In his latest novel Don DeLillo returns to imponderable themes, writes Oliver Roberts for the Sunday Times
Don DeLillo (Picador)
In Don DeLillo’s ninth novel, White Noise, narrator Jack Gladney asks, in relation to himself and his wife Babette, “Who will die first?” Later on, Jack discovers that Babette is taking a black-market drug called Dylar that reduces the fear of death, while Jack – after being exposed to toxic air after a chemical explosion – finds out, via computer analysis, that it is he who is more likely to die first.
Jump forward 31 years and seven novels, and the characters in Zero K are jostling with the same fears of death and loneliness, and asking (in just one passage of dialogue):
“Why should some keep living while others die?”
“What good are we if we live forever?”
“What ultimate truth will we confront?”
“Isn’t the sting of our eventual dying what makes us precious to the people in our lives?”
“What does it mean to die?”
“Where are the dead?”
“When do you stop being who you are?”
Critics of DeLillo have said that he too often poses these kinds of questions without ever really answering them. For others, however, this open-endedness is precisely what they love about reading DeLillo – the experience is, at times, like having a philosophical discussion with him right there in the room with you.
You don’t read DeLillo for a strong plot, reliable structure and/or solid resolution – you read him for his charged sentences, his posing of those difficult and sometimes unanswerable questions, the way in which he lends everyday occurrences a mysterious meaning, and for the eerie, soothsayer-like prescience that has marked so many of his works.
And if the mid-2000s saw a slight straying from type in his novels Cosmopolis and Point Omega, Zero K marks a more extended return to the mystical tones of White Noise, Libra and even his magnum opus, Underworld. Considering that DeLillo will turn 80 in November, this is quite a feat. If anyone is edging towards immortality, it is the writer himself.
In Zero K, we are taken to a compound in the middle of an Uzbekistan desert where an organisation called “The Convergence” is offering cryogenic preservation to the dying or those who are still healthy but will not accept death. In both instances, the idea is that the body will be frozen until a cure for death has been found.
Protagonist Jeffrey Lockhart travels to the compound to visit his billionaire father (and Convergence benefactor) Ross, who is there to support his wife (Jeffrey’s step-mother) Artis – who is suffering with multiple sclerosis – as she prepares for the cryogenic process. The compound is the kind of trippy DeLilloworld regular readers have come to know and depend on – a strange place with humanoid and sometimes mute characters roaming the halls, multiple doors that seem to lead to nowhere, and TV screens all over showing unsettling and/or unrelated footage.
And it’s cold, too, in its architectural character – lots of glass and aluminium – in the thoughts and mannerisms of members of The Convergence, and in the ambience of the confusing white passageways, which all eventually lead to the place where the living go to be cryogenically suspended.
“I walked the halls,” says Jeffrey Lockhart. “The doors were painted in gradations of muted blue and I tried to name the shades. Sea, sky, butterfly, indigo. All these were wrong and I began to feel more foolish with every step I took and every door I scrutinised. I wanted to see a door open and a person emerge.”
The idea of this suspended state between life and death is explored with characteristic dreaminess, inanity and a kind of anxiety-ridden search for truth, for solid answers, which of course DeLillo never really gives because, as usual, he appears to adore navigating concepts that are unknowable. One chapter is simply the (imagined?) fractured thoughts of Artis as she lies in her suspended state. Her questions come without question marks, the message perhaps being that the complexity of these questions turn them into statements.
“But where is here. And how long am I here and am I only what is here,” she asks.
“Does it keep going on like this.”
“Am I someone or is it just the words themselves that make me think I’m someone.”
Zero K is not for DeLillo neophytes. A better entry into his work would be 1985’s White Noise, to which Zero K appears, either by design or development, to be a type of sequel, returning to the same kind of questions while providing different solutions, different and more desperate ways to defeat death or at least delay it.
DeLillo’s readers will be hoping that the writer himself will continue to do the latter for a little while yet.
The life and times of Don DeLillo
- Born on 20 November 1936 in the Bronx, New York. His parents came to the US from Italy.
- He was a copywriter at a Madison Avenue advertising agency (the TV series Mad Men is set in the same period).
- He quit his job in 1964. “I quit my job just to quit. I didn’t quit my job to write fiction. I just didn’t want to work anymore.”
- His first novel was Americana, published in 1971.
- His ninth novel, White Noise, won the National Book Award.
- David Cronenberg directed the film Cosmopolis, based on DeLillo’s novel. Released in 2012, it starred Robert Pattinson.