Zero K by Don DeLillo

AT this late stage of his life and career, Don DeLillo has been called a prophet so often, for so long, that he is now being sold as such. The publicity materials for his latest novel draw heavily on quotes and blurbs from peers and critics awed by Delillo’s prescience – his spooky receptivity to currents and portents in the culture, his novelistic gift for reading runes in news and sports and weather reports, then telling us how we’re going to die.

If that makes him sound a bit sci-fi, this new book brings him as close as he’s ever come to the domain of William Gibson, or even Michael Crichton. But there’s not much in the way of genre pleasure here, nor the satisfactions we tend to expect of literary fiction. His 21st century works have removed Delillo ever further from the form of the 19th century novel – his plots becoming more elliptical, his characters more rhetorical, his art more purely conceptual.

Zero K might be a consummation, and its protagonist, Jeffrey, initially seems a nigh-on parody of the author’s latter-day narrators. He’s an aimless, rootless vector of modernity, drifting between short-term corporate contracts as a “cross-stream pricing consultant” and “implementation analyst”. (“These jobs were swallowed up by the words that described them. The job title was the job.”) His semi-estranged father Ross Lockhart is a billionaire investor in The Convergence – a secret facility in the central Asian desert between several former Soviet republics, where the rich, sick and pathologically forward-thinking are cryogenically frozen and sustained in a kind of nano-sleep until medical advances and tech updates can awaken them in the world to come. His step-mother Artis is terminally ill, and Jeffrey is invited to witness her being prepped for her “pod”.

“You will have a phantom life in the braincase,” says a guide. “Floating thought. A passive sort of mental grasp. Ping ping ping. Like a newborn machine.” Later, in a deeply strange mid-book interlude, we will even get a brief transmission from Artis inside her cyber-sarcophagus, a soul in limbo or a consciousness on blinking standby mode.

“I only hear what is me. I am made of words.” There is creepy poetry in this, and beyond or beneath it a bold intimation of language at the sub-atomic core of being. The Convergence itself is presented as “a literal landmark of implausibility”. As Jeffrey wanders the interior it becomes a mythic space, a labyrinth of blank corridors and gnomic encounters.

At the same time, it’s a real and physical location, a concrete bunker for the practice of the hardest science, designed to withstand any one of the apocalyptic scenarios played out on digital screens and postulated in guest lectures by monkish futurists whose ambivalence toward technology speaks to some new hybrid philosophy: “That world, the one above, is being lost to the systems. To the transparent networks that slowly occlude the flow of all those aspects of nature and character that distinguish humans from elevator buttons and doorbells.”

Jeffrey himself is living proof of their position, which holds that our species is being “virtualised” and “unfleshed”. His instinctive resistance to their logic is undermined by his own addiction to the “puppet drug” of internet-enabled personal devices and the corresponding neural rush of instant, ephemeral knowledge. He argues, on reflex, that it is unnatural to prolong human life this way, while believers like his father insist that humans will inevitably do whatever is in their capacity to do – tending on one hand toward self-annihilation, on the other to self-preservation.

In the end, perhaps defying death by biomedical engineering is no more or less unnatural, or immoral, than defying gravity in carbon composite aircraft. The novel’s conversations run along these lines, the dialogue a rhythmic exchange of ideas. Everybody in it seems to speak DeLillo’s language, which rarely sounds much like quotidian speech. This is the kind of book where a 14-year-old Ukrainian prodigy will remark casually to an adult, “we learn to see the differences among the 10 million faces that pass through our visual field every year”.

As with most of the author’s recent output it can sometimes read as spare bordering on austere, cerebral to the point of sterility. But there is still blood flowing through it, a steady pulse audible beneath the hum of cogitation, rooted in Jeffrey’s memories of his real mother’s death but evident too in his most innocuous, everyday activities – sitting in traffic, withdrawing cash from an ATM, riding an elevated train through New York City with the afternoon sun flaring off the office towers. DeLillo applies both microscope and telescope, producing images that register as expressions of cosmic astonishment.

Now 79, DeLillo has become an old man in this relatively new century, and perhaps advancing age has given him an edge over younger writers. Once a novelist who seemed to be reporting from inside the crowds, there’s a sense here of his ascending above street level for a godlike, or ghostlike overhead view of the patterns and circuits that connect our inner lives to the world outside. Your intellectual reaction to Zero K – positive or negative – might be stronger than any emotional response. But at some point in the future, as technology keeps improving and the weather keeps getting worse, it’s easy to imagine that we’ll read this and weep.

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