Review: Sam Dicksonon Don DeLillo

Zero K: The Poetry of Alien Places

Within an oeuvre famed for its meditations on the cultural anxieties surrounding death, an early scene in Don DeLillo’s latest novel, Zero K, is remarkable for its contemporary take on a familiar subject. In a bare room ‘austere, with rock-hewn walls and floor,’ deep inside an isolated cryonics facility in south Kazakhstan, a ‘short and round’ man with ‘high forehead, frizzed hair’ addresses a gathering of benefactors: ‘Do we see ourselves living outside time, outside history?’

The small crowd is made up of uber-rich futurists, all eagerly listening to the promises made by the speaker. Fantasies of immortality, of transcending time and history, are dangled in front of the financial elites by company tech-gurus. The cryonics facility offers patrons the service of freezing their bodies. Their mortal remains will be reconstructed through the use of nano-technology in some undefined future. As the speaker stokes the egoistic dreams of the audience, another speaker, a woman ‘frail in a long loose tunic and headscarf’, interjects:

‘Hopes and dreams of the future often fail to account for the complexity, the reality of life as it exists on this planet. We understand that. The hungry, the homeless, the besieged, the warring factions and religions and sects and nations. The crushed economies. The wild surges of weather. Can we be impervious to terrorism? Can we ward off threats of cyberattack? Will we be able to remain truly self-sufficient here?’

The dialogue is distinctively DeLilloan. His characters regularly deliver pensive, rhetorical questions to themselves, each other and the reader, often undercut with a dark comic tone. Philosophical wonderment threatens to veer into banality. While the sales pitch in this scene is viewed from a distance by the main characters of Zero K, and also by us as readers, the sentiment and tone of the speech resonates with the author’s recurring interest in the dynamics between high tech capital and historic memory. Writing about the impacts of the Twin Tower attacks in the near aftermath of 11 September 2001, DeLillo described modern life within the late twentieth century as inhabiting a kind of amnesia:

…the dramatic climb of the Dow and the speed of the internet summoned us all to live permanently in the future, in the utopian glow of cyber- capital, because there is no memory there and this is where markets are uncontrolled and investment potential has no limit.

He goes on to suggest that the terror attacks in 2001 represent a ‘return’ to history, that ‘… the terrorists of September 11 want to bring back the past.’ The desires for sale in Zero K revolve around a capitalist utopian dream of an end to history, a prophylactic against incursions on the global market by outside disruptions and contingencies. It’s fitting that this cryonics facility is called Convergence, as the novel’s most fascinating moments depict the unavoidable convergences between the extreme ends of modernity. The highest end of capital, where booster faith in technology is expected to conquer even death, is beset by two great contemporary exceptions to its laws: the unintelligible, near-daily incursions of atavistic violence and our planet’s imminent ecological catastrophe.

The book’s narrator Jeffrey watches the above scene from behind a window slit. He is at the facility to accompany his father, Ross Lockhart, whose second wife, Artis Martineau, has decided to undergo cryonic freezing after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. The troubled relationship between son and father, who walked on out Jeffrey and his mother Madeline at a young age, is the novel’s primary narrative. This focus on basic human relationships provides a crucial focal counterpoint to the novel’s more grandiose thematic explorations.

Ross is a billionaire working in global finance, and is critical of Jeffrey’s indifference to white collar life, characterizing his ‘noncareer’ as a ‘determined drift, week to week, year to year’. Jeffrey himself understands work in blank, valueless terms. He takes on jobs such as ‘implementation analyst’, and other occupations in which the ‘jobs were swallowed up by the words that described them… the job title was the job’.  Jeffrey’s skepticism regarding the excesses of high capital and technocratic worship is a surrogate for the reader’s. This distance offers an ironic frame for the many conversations at the Convergence facility, leavening the pretension with a comic edge (he describes one robed philosopher as a ‘crackpot sage’). A certain strain within the project of late capitalism is registered by the intergenerational conflict of the father and son — but it also provides reflection on universal aspects of family relations and death.

These concerns make up the first half of Zero K, which is symmetrically structured into two sections: ‘The Time of Chelyabinsk’ & ‘The Time of Konstaninovka’. The first, named after a Russian city where a meteorite landed in 2013, is set primarily at the facility and leads up to the cryonic freezing of Artis. The second half revolves around a burgeoning relationship between Jeffrey and a speech pathologist, Emma, and her adopted Ukrainian son, Stak (Konstaninovka is a city in Ukraine). The evenly split sections are divided by a short section relaying the looping thoughts of Artis as she undergoes freezing. Here is another suggestive convergence metaphor: the self as subject and object is registered in its alternating first and third person sentences: ‘She is first person and third person both.’ The self-enclosure of self-identity, a body frozen and a mind left only to converse with itself, is figured as the logical, hellish endpoint of isolation, the very antithesis of transcendence promised by the Convergence gurus. Her status, ‘living within the grim limits of self,’ suggests that cryonic suspension is a painful extension of the loneliness of death.

Throughout, Jeffrey also recalls memories from childhood, including reminisces of his mother. The details always hone in on the quotidian: ‘…me in a chair with a book or magazine, my mother watching TV without the sound… ordinary moments make the life.’ The minor details bring these memories into an abstract but no less human warmth, juxtaposed against the blank non-spaces of the techno world. In particular, the relation to words and phenomena are an obsession for Jeffrey, whose ruminations become drifting chains of definition.

I used to watch her guide the device over the back of her cloth coat. I tried to define the word roller without sneaking a look in the dictionary… I watch her use the roller to remove lint from her cloth coat. Define coat, I tell myself. Define time, define space.

He also becomes fascinated by the ‘useless’ pursuits of philosophy, literature (‘lengthy and intense European novel[s], written in the 1930s’), pure mathematics and the mystery of words themselves. The abstraction and non-value of such pursuits are founded on the absence of his father. Reading a difficult novel, he finds himself contemplating the mysterious relationship of his parents:

I came across the word fishwife. It swept me back into the marriage… Ross and Madeline alone, what did they say, what were they like, who were they? All I felt was a shattered space where my father used to be.

The mystery of language provides the young Jeffrey with a cerebral escape from a lonely childhood, yet its drift always returns him to others. Some essence of humanity, unsentimental, is found in these mysterious relations between simple being, with others, and language. It is a pointed contrast to the suspension of Artis. The cryonic effacement of identity is opposed by a serious, and at times affective, reflection on the essence of the human subject, a subject defined by memory and the ambiguity of language. In Zero K DeLillo brilliantly balances the wildly different scales of his subject matter: the macro focused issues of planetary disaster, global capitalism, techno and primitive warfare, and the micro relations of family relations and individual identity. He consolidates a focus on the abstract relations between the individual and the global, which has become a major formal preoccupation of his novels in the twenty-first century.

DeLillo is renowned for his prescience. Across seventeen novels, spanning 45 years, his acute attunement to the violent ruptures, groundswells and developments of the post-war United States has been explored through a set of thematic obsessions. Terrorism, the senescence of traditional art, mass media, consumer culture, and the role of the writer in speaking to this modern culture have been consistent themes since his first novel Americana (1971). His popular reputation rests largely on the string of critically lauded novels beginning with the comic breakout White Noise (1985) and including the imagined counter-history of Lee Harvey Oswald in Libra (1988), the musing on novels and terrorists in Mao II (1992) and the Cold War historical epic, Underworld (1998), for many his greatest achievement.

DeLillo’s last five novels, including The Body Artist (2001), Cosmopolis (2003), Falling Man (2007) and Point Omega (2010), culminate in a distinct period, a change in style that is clearly demarcated by the shift in the density of its prose and focal range. The Body Artist, about a woman haunted by the absence of her newly deceased husband, was a deceptively small work which rewarded patient reading. Its simple and weighty prose delivered grows more resonant with a slower deeper level of attention. While these late books are a distillation of career-long obsessions, DeLillo’s focus has at once diminished and grown. He no longer catalogues the conspiratorial narratives of the Cold War, an American century with its barely unconscious death wish, mediated by film and television and mounting waste products. The focus has dilated and expanded at once to the life and death at the level of the individual and at the level of the globe: the deep time of the Anthropocene. It concerns death after grand narratives of history. The imminent ecological catastrophe of the planet underlies this new focus.

The ruthless understanding of the world as a capitalist system has never wavered, and recent novels have crucially registered the effects of this as a world of uneven development. The daily abstraction and temporal saturation of the West, registered most acutely within the world of high finance, is regularly contrasted with, or intruded upon, by people, places and forces operating in opposition to modernity. The anti-globalisation protestors in Cosmopolis and the details of Hammad’s terrorist training in Falling Man are just two examples where these opposing threads converge. DeLillo’s late works feel most prescient in their ability to register the current global financial crises, in which recalcitrant worship of high finance and the savage atavism of tribal politics at its worst are seen as somehow related or symptomatic of the same global system. Rescaling the focus of his novels, DeLillo has abandoned the dominant narratives of conspiracy, myth and nation which defined his 20th century novels. Instead, meaningful accounts of the global system are found in the unexpected places and moments where it intersects with the personal.

DeLillo’s interest in depicting the intense temporality of the present increasingly finds expression in spatially descriptive scenes within the late novels. In The Body Artist, Lauren Hartke’s deceased husband is a film director whose obituary notes that his ‘subject is people in landscapes of estrangement. He found a spiritual knife edge in the poetry of alien places…’ This might well describe the common motif of DeLillo’s late work in general. Eric Packer, the young multibillionaire in Cosmopolis, traverses New York in a limousine packed with screens and graphs connected to the global economy. The shocked streets of New York after 9/11 in Falling Man, described as ‘another landscape… a conjuring that resembled for the briefest second some half-seen image only half believed in the seeing.’ Its eponymous image, the falling man figure himself, is suspended in an estranged place. The entire plot of Point Omega concerns the disappearance of a girl in a remote desert.

The Convergence, too, is situated in remote desert near the Kazakhstan/Kyrgistan border. The ‘spiritual knife edge’ of abstract space is exploited toward instrumental ends. It has been designed to within an inch of its life, such that it seeks to emulate an aesthetic of ‘no history’. Artis suggests that ‘we ought to regard it as a work-in-progress, an earthwork, a form of earth art, land art.’ Even the scientific terminology is serviced to induce an aesthetic response:

The guide explained the meaning of the term Zero K… it concerned a unit of temperature called absolute zero, which is minus two hundred and seventy-three point one five degrees celsius… A physicist named Kelvin was mentioned, he was the K in the term. The most interesting thing the guide had to say was the fact that the temperature employed in cryostorage does not actually approach Zero K. The term, then, was pure drama…

Space is designed to be representational in the facility. It all means something, however mysterious. It exemplifies the expanding boundaries of art in the present century, where public space is made over into sites of heightened aestheticism and cultural consumption.

DeLillo finds a motif for this intersection between art, capital and space, in recent works, with recurring scenes set in art galleries. Point Omega is bookended by an unknown man watching an installation of Douglas Gordon’s ’24 Hour Psycho’, a multiple screen display of Hitchcock’s famous film slowed down to play over a full day. The unnamed man experiences the peculiar effect of seeing the images move at such an unnaturally slow pace: ‘He was mesmerized by this, the depths that were possible in the slowing of motion, the things to see, the depths of things so easy to miss in the shallow habit of seeing.’ “Baader-Meinhof”, a short story from 2002 later published in the story collection The Angel Esmeralda (2011), is also set in an art gallery. A woman repeatedly visits a gallery to see Gerhard Richter’s paintings of Red Army militants. Each visit reveals more. Talking to a strange man who approaches her, she says ‘I realize now that the first day I was only barely looking. I thought I was looking, but I was only getting a bare inkling of what’s in these paintings. I’m only just starting to look.’ The art gallery allows for an abstracted experience of time withdrawn from the regular scheduled time of daily life.

The circulation of anonymous bodies is another feature of the gallery notable in these scenes. The man in Point Omega registers other people in the dark room, speculating about their occupations as potential film scholars. We later learn they are the characters from the main narrative. The two people from “Baader-Meinhof” return to the woman’s home, where the man’s sexual advances are rejected. In Falling Man, Lianne visits a gallery and is put off by the presence of another viewer,

She wasn’t sure why she was looking so intently. She was passing beyond pleasure into some kind of assimilation. She was trying to absorb what she saw, take it home, wrap it around her, sleep in it. There was so much to see. Turn it into living tissue, who you are. She went back to the main room but could not look at the work the same way with the man there, watching her or not.

Whatever the enriching personal experiences and social possibilities made available by commingling of bodies in galleries they are, however, ultimately spaces for high-end commodities, the rarefied hobbies of the very rich. Much like Eric Packer in Cosmopolis, who wants to purchase the entire Rothko chapel for his own collection, Ross Lockhart is a billionaire who collects fine art and offers space for young artists to work. At one point, the anonymous viewer in Point Omega observes the reified endpoint of the galleries for the owners and traders, echoing the hype of the Convergence spruikers:  ‘He played with the idea that the gallery was like a preserved site, a dead poet’s cottage or hushed tomb, a medieval chapel.’ The facility in Zero K takes the alienating and mesmeric potential of the gallery space and applies its logic to an extreme: a speculative scientific facility as art installation in the remote Middle Eastern desert.

The spatial separation between the private facility and the outside world closes in a fascinating sequence midway through the book. It emblematises just how far media saturation accelerated during the last half century.  The famous ‘most photographed barn in America’ scene from White Noise has been widely cited as an exemplary fictional shorthand for Baudrillard’s description of simulation culture. In Zero K, the ubiquitous screen walls of the Convergence continually play footage of planetary destruction, a safe depiction of the terrors of the outside world. In one scene, Jeffrey is wandering the facility when screens lower and hundreds of ‘people running, crowds of running men and women’ are shown. He reflects that the images are merely ‘visual fictions, the wildfires and burning monks, digital bits, digital code, all of it computer-generated, none of it real.’ However, the screen lifts and suddenly
the joggers appear in the hallways: ‘running men and women, images bodied out, spilled from the screen.’

It suggests a change from the notion of hyperreality, in which image culture has ceased to refer to a reality beyond it, but merely refers to itself. Rather, the ubiquity of video screens in the new century is marked by a greater interpenetration between images and the real world. A shocking repetition of this interpenetration between real life and image occurs late in the book. Jeffrey watches footage of warfare and sees Stek, Emma’s son, murdered in combat, an example of the shrinking of space with the speed of informational flow. The real impacts of territorial violence return to the alien space of the facility. There is no living outside of history.

As acute as DeLillo’s writing is concerning visual media, and its power to transform our relation to reality in the present day, his primary concern is the power of written language. The act of naming is crucial. In the facility, Jeffrey is always inventing names to anchor his strange experiences in a stable reality (‘She would not be real until I gave her a name.’) The imprecision and ambiguity of language is also celebrated. In The Body Artist the slow, emphatic embrace of language is implored to reveal the ghostly, mysterious traces in our words: ‘shadow-inching through a sentence.’

In White Noise, Jack Gladney overhears his daughter mumbling in her sleep  ‘two clearly audible words, familiar and elusive at the same time, words that seemed to have a ritual meaning, part of a verbal spell or ecstatic chant’: Toyota Celica. The familiar brand name, commercial and crass as it is, retains something exceptional: ‘The utterance was beautiful and mysterious, gold-shot with looming wonder.’ The scene of a babbling child returns in the touching conclusion to Zero K. Sitting in a bus, Jeffrey observes ‘a natural phenomenon, here in Manhattan, once or twice a year, in which the sun’s rays align with the local street grid’. He notices a small child in the back seat:

The boy bounced slightly in accord with the cries and they were unceasing and also exhilarating, they were prelinguistic grunts… I told myself that the boy was not seeing the sky collapse upon us but was finding the purest astonishment in the intimate touch of earth and sun.

The narrator exalts in the wonder of basic human expression seeking form through inchoate language. It is a touching counterpoint to Artis; frozen in the pod she is left in a nightmare of recursive language, the closed system of ‘living within the grim limits of self.’ The narrator no longer needs to see the the landscape, ‘I didn’t need heaven’s light. I had the boy’s cries of wonder.’ In something like a correction to Jeffrey’s childhood loneliness, and the solipsism of Artis frozen in the pod, the moment is an affirmation of language and connection. The wonder and mystery of language is retained as a value to be held against the deadening effects of late modernity – the prelinguistic expression celebrated before its hardening into miscommunication, or servicing into exchange as informational capital. In perhaps his last book, DeLillo reassearts the mysteries of our language and the estranging potential of alien places.

Works Cited:

Don DeLillo, Americana (Penguin: London, 1990)
-“Baader-Meinhof” in The Angel Esmeralda (Scribner: New York, 2011)
Cosmopolis (Picador: London, 2003)
Falling Man (Picador: London, 2007) “In the Ruins of the Future.” Harper’s Dec. 2001: 33-40
Libra (Penguin: New York, 1991)
Mao II (Vintage: London, 1992)
Point Omega (Scribner: New York, 2010)
The Body Artist (Picador: London, 2001)
Underworld (Scribner: New York, 1997)
White Noise (Picador: London, 2002)
Zero K (Scribner: New York, 2016)
Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation. trans. Sheila Faria Glaser. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994.