'Zero K' is Don DeLillo's spare but bracing assessment of life's later years
Ross Lockhart, a super-wealthy businessman, has holed up in a facility in the barren chaparral of Kyrgyzstan, hoping to cheat death through cryonic suspension.
Don DeLillo is 79. He published his first novel, "Americana," in 1971 and has written steadily ever since, filling book after book with such passionate, dyspeptic intensity that his audience might rightly have thought “late style” would never apply to him. But it comes to all writers in its time these days, and DeLillo's new novel, Zero K, is as slim and pure an example of it as you could want.
Almost needless to say, it's a novel about death – and avoiding death. Ross Lockhart, a super-wealthy businessman, has holed up in a facility called the Convergence, which is located in the barren chaparral of Kyrgyzstan and fortified with blast-proof walls, secure energy sources, and elaborate cybersecurity. It's a prepper's paradise and it has one overriding purpose: to furnish the world's billionaires with the means to cheat death through cryonic suspension.
Cryonics entered the national spotlight in 2002 when news broke that baseball great Ted Williams had been suckered into submitting his own corpse to the procedure – and his severed head to a parallel procedure. The science of that procedure was as crackpot then as it is now, but that only feeds DeLillo's subversive narrative energy. He's always been something of a prose poet of shared delusions, and at the Convergence, the various weird staff/cult members and their clients alike are united more by faith than by scientific facts.
Ross Lockhart's goal is to preserve the body of his dying young second wife, Artis, until such a time as medical science can find a way to cure her and revive her. He's invited his feckless son Jeff to the facility so he can say goodbye to his stepmother (about Jeff's mother Ross says, with typical DeLillo dispatch, “We had a son but other than that”) – and quite possibly to his father as well: though perfectly sound of body himself, Ross is strongly considering joining his beloved trophy wife in frozen suspension, a gesture of the ultimate faith in better living through chemistry.
Jeff is a precisely, mercilessly caricatured self-absorbed young hipster; when his father tells him that he intends to join the “Zero K” program and be pre-emptively frozen, Jeff's cringeworthy response is, “Don't you understand how this reduces me?” (“I like to drift into things,” he himself admits). And Ross is an equally precise creation, as minimally and confidently sketched as a haiku. The lunacy of the Convergence ethos, the extravagance of grief, most of all the complexity of the father-son bond … all of it is rendered in the spare, thin brush strokes that are the essence of late style.
And as noted, it can be a challenge, especially for long-time readers for whom DeLillo's primary competition in the assessment of "Zero K" won't be other authors but other DeLillos. Veteran fans of the author will reflexively imagine this novel as it might have been written by the DeLillo who wrote the incandescent climax to 1988's "Libra" or by the DeLillo who might have extrapolated it into a grand masterpiece along the lines of 1997's "Underworld."
Critics have called "Zero K" chilly and bloodless. A. O. Scott memorably ended his review with the line “The book is as cold as its title.”
Such judgements run the risk of mistaking cold for calm. There are deep, slicing currents running through "Zero K," despite its almost ascetic surfaces, and there are unforgettable little moments scattered everywhere in these pages, as when, late in the story, Jeff notices the deterioration of his once-formidable father; “His hands sometimes trembled,” Jeff observes. “When I gripped his hands once to stop the shaking, he simply closed his eyes.”
“Isn't death a blessing?” asks a Convergence employee glibly at one point. “Doesn't it define the value of our lives, minute by minute, year to year?” The Convergence answers to such questions have all the assurance of mania, but "Zero K" is thought-provokingly – even thrillingly – unsure.