The Big Chill

Zero K BY Don DeLillo. Scribner. 288 pages. $27.

The cover of Zero K

Among many delights, Don DeLillo’s extraordinary new novel offers a bracing revision of our certitude about death and taxes. The rich, after all, learned long ago to evade the latter with offshore accounts and IRS loopholes, but in Zero K, the wealthiest have also, possibly, dodged mortality, that ultimate drag. Pay the right price for a cryonic pod and you too can slip into a heavy slumber until medicine finds a cure for what’s killing you, after which you will be thawed, treated, and sent off to live in deathless splendor in tomorrow’s gated utopia. If this sounds like a familiar premise, it’s because deep-freezing humans has been a staple of science fiction for decades, from the work of Arthur C. Clarke to Woody Allen’s Sleeper and Mike Judge’s Idiocracy. And then there is the true tale of baseball legend Ted Williams’s head, sliced off after his death by a shady outfit in Arizona that subsequently stored it in a nitrogen tank—where it still remains, despite rumors of abuse by the staff.

Perhaps it’s unpopular these days to suggest that a great writer can seize on a genre subset and “transform” it into literary art. Genres need no justification, goes the conventional wisdom, nor highbrow rescue, and the term “literary fiction,” after all, is merely a genre indicator itself. Nonetheless, DeLillo has created a mysterious, funny, and profound book out of a cultural gag usually reliant on metal cylinders and dry ice. He already has, of course, written brilliant novels that draw on the gestures of more narrow-cast productions, particularly thrillers and detective novels. Back in the ’70s, he employed MacGuffins (stolen film reels, missing musical tapes) to provide momentum and let his characters wrap their metaphysical banter around loose quests. Even the Airborne Toxic Event of White Noise was in some ways a cousin to more camp menaces like the blob of The Blob fame. Now, with Zero K, he’s given us a quasi-futuristic milieu and, working from a rather limited plot device, composed a work of distinctive feeling and imagination. DeLillo makes his position clear early in the book. “This is not a new idea,” a character says, regarding the concept of cryonics. “It is an idea . . . that is now approaching full realization.”

Many will see this novel as a return to full realization for DeLillo, after years of shorter, meditative books like Point Omega and Cosmopolis. Those novels signaled, to some, a kind of phasing out of the big novels, the longer, meatier work, but their spareness could be deceiving. DeLillo’s more recent mode does not suffer from a lack of richness or nuance. The fluctuations operate on a different, more compressed scale. Others may hope this book will win back readers lost years ago when James Wood dropped into a shooter’s crouch on the grassy knoll of the New Republic, drew a bead on Underworld and DeLillo’s influence on American fiction. Zero K deserves to win old and new readers alike. It’s a marvelous blend of DeLillo’s enormous gifts. His bleak humor and edged insight, the alertness and vitality of his prose, the vast, poetic extrapolations are all evident. So is the visceral quickness and wit in the sentences. People on a bench sit in a “natural scatter.” The narrator of most of the novel grows up in a “garden apartment that had no garden,” and he has never been able to define his family’s religion: “We were Eat and Sleep. We were Take Daddy’s Suit to the Dry Cleaner.”

“I wanted to be bookish and failed,” Jeffrey Lockhart, the nervous, highly attuned, and occasionally cocky son of a billionaire financier announces. “I wanted to steep myself in European literature. There I was in our modest garden apartment, in a nondescript part of Queens, steeping myself in European literature. The word steep was the whole point.” That swerve in the last sentence points to so many DeLillo characters, earnest and awake but also aware of how certain words and phrases pin them down, enfeeble their efforts, make their goals uncertain. Whether Jeffrey managed to “steep” or not has consequences.

So does being the son of Ross Lockhart—a name that, as Jeffrey’s jilted mother informs her son before she dies, is fake. Ross took it as a young man to sound more robust. With his father’s original surname, Jeffrey muses, there is the possibility that he would have grown up to have more authenticity, that he “would have been able to stop mumbling, gain weight, add muscle, eat raw clams and get girls to look at me in a spirit of serious appraisal.” His father rechristened himself to prepare for life as a captain, if not of industry, then of moving large sums of money around from one abstracted vault to the next in the ceaseless transmigration of currency. But Wall Street’s metempsychosis leads him to a new, more spiritual venture, for what can the person with everything desire except the ability to enjoy everything forever?

“Everybody wants to own the end of the world,” Ross says at the novel’s outset. It’s not just an observation. Ross has built a giant complex sunk into a bleak Central Asian landscape. There is a special urgency to the project, as Ross’s second, younger wife, an archaeologist named Artis, is dying, and rather than simply expire, she and a few others will be pioneers in a new process, the Convergence, with cryopreservation as the vehicle for what is ultimately a form of time travel. Ross views the signs of our present state much as the war architect does in DeLillo’s last novel, Point Omega, who observes: “We’re the heart and mind that matter has become. Time to close it all down. . . . We want to be the dead matter we used to be.”

To transcend this drive, to create a future world and a means to get there, would be Ross’s greatest victory. They’ll have a new language then, too, one that will, according to Ross, “enable us to express things we can’t express now, see things we can’t see now, see ourselves and others in ways that unite us, broaden every possibility.” It may sound like a sell job from a master huckster, and Jeffrey is skeptical when flown in to witness his stepmother’s passing, but he is moved by Artis’s composure, and his father’s love for her.

Jeffrey wanders the enormous concrete netherworld of color-coded hallways, sparsely peopled conference rooms, secret doors, and screens playing endless loops of global catastrophe—wars, disasters, self-immolations. He eats the same mash of lamb and rice and carrots in a “food unit” for days, while conducting cryptic conversations with a monk who counsels and comforts the patients. Zero K is filled with wonderful side characters, scientists and philosophers and linguists from across the world, many armed with forceful, funny riffs. This is one of the constant pleasures of a DeLillo novel, the talk, the shop talk, the comic talk, the cosmic talk, the way the characters feel language, its sonics, the moral and emotional pressures.

Jeffrey is a namer of things, or, more properly, people. (Unlike his father, he has yet to name himself.) He is compelled to find proper names for all of the anonymous sages (or are they charlatans, or both?) packed inside his father’s palace. The brothers who designed the complex he calls the Stenmark twins, and pictures them married to sisters. He bestows the name Miklos on a Central European intellectual, but a few aspects of description bring the man close to a recognizable figure: “He was short and round, high forehead, frizzed hair. He was a blinker, he kept blinking. . . . ” And why couldn’t Slavoj Zizek be at the Convergence? He’s just the guy Ross would invite. Later Jeffrey will give a woman the surname of Hrabal. Finally, all that “steeping” in European literature pays off.

This novel is split into two parts, the first with a title that alludes to the appearance of a meteor over Russia in 2013. Part 2’s title includes the name of an eastern Ukrainian
city where horrors from the recent conflict took place. The second section tracks Jeffrey’s return to New York, and his relationship with a woman named Emma and her nearly grown son, Stak, who was adopted in Ukraine. While it initially feels like a startling departure, the varied coordinates begin to make strange, New Cold War sense. The world, ours and the novel’s, is on the brink in more ways than we can know. Between the two sections is a brief interlude in which what seems to be Artis’s voice takes control, emanating from a kind of biostasis, questioning ideas of selfhood and attempting to discover what it might mean to be a communicating subject in cryonic, and ahistorical, suspension.

The novel has a simple, sturdy structure, but what drives Zero K is Jeffrey’s charged interiority. His mind creates a provocative brooding energy when faced with the hubris and immensity of the biotech spectacle before him, not to mention the tangles of discourse his father and the “vital minds” weave. Talking to one of the wizards in a glorious plastic English garden, he wonders if it’s a case of “an old man getting carried away or was it the younger man’s attempt to resist slick ironies that mattered.” Life is tough for Jeffrey. He’s a young man in an old man’s world, in an old man’s book. But one senses DeLillo’s affinity for this relative kid. The truth is, everybody is getting carried away, either with their visions of “transrational” immortality or on an actual gurney, taken off on something called “the veer” to the lowest depths of this death(wish) factory, to a special unit called Zero K, named for the temperature of absolute zero on the Kelvin scale, or negative 459.67 Fahrenheit. It’s where all the cold magic reveals itself.

You could say this is a book about fathers and sons, or about what any relations or intimacies mean without the strictures of time and entropy. The story of fathers and sons is still the story of life and death. The Stenmark twins make a valid point when one of them asks, “What good are we if we live forever?” and the other adds, “What ultimate truth will we confront?” But they are setting up a straw man. They already yearn to be, as another hired seer puts it, “completely outside the narrative of what we refer to as history.” “Think of money and immortality,” the Stenmarks conclude. Meanwhile, Jeffrey thinks of his father and Artis returning in the future, restored to their physical peaks. Jeffrey, “old and begrudging and piss-stained,” closer than ever to the dead matter, will meet his newborn half-brother, “who has my withered finger gripped in his tiny, trembling hand.” Life, love, capitalism, hey, somebody’s got to win, and it probably won’t be a sensitive boy who even fails at being bookish.

The odds always favor the coldhearted, or better yet, the frozen.

Sam Lipsyte’s most recent book is The Fun Parts (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013).