Betty Scott

‘Zero K’ by Don DeLillo

ZeroK_9781501135392_215c8Zero K falls squarely into a hot publishing trend, yet it resembles none of its peers. DeLillo does dystopia, but we’re living in it right now, and there are no heroes or adrenaline-drenched action scenes. Nobody saves the world. Instead, the main character/narrator spends more time observing than doing; reacting more than acting. To him, life is often a series of puzzles whose solutions he must tease out for no special purpose, full of questions whose answers beget more questions.

Indeed, it is hard to connect with a character so disengaged. His obsession with names and word games represents a form of control so passive that it exerts no power outside of his mind. As a result, there are long stretches of Zero K that are glacially internal. Whether the wordplay is amusing or annoying is a matter of taste, but these passages often yield phrases and sentences of unusual beauty. Consider these lovely inefficiencies: “Emma came east,” “whatever there is of down deep,” and an imaginary game of cartographic striptease described as, “…my jacket for Gorki, her jeans for Kamchatka, moving slowly onward to Kharkov, Saratov, Omsk, Tomsk.” Has an author ever so prettily described sex that doesn’t happen?

That’s not all that isn’t happening. If undressing while staring at a map sounds oddly impersonal, that’s because it is, and that’s kind of the narrator’s thing. Zero K is in many ways a study in stylistic detachment and impersonality. Whether it’s the avoidance of question marks that flattens many of the book’s conversations or the unusual use of passive voice (“I am shamed by this,” rather than “I am ashamed of this,” or even “This shames me”); whether it’s the narrator’s habit of stopping and staring or the numerous carefully-arranged tableaux that line his path, there’s often a distinct lack of emotion despite the book containing many emotional scenes. What would you do if your fantastically wealthy, estranged father summoned you to a remote compound halfway across the world? And what if that compound was revealed to be a utopian community, cult, and cryogenic preservation facility all rolled into one? And then your father tells you he’s going to be frozen there–not when he dies, but right now? If you’re the narrator of Zero K, you wander down a corridor trying to open locked doors.

Clearly, DeLillo has philosophical points to address here. There are metaphors for Big Ideas, some of which are also directly addressed, and conversations about the faith born from the marriage of religion and science. Contemporary life, with its ever-present technology and endless conveniences that avert our eyes from the war, natural disaster, and famine unfolding everywhere around us, isn’t a pre-dystopia to which characters want to return but something to escape, wait out, and build over sometime in the distant future. This is much more than a novel about a father and a son, but that relationship is the most important in the book, and DeLillo’s approach to it is suffused with sadness and futility. Who can we be other than ourselves; other than senseless reactions to the past? This particular idea, and the narrator’s personal past, haunt many sections of the novel. It’s surely not an accident that the narrator’s stepmother is an archeologist.

The things that are not addressed–the things glossed over and passively received–might trouble some readers. It often appears that women exist to be lost and mourned by the men who quietly watch them. There is a scene featuring violent, depersonalized sex with a prostitute who is a “gift” that suggests transactional sex, if not sexual servitude, belongs in the utopian future. Is that DeLillo’s ideal, or is this just another example of the narrator’s detachment? The problem with stylistic devices that deny emotion and refuse value judgment is that they can cloud meaning.

Zero K is probably a book everyone will be talking about this summer, both because it’s by Don DeLillo and because of its ideas and subject matter. Commit to reading it cover to cover and be prepared to take notes if you begin it. Also, perhaps consider putting aside a little money each month to put towards having yourself–or at least your head–cryogenically frozen. If you accept that we are living in the drab, lonely world its narrator believes we are, suspended existence and an uncertain future will look very appealing.

Zero K by Don DeLillo (Scribner | 9781501135392 | May 3, 2016)

The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett

TheVersionsofUs_9780544634244_074c0You’ve heard this concept before. A seemingly insignificant detail can dramatically alter the course of a life. What would have happened if you’d had cereal for breakfast instead of a bagel? What if you wore the blue shirt last Tuesday instead of the green one? Chaos theory has been approached in various pop cultural forms over the past few decades, but The Versions of Us tackles the idea in a fresh way.

Whereas films like Sliding Doors present two different fates that hinge on the mundane, and the Donnie Darko approach suggests that love, sacrifice, and identifying the all-important moment can allow you to shape the future you desire, The Versions of Us tracks three possible timelines and takes a realist stance. In each timeline, the characters experience the kind of tradeoffs that most people face at some point. In one version, a character might have the partner they always wanted, but this means suffering bitter professional disappointment. Perhaps another character fulfills their ambitions, but it is at the cost of alienating their children. One version might mean finding happiness early in life to one character but never finding it at all to another, while a different version leads to happy golden years. Some readers may have trouble tracking the timelines, but Barnett is usually careful to overlap key scenes in a way that highlights their differences.

While it sometimes overexplains (how many times must we be told that marijuana was associated with counter-cultural youths in the 1960’s?), and while the dialog is over-dramatic in spots (have you ever exclaimed, “No regrets! Not now, not ever!” as you clutched your lover?), this is a well-structured novel with keen-eyed attention to detail. Moreover, it avoids predictability–a tall task when you’re not just telling a boy-meets-girl story but telling it three different ways. The Versions of Us is a good read for people who enjoy sweeping dramas and romantic characters but are looking for a book that makes you think a bit more and work a little harder than the standard airport novel.

The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt | 9780544634244 | May 3, 2016)

‘What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours’ by Helen Oyeyemi

‘What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours’ by Helen Oyeyemi

what_is_not_yours_is_not_yours_9781594634635_4748dHelen Oyeyemi’s stories are like hedge mazes. As soon as you begin to anticipate a direction, a destination, and an ending, there’s a turn, and another turn, then before you know it, the story is about someone or something else. What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours uses such labyrinthine structures in only the best ways, subverting folk tales, upending traditional narratives, and unfolding backstories as if outside of time.

The tales are mostly set within the same landscape and feature some recurring characters and related events, though they stand up well on their own. They’re not woven together into one large tapestry, like the stories Anthony Marra’s The Tsar of Love and Techno, but rather exist as distinct entities shot through with the same shimmering thread. This is an idealized world, though one much like ours, where diversity is not only common but barely questioned; where comrades take up for one another at the slightest hint of danger; where (and this is the engine of the book’s best wonders) anything and everything can be haunted, possessed, made sentient, or imported from an alternate reality.

James Baldwin and #OscarsSoWhite

James Baldwin and #OscarsSoWhite

An excellent piece in The Economist recently crunched the numbers on the two-year Academy Awards whiteout. It turns out that “even during a 15-year span, the odds of seeing at least one sequence of back-to-back whiteouts are around one in 100,000.”

And yet, here we are. Despite being well represented in the Screen Actors Guild and the immense statistical unlikelihood that no performers of African-American, Latino, Asian, or other non-European ancestry might win a nomination for the second year in a row, it’s exactly what happened. Numbers, however, don’t tell you why, and with the occasional pundits, critics, and laptop opinionisti dismissing the importance of on-screen representation, America needs to be told why. For that, we need James Baldwin.

In his 1976 book of film writing (Vintage International has a nice paperback edition [ISBN 978-0307275950]), Baldwin opens by stating in frank, personal terms that yes, being able to see somebody who resembles you, your family, and your neighbors does, indeed, matter.

The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie

ThePortableVeblen9781594206856_3b03aWhether this quirky, gently postmodern novel is a book you will love or hate depends largely on how you feel about whimsy. It tackles a host of serious topics–the military industrial complex, the marriage industrial complex, whether we owe our families a debt and to what degree we’re obligated to pay it down–but often in distinctly unserious ways. Conversational squirrel, anyone?

I don’t imply that The Portable Veblen is shallow or has nothing to say, or that it name-drops the titular noted economist (and other cultural greats like William James and Richard Rorty) without reason. No, subjects like the deeply conflicted attitudes about money and success held by many millennials and the meaning of marriage in contemporary American culture actually form the backbone of this novel. It is, however, also very character-driven, and the main character knows no end of whimsy. Her perspective seeps into McKenzie’s imagery and turns of phrase, so that a squirrel’s markings resemble Victorian finery and potted flowers become cancan skirts.