Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Zero K

by Don DeLillo
Scribner     2016
288 pages     Fiction

Zero K by Don DeLillo is an uncomfortable novel about death.  I read the book, read several reviews about it, talked it over with my husband, reread parts of it, and I still am experiencing confusion. I intended to have this posting done for the book's release, which was yesterday, but I just couldn't get a handle on what I wanted to say or how I wanted to feel. 

Zero K is the coldest a temperature can get. The K stands for Kelvin. It is minus 459.67 degrees F. The novel is as cold as the temperature.  Here is a brief rundown of the plot. Jeffrey Lockhart’s father, Ross, is a billionaire in his 60s, with a younger wife, Artis Martineau, whose health is failing. Ross is the primary investor in a remote and secret compound where death is exquisitely controlled, and bodies are preserved until a future time when biomedical advances and new technologies can return them to a life of transcendent promise. Jeff joins Ross and Artis at the compound to say “an uncertain farewell” to her as she surrenders her body. It is significant that Artis is an archaeologist, because she intends to be uncovered by future archaeologists when medical science will have solved all her health issues. Jeff observes, "Anticipation, a near joy visible in her face. It didn't matter what the speaker had to say. She was eager to slip out of this life into timeless repose, leaving behind all the shaky complications of body, mind, and personal circumstances."  

It turns out that the compound, called Convergence, is part of a "technocratic cult with a single aim: to rid the world of that absolute, all-­defining force, that ultimate despotic colonizer, death." The elegant phraseology is not mine but of the New York Times reviewer. Jeff goes along with the whole cryogenic "thing," helps his father through the entire ordeal, and then returns to his rather unproductive life in New York. He and his father continue to be haunted by the experience, until at last, Ross can stand it no longer and returns to the compound to join his wife. 

Don DeLillo has had a long career pushing the boundaries of literature. The language is very spare, the narrator, Jeff, is definitely on the autism spectrum, and everything is very bleak. I was fascinated by how Jeff is an observer of life, rather than a participant in life. His observations form the backbone of his personality; we never really know him, just as we never really know the other characters who populate the novel. When he decides to take a job as a compliance officer at a small college, we totally understand. It is a job that involves no personal involvement, no passion.

Ultimately, the novel is a meditation on life but more appropriately on death. DeLillo is 79 years old, facing, like I face, his mortality. This is what he is exploring in this novel—mortality and the meaning of life. It also plays with the ideas of the soul, of the failings of our current world, and of the role of the observer of life and death. He assumes that we, like Jeff, are primarily interested in observation, and that we float in and out of participating in life.

 The promise of everlasting life is one of the great themes of philosophy and religion. DeLillo faces that head on in Zero K, where he seems to be arguing that by not dying, humans are robbed of their humanity. There apparently are 300 plus people cryogenically frozen around the world awaiting the apocalypse or resurrection, or the cure for their ailments.

Reviewers constantly referred to other DeLillo books like The Names and White Noise, but as a first-time reader, I was left to puzzle through the beautiful, but stilted writing, the deadly serious tone, and the alienation of the characters. Zero K left me uneasy and off-balance, which is exactly where I presume DeLillo wanted me to be. 

Now I move to my book club's choice for May, Me Before You by JoJo Moyes, which is probably the exact opposite of Zero K, and will have me in a puddle of emotion rather than a puddle of frustration.

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