical to be put in a death-purgatory? What if you are nearing death anyway? What if you are doing it for love? What if you are doing it to skip over the impending doom of the world? Is death a natural state? Where does the self end? Delillo doesn’t even pretend to answer any of these questions. Instead he imbues you with a feeling that these questions are unanswerable and the feeling of hopelessness in watching an event that you have trouble supporting or dissenting. The plight of progress.
By the end, the sometimes-frustrating Jeffrey starts to become familiar. He is not some genius capable of deciphering the philosophical puzzles that you are forced to see through his eyes. Instead, he is mesmerized by people with a clear purpose, while he mainly floats with the current and makes questionable decisions. He never accuses anyone of being absurd in their beliefs, but he never seems to want to subscribe to anything at all. He doesn’t understand himself, and is acutely aware of it. Sounds like someone I know.
I open my eyes. Nothing happens. A boy’s adventures in the void.
TL;DR? It’s good, but I’d still recommend White Noise first. It gets a solid 3.5/5 Literary Toilets ov Hell.