“Ordinary moments make the life. This is what she knew to be trustworthy and this is what I learned, eventually, from those years we spent together. No leaps or falls. I inhale the little drizzly details of the past and know who I am. What I failed to know before is clearer now, filtered up through time, an experience belonging to no one else, not remotely, no one, anyone, ever. I watch her use the roller to remove lint from her cloth coat. Define coat, I tell myself. Define time. Define space.”
And there it is, classic Don DeLillo. I knew I’d find it, and I did, in his latest offering Zero K. I have a history with DeLillo. I think he’s my favourite writer, if I had such a thing. I guess what I’m saying is that I’m not objective, that this is not an objective review. Define objective. Define review. Define writing.
Yes, his writing seeps under your skin.
My history with DeLillo is this: a few years ago I read The Body Artist and I hated it. I finished the book and I thought ‘what the hell was that about?’ and I hated it and I swore it would be a long time before I picked up a book by DeLillo again. The world is full of writers, and DeLillo had his chance. He didn’t stir me. He was discarded. Then I found a cheap copy of Cosmopolis in a shop called Fopp and I thought ‘why not?’. It was £3, or maybe £2. I don’t know. And I bought it and then we went camping in Devon and I read it and I felt like something magical had happened in my head, and I cannot explain it except that it is something in the rhythm of the language, something someone once described as ‘jazz meditation’ and I, in the past, have talked of as being transcendent and hypnotic, and it really is. Over the past few years I have read almost everything by DeLillo (everything except Americana, his first, and Ratner’s Star which I’ve tried and never yet been able to make friends with), and there’s a mix there. Some great (The Names, Mao II, Libra, White Noise, Underworld), some not so great (Ratner’s Star – unfinished as it is – Great Jones Street, Players, Running Dog) and a bunch in-between for which I have varying degrees of fondness (End Zone, for example, and, bizarrely, The Body Artist. Point Omega, Falling Man, Cosmopolis. Not his ‘great; works but they all have something to recommend them).
Zero K is DeLillo’s latest and, as the title may slightly give away, it is a book about death. It may be DeLillo’s last book – the man is 80 years old and from his interviews it appears he found this book hard to write, it took him 4 years, and whilst he doesn’t say it (but DeLillo rarely says anything directly, in my experience) it has the aura of a last book. The Zero K of the title refers to absolute zero, zero degrees Kelvin, and in it we follow Jeffrey Lockhart, his father Ross and Ross’s wife Artis, as Artis prepares to be cryogenically frozen at an institute somewhere off-grid in far-flung Uzbekistan. This, it seems, is an excellent jumping off-point for a contemplation of death, of what it means, how we define it, how we approach it and how we avoid it. Someone cleverer than me posited a theory that the name Artis – the wife about to be frozen, who rarely if at all speaks for herself in the book but around which all the characters circulate – is a truncated form of the phrase ‘Ars longa, vita brevis’: art is long, life is short, and I think they are right about this. There is nothing accidental in a DeLillo book (though coincidence is permitted) and this book feels even less accidental than normal. The thrust of the story is that the son, Jeffrey, and the father, Ross, are somewhat estranged, disconnected. Ross left when Jeffrey was a teenager, leaving him with his mother Madeline to eke out a life in which he no longer participated, yet it seems he wants Jeffrey to be there at the end. The night before Artis is due to be cryogenically frozen, Ross tells Jeffrey that he is going to go with her, to be frozen as Artis is. This all takes place in a strange facility called The Convergence. Here, too, I sense there is nothing accidental and as I read I began to wonder what it was that DeLillo was freezing in time, preserving. The Convergence is a stark, unforgiving place. An art installation buried somewhere out of touch. Yet it has, for the DeLillo reader, some familiar threads and I began to wonder if all his books, everything he had ever written, had been captured within it. The first quiver of recognition I had was here, in this disturbing scene:
“There were three men seated cross-legged on mats with nothing but sky behind them. They wore loose-fitting garments, unmatched, and sat with their heads bowed, two of them, the other looking straight ahead. Each man held a container at his side, a squat bottle or can. Two of them had candles in simple holders within reach. After a moment they began, in sequence, left to right, seemingly unplanned, to take up the bottles and pour the liquid on chest, arms and legs. Then two of them, eyes closed, advanced to head and face, pouring slowly. The third man, in the middle, put the bottle to his mouth and drank. I watched his face contort, mouth opening reflexively to allow the fumes to escape. Kerosene or gasoline or lamp oil. He emptied the remaining contents on his head and set the bottle down. They all set the bottles down. The first two men held the lighted candles to their shirtfronts and trouser legs and the third man took a book of matches from his breast pocket and finally, after several failed attempts, managed to strike a flame.”
This scene, viewed by Jeffrey on a screen that mysteriously appears and disappears within the desolate halls of The Convergence felt strikingly familiar, and that’s because a similar thing happens in Cosmopolis. Then I see references all over the place, to varying degrees of subtlety. There’s reference to a baseball (Underworld), to a body artist (obvious), to mass culture and crowds (Mao II), there’s a woman meditating on the street which I’m pretty sure happened in Falling Man (though possibly it was a man that time), reference to a man approaching the ‘leader of the world’ with a gun (Libra), Artis is an archaeologist (The Names) and Ross Lockhart a multi-millionaire financier (Cosmopolis). There’s the obsession with language, with meaning (The Names) and there’s a rock which I am sure appears somewhere (The Names again, perhaps) though I couldn’t quite place it. The mysterious screens themselves were reminiscent of Point Omega. The rooms in the Convergence bore a marked similarity to the rooms in the installation where Billy Twillig is taken in Ratner’s Star (I got that far) and the entire book is reminiscent of White Noise, it’s obsession with death focused towards the event, accepting it, rather than avoiding it as occurs in the earlier book. I wonder if I read the book again, would I see more? Something about this choked me up; I genuinely began to feel like I was reading the mind of a man prefiguring his own death, preserving himself, his art, in the pages prematurely because, perhaps like Ross, he was deciding to give it up before his time was yet over.
Except Ross doesn’t give it up, not straight away. Zero K is a book in three very distinct parts. In the first we see Artis being frozen in the Convergence; it is strange and slightly stilted and there’s something a little off about it, a little unconvincing. Then there is a very strange, unsettling chapter which is Artis, frozen, dead to all intents, cogitating on her identity, her lack of third person which I think has some significance I haven’t yet quite figured out. In the final part we follow Jeffrey ‘living’, for what else could it be called, as his father Ross decides, eventually, to follow Artis into frozen space. The final part of the book felt most authentically DeLillo, like he’d taken the brakes off and remembered who he was and what he does, and reminded us why it is that he is special as he unpicks the dangers of our society for us. Like here:
“’Those of you who will return to the surface. Haven’t you felt it? The loss of autonomy. The sense of being virtualized. The devices you use, the ones you carry everywhere, room to room, minute to minute, inescapably. Do you ever feel unfleshed? All the coded impulses you depend on to guide you. All the sensors in the room that are watching you, listening to you, tracking your habits, measuring your capabilities. All the linked data designed to incorporate you into the megadata. Is there something that makes you uneasy? Do you think about the technovirus, all systems down, global implosion? Or is it more personal? Do you feel steeped in some horrific digital panic that’s everywhere and nowhere?’”
Which frankly felt like a return to normalcy.
DeLillo is an ideas writer, he writes in concepts and rhythms and there is rarely, if ever, a distinct story. He’s not a writer for everyone, and I remember well my early aversion which has turned to something quite different. His dialogue is unrealistic (and yet often brilliant, I wished people talked like that) and sometimes it feels like you’re being given a philosophy lesson and this is never as overt as it appears, here, in Zero K. I feel, almost, that this book has been written directly for people like me, the deep readers of his work, as a kind of bringing together of it all. A convergence of everything DeLillo is, everything that’s absorbed or interested him. It felt like a man saying goodbye. I can’t explain what this made me feel. It is a cold book, logical, obsessed with words, with meaning, with mathematics and events which appear unbidden – like the meteor at Chelyabinsk and the Manhattanhenge phenomena that occurs twice yearly in New York. Like death, I guess. Unless you choose to end it, thrust yourself into an uncertain, unknown future by choosing to freeze yourself for all time. As Ross and Artis did, and Jeffrey didn’t. At the end of the world. Zero K.
Zero K is published by Picador.