Mortality is at the heart of this powerful new novel set in a cryonics lab Don DeLillos best work since Underworld
Don DeLillos late period work, which we can date from 2001 s The Body Artist , has been marked by novels that are slim, stark, conceptual, and that seem to provide as few of the traditional satisfactions of the kind as possible. Terminates are left untied, characters nameless and one-dimensional, plots thin and haphazard. After maximalist, wholehearted fictions such as Libra , White Noise and Underworld , DeLillos austere, mindful, laconic late novellas feel, like those of Philip Roth, as if theyre trying to deconstruct the machinery of fiction, to back away from the world.
Zero K initially seems like a transgres from the abstruse and impressionistic recent work. We are plunged into a vividly realised world: an underground cryonics laboratory called the Convergence, situated in a place where Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan meet, a harsh geography, beyond the limits of believability or statute. The narrator of nine-tenths of the novel, Jeffrey Lockhart, is the 34 -year-old son of one of the Convergences backers, Ross, whos in his 60 s and a financier of fabulous wealth. Rosss second spouse, Artis Martineau, was an archaeologist, but is now dying of complications from MS and has come to the Convergence to be frozen.
Towards the end of the novel, Jeffrey refers to cryonics as a sort of visionary art, but this also seems to me to be a good description of DeLillos writing. He doesnt tell stories, he summons visions. The Convergence is perched at the cusp of reality, science fiction and dreamscape, and was ever sure what in the novel draw on DeLillos extensive research into the world of cryonics( the KrioRus site outside Moscow is clearly one model for his unheimlich body warehouse ), and what springs from the authors visionary imagination. DeLillo is a seer we know this from his uncanny prediction of 9/11 in The Names , his proleptic portrait of the 2009 fiscal crash in Cosmopolis and Zero K again feels like a demonstration of the style a great novelist moves one or two steps ahead of the real, constructing pathways into the future.
White Noise turned around the paralysing death-angst suffered by Jack and Babette Gladney. When Jack is exposed to the deadly but slow-acting Nyodene D, the abstraction of his death becomes concrete, prompting an existential crisis that propels the novel towards its violent ending. Here, it is not fear of demise that appears to drive Ross and Artis in their attempt to overthrow mortality, but rather a kind of philosophical project, even a wish to construct their lives as works of revolutionary art. You are completely outside the narrative of what we refer to as history, one of the amorphous Convergence employees tells a group of those about to be frozen, the heralds. There are no horizons here. We are pledged to an inwardness, a deep examine focus on who and where we are.
The novel is sliced in two by an extraordinary passage, a chapter of luminous poetry told from Artiss post-frozen perspective. We realise that the preserved brains, liberated from their bodies, exist in a kind of Beckettian netherworld, a life, as one of the Convergence staff describes it afterwards, in touch only with yourself. It is a frightening picture of a conscience locked in on itself, freed from the final release of demise, deprived of sensation, merely awaiting. On and on. Eyes closed. Girl body in a pod.
After this bravura performance, the novel have started to float into more predictable territory. We join Jeffrey in New York, where he strays into a host of DeLillo-ish careers cross-stream pricing consultant and the like applying for jobs he doesnt wishing, becoming increasingly obsessive about the locking and unlocking of doorways, the turning on and off of his stove. He is haunted by a figure who seems to be praying in public, satisfies a woman, Emma, and her adopted son, Stak, a Ukrainian who, at 14, is learning Pashto and speaks as if he reads a lot of Don DeLillo fictions. When Ross, who in the wake of Artiss not-quite-death has suffered a crise dge , suggests to Jeffrey that it is time for him to join his wife, and that Jeffrey should come to witness his fathers freezing, it comes as a relief.
At the Convergence, Jeffrey reacquaints himself with characters from his earlier visit a monk of no fixed religion who ministers to those about to be frozen and tells obscure, suggestive tales about his early, evangelical life; a pair of twins who act as evangelists for the project, uttering bold statements about the world into which the reanimated, cyberhuman patients will emerge. As in Point Omega and Libra DeLillo employs film to give atmosphere, to subtly play with our experience of period within the novel. These ekphrastic images are projected on screens, which descend as Jeffrey builds his route around the underground warren of the Convergence, and move from Bill Viola-ish meditation-scapes to montages of monks self-immolating, wars in which children are killed by jackbooted soldiers, women in tears. It is as if the Convergence is seeking to convince its heralds of the need to retired from the Earth, to hibernate until they emerge in cyberhuman kind into a universe that will speak to us in a very different way.
This is a book that is both beautiful and profound, certainly DeLillos best since Underworld , and will reward repeated read. Like Kazuo Ishiguros Never Let Me Go and Atul Gawandes Being Mortal , it forces us to confront the spectre of our own mortality, to ask deep questions of our motives in wishing to prolong our span on Earth. We finish the fiction with a sudden recognition of the kindness of death, the salve of a bounded life.
Zero K is published by Picador( 16.99 ). Click here to buy it for 12.99
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