- Zero K by Don DeLillo
Picador, 274 pp, £16.99, May 2016, ISBN 978 1 5098 2285 0
When Libra came out in 1988, the American writer Robert Towers said that it had made Don DeLillo the ‘chief shaman of the paranoid school of American fiction’. ‘Paranoid school’ doesn’t get you very far – Pynchon and Mailer, both broad-brush comparisons, were the other faculty members Towers had in mind – but there’s mileage in the notion of DeLillo as a shaman. ‘Fiction, at least as I write it and think of it,’ he told a reading group in 1995, ‘is a kind of religious meditation in which language is the final enlightenment,’ and sacramental imagery of one kind or another tends to gather round a select few of his characters. In Underworld (1997), a waste management consultant feels ‘a sting of enlightenment’ as he contemplates the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island, noting the ‘poetic balance’ between its ziggurats of garbage and the towers of the World Trade Center in the distance:
He … knew for the first time what his job was all about. Not engineering or transportation or source reduction. He dealt in human behaviour, people’s habits and impulses, their uncontrollable needs and innocent wishes, maybe their passions, certainly their excesses and indulgences but their kindness too, their generosity, and the question was how to keep this mass metabolism from overwhelming us …
He saw himself for the first time as a member of an esoteric order, they were adepts and seers, crafting the future, the city planners, the waste managers, the compost technicians, the landscapers who would build hanging gardens here, make a park one day out of every used and lost and eroded object of desire.
DeLillo doesn’t always use such grave cadences, and his early novels have a lot of fun channelling the voices of half-crazed people who are themselves attempting to channel the animating spirits of the culture. (‘Give us this day our daily dread … forever and never, oh man.’) ‘I’m not a great big visionary,’ a reclusive novelist says in Mao II (1991): ‘I’m a sentence-maker, like a donut-maker only slower.’ All the same, it’s understood that sentence-making has more in its sights than doughnuts: ‘Every sentence has a truth waiting at the end of it and the writer learns how to know it when he finally gets there.’ There’s even a hope, however forlorn, of ‘extending the pitch and consciousness of human possibility’. Entranced by the discipline of accreting such sentences as ‘Systems planning is the true American artform’ or ‘Money has lost its narrative quality the way painting did once upon a time’ or ‘He took out his hand organiser and poked a note to himself about the anachronistic quality of the word skyscraper,’ DeLillo traverses the axis mundi – located somewhere in New York State – and communes directly with Technology, Anxiety, Death, The Image, The Crowd, Late Capitalism and so on. Then he returns with elliptical reports from which the tribe’s younger storytellers, from David Foster Wallace on, set about extracting a style and a tone attuned to new ways of feeling and not feeling.
One constant throughout these risk-filled spirit voyages has been DeLillo’s superbly take-it-or-leave-it posture towards the laity. ‘The writer leads, he doesn’t follow,’ he wrote in a letter to Jonathan Franzen in 1995. ‘The dynamic lives in the writer’s mind, not in the size of the audience. And if the social novel lives, but only barely, surviving in the cracks and ruts of the culture, maybe it will be taken more seriously … A reduced context but a more intense one.’ These are the words of a writer near the peak of his renown reassuring a fretful colleague, but they’re clearly marked by DeLillo’s time as a cultish, solitary figure in the 1970s, when intensity of context allowed him to thrive. There was a mainstream then and his place was outside it, a ‘child of Godard and Coca-Cola’, as the narrator of Americana (1971) calls himself, working up his vision with the singlemindedness of Ballard or the young Cronenberg. His high ambitions didn’t mean it wasn’t OK to dabble in thrillers and sports and science fiction, and to be funny as well as apprehensive about the image-addled world he saw coming into being. At the same time, he was free to trade in pure vibe, in ‘memory chains and waking dreams and every kind of mindlife’, and to manipulate large themes from a distance by writing about eloquent characters with a propensity to be dazzled by, as one of them puts it, ‘the neon of an idea’.
Of less interest to DeLillo, then and later, were the mechanics of storytelling, the ‘engineering or transportation or source reduction’ that most novelists rely on. His first few books – even the famously impenetrable Ratner’s Star (1976), about decoding an alleged message from outer space in a top-secret complex in an unnamed distant country – are broadly black-farcical. The impression they leave is of a handful of brilliantly managed sketches spliced together with jump-cuts and ominous spacey reveries. In some ways, the middle-period novels that made him famous do the same, only better: White Noise (1985) is a non-stop sequence of witty routines with a more ingenuous straight man than usual and an uncharacteristically warm current of ‘eerie feeling’ for suburban family life. But slipping a few sugar cubes into his medicine bag isn’t the only way in which DeLillo softened or refined his deformations of more conventional kinds of narrative. On top of perfecting his nervily screwball dialogue, punctuated in White Noise by ambient interjections (‘The TV said: “Now we will put the little feelers on the butterfly”’), he developed an extraordinary ear for different modes of speech, revealing previously unsuspected illusionistic powers. His ear is important, too, in his set-piece crowd scenes, which work better when they’re conceived as auditory experiences – the narrator spinning the dial on a psychic FM radio – than they do when they throw fine writing at a second-hand visual spectacle such as Khomeini’s funeral, which a character watches on TV in Mao II.
Since Underworld, though, it has been hard not to worry about his receiver getting overloaded by the increased signal strength of his long-term themes. The background whisper he’s listened in on since the 1960s – about the alarming conjunction of consumerism, image-transmitting technology and the death-driven self, and the way it plays out in terrorist ‘spectaculars’ and private anomie – has turned into a roar, and his response has seemed to be governed by contradictory impulses. One is to embrace the role of a prophet, as he does in Cosmopolis (2003), a fiery satire on data-driven finance capitalism. Another is to muffle both the roar and the banalities it can give rise to by withdrawing into a semi-private art world. The two approaches aren’t mutually exclusive: Falling Man (2007) employs a panoply of gallery-going types to deal with the reverberations of 9/11, and Point Omega (2010) brackets its central encounter with a Wolfowitz-era defence intellectual with ruminations on an installation by Douglas Gordon. The neon of ideas is still very much in evidence: ‘She was arguing with herself but it wasn’t argument, just the noise the brain makes.’ ‘How did he know this? He didn’t but did.’ But there’s a greater investment in high style than there is in the sound of talk. Here’s Ron Suskind’s account, from the New York Times Magazine, of a conversation he had in the summer of 2002 with an unnamed ‘senior adviser’ to George W. Bush:
The aide said that guys like me ‘were in what we call the reality-based community’, which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’ I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.’
And here’s the defence intellectual in Point Omega fencing with the narrator, a filmmaker, who’s hoping to get some Robert McNamara-style contrition on camera:
‘There were times when no map existed to match the reality we were trying to create.’
‘This is something we do with every eyeblink. Human perception is a saga of created reality. But we were devising entities beyond the agreed-upon limits of recognition or interpretation. Lying is necessary. The state has to lie. There is no lie in war or in preparation for war that can’t be defended. We went beyond this. We tried to create new realities overnight, careful sets of words that resemble advertising slogans in memorability and repeatability. These were words that would yield pictures and then become three-dimensional. The reality stands, it walks, it squats. Except when it doesn’t.’
Beyond making the speaker less sure of his triumph, and putting words like ‘lying’ in his mouth, it’s not clear what’s gained by transposing the aide’s rant into DeLillo’s idiolect. Here and elsewhere in his recent novels, a reality that has absorbed the tropes of his previous novels all too well shows signs of getting ahead of him, which might explain his renewed interest in exploring questions about representation by way of conceptual art.
Zero K doubles down on this inward-looking impulse, but in other ways, length included, it’s his most expansive book since the 1990s. It’s also a kind of greatest-hits compilation of earlier motifs and gestures, featuring as it does a remote scientific complex, an apocalyptic explosion in Russia, a dead woman whose consciousness is mysteriously preserved, a long car ride through New York City, art-cinematic visual flourishes, cryptic futurological speeches, and a sudden quasi-Oedipal sex scene. Jeff Lockhart, the narrator, is a youngish man – he’s 34 in the opening section, which implies that he was born in the early 1980s – who grew up wondering whether to ‘write poetry, live in a basement room, study philosophy, become a professor of transfinite mathematics at an obscure college in west-central somewhere’, but ended up doing jobs with such titles as ‘implementation analyst – clustered and nonclustered environments’ and ‘human resource planner – global mobility’: ‘jobs … swallowed up by the words that described them. The job title was the job.’ This vague non-itinerary was consciously constructed in opposition to his father, Ross, who walked out on his mother when he was 13. Ross went on to become a billionaire asset manager who’s able to speak fluently of ‘the ecology of unemployment’ and ‘made an early reputation by analysing the profit impact of natural disasters’.
When we first meet Ross, he’s vigorous and talkative and a bit of an ageing hipster. ‘Everybody wants to own the end of the world,’ he says, and for Jeff the moment is made complete by Ross’s vintage sunglasses (‘polarised, with swoop lenses and variable tint’), which he’s wearing indoors, at night. Soon Ross surprises him by growing a beard, which he fears might be more than a fashion accessory: ‘Was this the beard a man grows who is eager to enter a new dimension of belief?’ It’s a reasonable question for him to ask because Ross has just whisked him from Manhattan to ‘the Convergence’, an underground desert base in one of the Stans. Here a shadowy consortium of medics, assisted by ‘social theorists … and biologists, and futurists, and geneticists, and climatologists, and neuroscientists, and psychologists, and ethicists’, all paid for by Ross and others like him, is working on a high-tech counter-apocalypse which will solve, among other things, the problem of death. To this end they’ve been putting super-rich subjects into a new kind of cryonic suspension from which they hope to emerge ‘in cyberhuman form’ once the details have been sorted out. Ross’s second wife, Artis, is next in line for the treatment and he’s thinking of joining her in the ‘organ pods’. Jeff has been brought along to say goodbye.
Jeff has doubts: ‘I think you’ve been brainwashed. You’re a victim of these surroundings. You’re a member of a cult.’ The pods, he thinks angrily, are Ross’s ‘final shrine of entitlement’. (He’s more forgiving towards Artis on the grounds that she at least has a terminal illness.) The stage seems set for a family drama, with Ross threatening to abandon Jeff for a second time and the son’s scepticism played off against the father’s techno-utopianism. ‘Were these people deranged,’ Jeff wonders, ‘or were they in the forefront of a new consciousness?’ But if that were the central question you’d expect an effort to sell the idea that the people of the Convergence might not be deranged. DeLillo’s efforts in this direction suggest that it isn’t, or not in any straightforward sense. A monk in jeans and a purple cloak stalks the complex, ministering to the dying ‘in what I took to be a rambling sort of Anglo-Russian’ and saying things like: ‘The thinness of contemporary life. I can poke my finger through it.’ Other minor figures stride about in grey jumpsuits making mischievous speeches about their endeavours or leading Jeff into an elevator/teleportation chamber, ‘a space that became an abstract thing, a theoretical occurrence’. (‘It’s called the veer.’) Jeff, like the reader, expects a lesson in the madness of reason defending itself against the fact of mortality. Instead he gets ‘a concentrated lesson in bewilderment’.
The Convergence’s strangeness and its low-budget 1960s science fiction movie quality seem to be, on one level, a joke, and there are stirrings of comic dialogue:
‘Human life is an accidental fusion of tiny particles of organic matter floating in the cosmic dust. Life continuance is less accidental. It utilises what we’ve learned in the thousands of years of our humanity. Not so random, not so chancy, but not unnatural.’
‘Tell me about your scarf,’ I said.
‘Goat cashmere from Inner Mongolia.’
Mostly, though, the humour struggles to rise from each multivalent paragraph. As with the scene in Cosmopolis in which the antihero undergoes a rectal examination in his limo while continuing to trade charged lines with an underling, there’s too much going on for jokes to register as such, and the feeling is of comedy iced over with solemn artiness. The Convergence is filled with characters who are eager to share their views, or their riddling Zen koans, on such topics as terrorism, climate change, nuclear weapons and the omnipresence of the internet. After cyber-resurrection, ‘ahistorical humans’ will speak a new language which will ‘approximate the logic and beauty of pure mathematics in everyday speech’. (‘The name of the language will be accessible only to those who speak it.’) Oddly, perhaps, for people ostensibly planning to ‘colonise their bodies with nanobots’, the Convergers are very down on ‘the puppet drug of personal technology’ and often seem to be shooting for some version of Heideggerian authenticity. These themes follow Jeff back to the ‘touchscreen storm’ of unregenerate New York in the novel’s middle section, which also reconfigures the father-son business. He finds himself quoting Heidegger to his girlfriend’s adopted son, a boy from a Ukrainian orphanage – or, in DeLillo-speak, ‘facility for abandoned children’ – who’s eventually lost to the forces of history by way of ‘the numbing raptures of the Web’.
In a novel by William Gibson, say, the cursoriness with which Zero K handles this counter-plot, the main plot and the halting narrative in general would stand out as a fault. So would Jeff’s apparent cluelessness about personal ‘devices’ (‘There is a smartphone that has an app that counts the steps a person takes’), his grumpiness about his own generation’s speech (‘the contemporary pattern of declarative sentences that slither gradually upward into questions’), and the Convergence’s sketchy existence at what he calls ‘the far margins of plausibility’. But on this novel’s terms none of that matters much because the substance of Jeff’s experience is less important than the part he plays in an open-ended meaning-making process. He sees from the beginning that the underground base is more like a giant gallery and performance space than a halfway believable research facility. Looking at its sculptures and video installations and admiring the ‘wishful poetry’ its denizens come out with, he tries to classify what he sees: is it ‘earth art, land art’, ‘visionary art’ or ‘body art with broad implications’? Or ‘art that accompanies last things, simple, dreamlike and delirious’? Does the place represent ‘art in itself’? ‘Was it a site or just an idea for a site?’ Questions of this kind seem closer than dramatic ones to the heart of the book’s concerns.
‘This was my role here, to watch whatever they put in front of me,’ Jeff says. ‘I didn’t want interpretation. I wanted to see and feel what was here, even if I was unequal to the experience as it folded over me.’ Even so, he’s unable not to sound like a critic now and then. In a remote part of the base he finds a gnomic old man sitting on a bench in a simulated English garden and asks him: ‘Doesn’t the garden … suggest a kind of mockery? Or is it a kind of nostalgia?’ (‘Much too soon for you to shake free of the conventions that you’ve brought with you here,’ the old man replies.) ‘I didn’t believe a word of it,’ he says of yet another lecture on the unacceptability of death, and sometimes he wonders if that isn’t the point: ‘Isn’t that why I was here, to subvert transcendence with my tricks and games?’ His tricks include inventing backstories and names for his nameless guides and instructors, ‘just for the hell of it, and to stay involved’: names like ‘Miklos Szabo’ (‘it suited his bulging body’) and ‘the Stenmark twins. Jan and Lars, or Nils and Sven’. Elsewhere he wonders if it isn’t his own ‘attempt to resist slick ironies’ about the portentous going-on at the Convergence that matters.
All this gives Jeff a strong resemblance to a traveller through the spirit world, to a seasoned lucid dreamer, and to a novelist scrutinising his own half-formed ideas. ‘The structure of the book is the book,’ DeLillo said of Ratner’s Star. Here he sometimes seems to have moved on from regular-issue ekphrasis – description of real or imagined artworks – to notional ekphrasis, a description of his own emerging book. That’s not to say that the novel isn’t also, like the Convergence, a rough assemblage of poetic riffs around the imagination of disaster and many other things. But the self-reflexiveness doesn’t leave a lot of space for DeLillo’s sense of humour and offhand tone to stretch out in, especially when Jeff is
led to a room in which all four walls were covered with a continuous painted image of the room itself. There were only three pieces of furniture, two chairs and a low table, all depicted from several angles. I remained standing, turning my head and then my body to scan the mural. The fact of four plane surfaces being a likeness of themselves as well as background for three objects of spatial extent struck me as a subject worthy of some deep method of inquiry, phenomenology maybe, but I wasn’t equal to the challenge.
‘The temperature employed in cryostorage,’ we’re told elsewhere, ‘does not actually approach zero K,’ meaning absolute zero. The novel doesn’t either, but here and there it’s close enough for comfort.