In Underworld, Don deLillo tried to do what John le Carré did with The Secret Pilgrim: to look back on their true subject, the Cold War, from a few years afterwards and write a grand summation of the whole thing. Like le Carré, he succeeded and wrote a damn masterwork; like le Carré, his writing immediately fell off afterwards. le Carré kept rewriting The Honourable Schoolboy in different contexts, with a recurring theme of Fuck You, CIA, and deLillo kept writing short stories that he blew up to novel length. With deLillo, Cosmopolis was a fairly interesting although flat work; Point Omega seemed like self-parody, with approximately one event in the entire book, half of which was a review of an art installation where Psycho was time-stretched to 24 hours. deLillo, however, has come back fairly strong with this year’s Zero K; it’s his first work since Underworld that feels like something new from him.
As usual for a deLillo novel, not a lot happens but a great deal gets described and meditated upon. The action summarizes easily: somewhere in Inner Asia, zillionaire Ross Lockhart funds the Convergence, which takes dying people and preserves them until they can be brought back to life. Artis, his second wife, is dying and gets preserved. He decides to join her, then he doesn’t, then he does, and his son, Jeffrey, by his first wife narrates the whole thing.
Zero K could be called science fiction without the science; deLillo has never been interested in the specifics of how things happen but instead how people react to them. Ever fascinated with the why of things, he writes nothing about the how. (Reverse that and you get Neal Stephenson, and Zero K has just as much fascination with the Long Now as Stephenson’s Anathem.) There’s nothing here about things like the process of cryopreservation, Ross Lockhart’s dealings that made him his money, the new language that the Convergence develops, only Jeffrey’s ground-level perception of these things.
That lack of detail has been a problem in deLillo’s other post-Underworld novels but here it strengthens into a theme and becomes touching. Early in Zero K, Ross calls the Convergence a “pilgrimage,” and not knowing the details helps that work. Science fiction connects with history in a way that no other genre does: sci-fi (and fantasy) can call up the strangeness of distant times. The Convergence explicitly sees itself as a voyage into the future, the beginning of a new way of life hundreds or thousands of years off, and deLillo makes us feel the loneliness of those who take that journey–to jump into the unknown and know you’ll never come back. The myth of the journey to the New World was like that, people abandoning the past for the future, knowing they might die, knowing they could never come back. (That I know the historical reality was very different doesn’t make this less compelling, which, after all, is what we mean by “myth.”) Through Jeffrey’s perspective, deLillo gives us the bravery and madness of that.
Other deLillan themes come up here and play out well. He’s always been fascinated by the way art and experience intersect; maybe his best version of this was the apartment-based installation of dozens of showings of the Zapruder film of JFK’s assassination in Underworld. Here, the building that houses the Convergence is explicitly artistic, with statues of women in chadors outside, an almost indeterminate architecture and film loops of mass murder and death inside. (It’s like deLillo’s reading of the television broadcast of crushed football fans in Mao II, “a crowded twisted vision of a rush to death as only a master of the age could paint it.”) It seems somehow right; the first line of the novel is “Everybody wants to own the end of the world” and the Convergence does indeed want that. In fact it wants to own the beginning of the new world as well. There’s a touch of Shelley’s “Ozymandias” to all of this; Ross calls it “faith-based technology,” and I wonder if it will all end up as “two vast and trunkless legs of stone/Stand[ing] in the desert,” or if everything else will. deLillo is always at his best when he can reveal the strangeness of our world–“how everyday things are hidden”–and the Convergence is one of the strangest places in all deLillo because it’s the origin point of the future. I’ve visited the National Ignition Facility, where people create the center of the sun approximately once per week. It’s not any stranger than Zero K. (And yes, fellow physics geeks, he does explain the title and he gets it mostly right.)
Zero K also works where other late deLillo novels haven’t in part because the characters come closer to real people. Jeffrey has more to do than simply function as a recorder; he argues with his father, remembers his past with his mother, and has a relationship with a woman with an adopted son, Stak. Jeffrey has enough ordinariness to him to be interesting, and that’s something that was present in Underworld and has been missing since then. Stak, by the way, is one of deLillo’s recurring types of character, like Karen in Mao II or chief of theory Vija Kinsky in Cosmopolis: entirely caught up in the strangeness of the present, not part of this world because he’s too much in the world, and his fate intersects with the Convergence in a way that, in deLillo, qualifies as touching.
What really makes Zero K work is how deLillo gives himself over to what language does and how we live in language. deLillo has always carefully structured his novels (Libra and Underworld, for example, have multiple narratives that converge at the end; Underworld goes one step past that by bracketing those narratives with a prologue and epilogue) and he pulls an audacious move in Zero K. There are two major sections: Artis gets preserved in part one and Ross follows her in part two, two years later. Between the two parts, deLillo gives us six stunning pages of Artis in preservation, “a minimal consciousness”:
The only here is where I am. But where is here. And why just here and nowhere else.
What I don’t know is right here with me but how do I make myself know it.
Am I someone or is it just the words themselves that make me think I’m someone.
Why can’t I know more. Why just this and nothing else. Or do I need to wait.
She is able to say what she feels and she is also the person who stands outside the feelings.
Are the words themselves all there is. Am I just the words.
This is the feeling I have that the words want to tell me things but I don’t know how to listen.
I listen to what I hear.
I only hear what is me. I am made of words.
Does it keep going on like this.
In Mao II, novelist Bill Gray remarked “Beckett is the last writer to shape the way we think and see.” deLillo has always tried to convey his hyperaware thought and vision in the cadences of his sentences, but he’s never tried anything as radical as this very Beckett-like interlude. (It calls up Beckett’s shorter writings, “Imagination Dead Imagine,” “Stirrings Still,” and others; like Beckett, even the arrangement of words on the page matters.) With the line “She is all words. She is all words but she doesn’t know how to get out of words into being someone, being the person who knows the words” deLillo conveys the way words make our thought and our Being possible and the sense of someone who’s been broken from that. deLillo tries to use words to say the unsayable here; it has to fail, and that failure is what’s moving. Beckett would get that.
Late in the novel, he spins this even farther, as Jeffrey says “Then I try to imagine an inner monologue, hers, self-generated, possibly nonstop, the open prose of a third-person voice that is also her voice, a form of chant in a single low tone” and the passage becomes not Artis but Jeffrey imagining Artis. That’s the most stunning moment, but the theme comes up all through Zero K. The Convergence is developing a new language for the future; Jeffrey always assigns names to people if he doesn’t know them (“the Stenmark twins,” more or less the Convergence’s PR agents, make several appearances), he tries to get Ross to say his mother’s name; and Ross Lockhart wasn’t born Ross Lockhart but Nicolas Satterswaite. (deLillo fans will remember Mao II’s Bill Gray wasn’t Bill Gray either.) Language goes beyond description here, it’s a real thing, or at least a thing worth contesting and claiming.
What makes Zero K such a hopeful novel in terms of his career is that deLillo has been here before. Late in Underworld, there’s a miniature scene that crystallizes several of his obsessions. In this scene, a Jesuit father at a Minnesota retreat/prison leads one of Underworld’s major characters, Nick Shay, in a catechism of naming the parts of a shoe:
With his finger he traced a strip of leather that went across the top edge of the shoe and dipped down under the lace.
“What is it?” I said.
“You tell me. What is it?”
“I don’t know.”
“It’s the cuff.”
“The cuff. And this stiff section over the heel. That’s the counter.”
“That’s the counter.”
“And this piece amidships between the cuff and the strip above the sole. That’s the quarter.”
“The quarter,” I said.
“And the strip above the sole. That’s the welt. Say it, boy.”
“How everyday things are hidden. Because we don’t know what they’re called.”
This moment is pure deLillo on so many levels: a guy from the Bronx encountering the strangeness of the world past it; the structural location of the moment (it’s late in the novel but early in the generation-encompassing, backward-running narrative); the one-definite-degree-away-from-realism of the dialogue; the way he embeds philosophy in action; but most of all, it’s about the power of words, the way deLillo’s characters and deLillo himself uses words to find a way to live in the world. It’s simultaneously ancient and contemporary, describing an object of our time according to the methods of Marcus Aurelius:
make for thyself a definition or description of the thing which is presented to thee, so as to see distinctly what kind of a thing it is in its substance, in its nudity, in its complete entirety, and tell thyself its proper name, and the names of the things of which it has been compounded, and into which it will be resolved.
The way that language doesn’t describe reality but makes reality has been part of so much of the best deLillo. It’s there in the way his characters don’t quite speak like real people, but in a poetic, clipped language, where meaning isn’t compressed (as in Mamet) but obscured. It’s there in the careful way that assassination gets talked around in Libra (“we need an electrifying event”) and the way the conspirators go beyond language to action; also in Libra, the literary approach to the Warren Commission’s Report (“the megaton novel James Joyce would have written if he’d moved to Iowa City and lived to be a hundred”); the careful naming of the words of Cold War suburbia in Underworld, as if they were lost fragments from a buried civilization:
Breezeway Car pools
Crisper Bridge parties
the way narrators and characters in all his novels get stuck on phrases and keep repeating them; and so movingly, Bill Gray in Mao II, dying and remembering a phrase from the Sears-Roebuck catalog: “Measure your head before ordering.” (“Useful also in grim times to remind them that words stick even as lives fly apart.”)
This has been part of what deLillo has always done, and now it might become all that he does, just as words become all of Artis. (Even if we aren’t, art is.) What he does in Zero K is imagine and demonstrate how words might be an entire being, an entire world; and it’s along this direction that he might write something genuinely new and different and at the heights of Underworld or Libra.