Don DeLillo’s new novel “Zero K” is a deep-dive inquiry into issues of meaning and mortality, the story of a billionaire trying to ensure the long-term existence of his dying wife.
by Don DeLillo
Scribner, 288 pp., $27
Don DeLillo’s “Zero K” is science fiction of the kind that takes place five minutes from now and a novel of ideas that’s deeply emotional. Reading it made me feel like I was watching Andrei Tarkovsky’s post-apocalyptic film “Stalker” with David Bowie’s “Blackstar” playing softly in the background.
DeLillo is closing fast on 80, and since “Underworld” (1997) has published several short novels, a collection of stories and three plays that have done nothing to shake his reputation as an author with a big brain who doesn’t always bother with plot and character. Enlightening, yes. Engaging, not so much.
“Zero K” feels different. It’s a meditation on love and death by someone who’s standing at the crossroads at dusk, knowing what’s behind him and wondering what’s ahead. As the shadows close in, worldly matters fall away and the big questions become more urgent: How do we go on living when our loved ones die? What happens after death? Can aging be stopped and life extended?
Religions, great and small, have provided answers with absolute certainty and an absence of facts. Science and industry hasn’t filled the void, not for lack of trying. There are strong motives, personal and financial, for eternal life.
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“Everybody wants to own the end of the world,” is the first sentence in “Zero K,” a grabber, in italics, that rivals “The future belongs to crowds,” from DeLillo’s 1991 novel “Mao II.” That book dealt in a scarily prescient way with terrorism and is DeLillo’s signature achievement, a guide for a jittery world. “Zero K” comes at some of the same themes from a different angle, an inquiry into “faith-based technology.”
Ross Lockhart is a billionaire, the spiritual father of the limo-riding financier of DeLillo’s “Cosmopolis.” Lockhart has made his pile “analyzing the profit motives of natural disasters” and has it all, “companies, agencies, funds, trusts, foundations, syndicates, communes and clans.” He’s been on the cover of Newsweek.
Money can’t save his wife, Artis, who’s dying of multiple sclerosis. Lockhart has gone all in on the Convergence, a creepy-sounding type of cryonics — is there any other kind? — that takes place in a remote facility in the Kyrgyzstan desert.
Lockhart has summoned his wayward son, Jeff, to witness Artis’ crossing over, and Jeff serves as narrator and conveniently precise describer of increasingly strange events. The facility is like something out of another Tarkovsky movie, “Solaris,” with endless hallways and video screens (a DeLillo favorite) and people who speak cryptically and disappear.
Everybody speaks cryptically in a DeLillo novel.
“There is no time,” Jeff Lockhart tells his father. “Time is multiple, time is simultaneous,” a Convergence honcho says. “A thing hits skimmingly,” says a monk, referring to the meteor that landed in Russia in 2013. “We are at the mercy of our star,” Artis replies.
It’s elliptical and maddening and profound, all the deep thoughts and deeper meanings, stones dropped into a pond that send ever-wider rings toward the shore.
The desire to be together — “only connect,” in E.M. Forster’s phrase — is what drives Ross Lockhart to bring his son closer and to join his wife in an unknown future. Artis talked to Jeff Lockhart about the possibilities:
“I will become a clinical specimen … I have every belief that I will reawaken to a new perception of the world.”
“The world as it really is.”
“At a time that’s not necessarily so far off. And this is what I think about when I try to imagine the future. I will be reborn into a deeper and truer reality.”