Zero 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)