In his new novel, “Zero K,” Don DeLillo imagines both our lives in the digital present and our denial of death in the biotechnical near future. Written in DeLillo’s coolly elegant prose and divided into two major sections, “Zero K” is a novel of ideas set in a world where the powerful rich wait out planetary degradation cryogenically preserved in storage pods.
“Zero K” begins with Jeff Lockhart, DeLillo’s narrator/protagonist, scanning the salt flats surrounding the compound where Artis, his stepmother, is in the final stages of life, multiple sclerosis and contingent ailments wasting her body away.
Deplaning at this final stop after traveling by private jet from New York, Jeff has no idea where he’s arrived. The new environment affects him immediately: “The heat made me think I was shrinking but I wanted to remain a moment and look. These were buildings in hiding, agoraphobically sealed. They were blind buildings, hushed and somber, invisibly windowed, designed to fold into themselves, I thought, when the movie reaches the point of digital collapse.”
This is the Convergence, Jeff learns, an exclusive depository in the hinterlands of Kazakhstan. Jeff’s father, Ross, has summoned him here to witness Artis enter her suspended state. Zero K is the facility’s lowest level, where staff members prepare the bodies of the dying for cryopreservation and future regeneration. Zero Kelvin is absolute zero — the temperature at which entropy and enthalpy are at minimum value. Though kinetic energy still exists, the body’s atoms are stilled, frozen.
Wandering the Convergence hallways, Jeff meets caretakers, spiritualists and evangelical entrepreneurs promoting the operation’s agenda in slightly accented “Global English.” Coming upon a meeting that appears to be a counseling session for the loved ones of those soon to enter cryo-pods, Jeff realizes that it’s actually something like a startup-company rally for angel investors. Two Swedes lead the meeting in an unrhymed, rap-like exchange: “The defining element of life is that it ends.” “Nature wants to kill us off in order to return to its untouched and uncorrupted form.”
Nature’s power is exhibited on automated drop-down screens that confront Jeff as he meanders. These screens display looping video sequences of warfare, terrorist events and weather disasters. Meant to be art, the installations present the world in entropy, the very chaos that the Convergence claims to insulate its clients against.
Ross, a magnate controlling “private wealth management, dynasty trusts, emerging markets,” is a major Convergence benefactor. Though Jeff claims that they’ve settled the distance between them, his lingering resentment against Ross for walking out on him and his mother, Madeline, two decades earlier, rises up as he studies Artis ready for life after death. When his father announces that he’s going to join his wife in cryo-suspension, Jeff recalls watching his mother’s death from her bedside and takes Ross’ pod as “his final shrine of entitlement.”
Separating Parts One and Two is “Artis Martineau,” an interstitial section written in a halting, haunting Samuel Beckett-like voice that both narrates and imagines her liminal state: “Am I someone or is it just the words themselves that make me think I’m someone. . . . Are the words themselves all there is. Am I just words.”
In “Zero K” DeLillo dabbles in a mode of speculative fiction that he seems ambivalent about even as he employs it. That ambivalence is evident in Part Two, when DeLillo advances the storyline by two years, returns Jeff to New York where he drifts from job to job, introduces Jeff’s girlfriend and her teenage son. Suddenly, “Zero K” goes static.
Early on, as if speaking to readers who might be unwilling to suspend their disbelief, DeLillo has Ross explain to Jeff, “Nothing here is speculative. Nothing is wishful or peripheral. Men, women. Death, life.” Part Two barely achieves that spare reasoning: DeLillo’s thin characters never reach fullness; no new potent ideas enter the mix. And these are strategic choices. When he sends Jeff and Ross back to the Convergence, it’s strangely relieving.
In his 1985 novel, “White Noise,” DeLillo wrote that “all plots move deathward.” One reductive reading of DeLillo’s oeuvre says this claim has been his overarching thematic concern. The author, however, has routinely refused to write plotted fiction thus; his works stay well-above artistic absolute zero. Wonderfully imagined, intellectually kinetic, “Zero K” artfully resists cryo-digital death. It ends, as DeLillo’s works often do, in a beautifully wrought final scene of life-giving natural wonder.