My rating: 3 of 5 stars
As Christian Lorentzen reminds us,
The late John Leonard identified “at least three DeLillos”: the “Poster Boy” of postmodernism who saw through the corporation and the television, starting with the first half of Americana, set in a network TV office and surely one of the blueprints for Mad Men but funnier (DeLillo was working as an ad copywriter for Ogilvy and Mather when JFK was shot); the “secret sadhu,” who brought a pan-religious sense to a post-religious age, and had the empathy and imaginative reach to enter the heads of Moonies marrying en masse at Yankee Stadium in Mao II; and the “Bombhead” watching “history drift deathward” who theorized armageddon as a football game between superpowers in End Zone.
Let me posit a fourth DeLillo, or maybe the supra-DeLillo that unifies and contains the three observed by Leonard: after Joyce (“Father Joyce,” DeLillo has called him), we might label him the Honorary Dubliner. This DeLillo is no less intrigued by “the corporation and the television,” no less mesmerized by history’s deathward drift, and no less the aspirant holy man, but his search for grace is through no other vale than the postmodern everyday. Just as Father Joyce found his threnody in a provincial intellectual’s musings over his supine country wife and his epos in an advertising canvasser’s urban peregrination from jakes to brothel, so DeLillo has heard holy words in car commercials and found miracles on the Internet.
Zero K is both an argument on behalf of the quotidian miraculous and a sojourn out of it, in sublime desert spaces and Singularity-ready blank corridors. I accept DeLillo’s argument, but the novel’s pursuit of its absolute zero leaves it thin and airless; I admire Zero K without much liking it.
The story: the wealthy Ross Lockhart has joined with a semi-cultic quasi-Singularitarian project called the Convergence. They promise to preserve the terminally ill until such time as they can be revived and healed—which will also allow them to ride out the mounting crises of late modernity, from environmental catastrophe to nuclear war. Not only that, the Convergence promises a new future, a new humanity, one that will speak a pure and mathematical language. Ross Lockhart’s dying wife, the archaeologist Artis Martineau, will soon enter the deep freeze, and Ross has invited his aimless son, Jeffrey, to the Convergence’s underground Central Asian headquarters to say farewell to his stepmother.
In the novel’s first part, Jeffrey narrates his strange experiences in the Convergence—his encounters with a wandering monk and with ghostly mannequins, his overhearing of an oracular lecture by the Convergence’s creative masterminds, his obsessive viewing of TV screens showing disaster. In the middle of the novel, we hear from Artis, her frozen consciousness a minimalist Beckettian murmur; this suggests, perhaps, the folly of disembedding the mind from its context. In the novel’s second half, we return with Jeffrey to New York City, where he is in search of a job and in a relationship with Emma; Emma’s adopted Ukrainian son, Stak, a teenaged prodigy in search of languages and experiences, tends to steal this part of the novel, until Jeffrey is called back to Central Asia for his father’s own voluntary descent/ascent to the Convergence, there to join his much-mourned wife. Eventually, the narrative’s two strands—Ross’s and Stak’s—converge (so to speak), but the novel lives more on atmosphere than on plot. Throughout, Jeffrey recalls Madeline, the mother who raised him when Ross walked out on his family, and the scene of her death—which occurred without the trappings of techno-cultism to which Ross and Artis have succumbed—haunts him constantly.
The Convergence’s austerely surreal environs recall something out of Tarkovsky—briefly name-checked in the novel—and DeLillo seems in Zero K‘s first half to be satirically having his cake and and mystically eating it too as the techno-oracles drone:
“Think of being alone and frozen in the crypt, the capsule. Will new technologies allow the brain to function at the level of identity? This is what you may have to confront. The conscious mind. Solitude in extremis. Alone. Think of the word itself. Middle English. All one. You cast off the person. The person is the mask, the created character in the medley of dramas that constitute your life. The mask drops awat and the person becomes you in its truest meaning. All one. The self. What is the self? Everything you are, without others, without friends or strangers or lovers or children or streets to walk or food to eat or mirrors in which to see yourself. But are you anyone without others?”
But when DeLillo the holy man takes to the desert, however droll or even moralistic his mood (no, this book says, you are no one without others), I tend to tune out. I prefer when Jeffrey makes his way back to civilization and turns his eye outward, becoming someone only through someone else:
If I’d never known Emma, what would I see when I walk the streets going nowhere special, to the post office or the bank. I’d see what is there, wouldn’t I, or what I was able to assemble from what is there. But it’s different now. I see streets and people with Emma in the streets and among the people. She’s not an apparition, but only a feeling, a sensation. I’m not seeing what I think she would be seeing. This is my perception but she is present within it or spread throughout it. I sense her, I feel her, I know that she occupies something within me that allows these moments to happen, off and on, streets and people.
All in all, however, Zero K is rather thinly imagined and fed on the leavings of DeLillo’s previous novels, recycling images and tones and even resonant phrases—the “world hum” from Underworld most notably. The rhythm is there, the style is perfected, but the contents (“streets and people”) are often so vague as to blunt the novel’s point. Zero K does clearly indicate an ethic: Madeline, Jeffrey’s absent mother, is the novel’s locus for sensory memory, for whatever there is of us that will not outlast the present world, whatever cannot be preserved at the lowest reaches of Kelvin’s scale, and her name is perhaps there to remind us not of Father Joyce but of Rabbi Proust.
For Jeffrey, she and her habits, the memory of which he treasures, represent “the unseeable texture of a life except that [he] was seeing it.” Artis, too, has her madeleine moment, which becomes talismanic for Jeffrey, the memory of “[h]ow [she] used to stand in the shower and watch a drop of water edge down the inside of the sheer curtain,” a type of experience absent from her strenuously abstract and anguished reverie after her preservation, a meditation without content:
I think I am someone. There is someone here and I feel it in me or with me.
But where is here and how long am I here and am I only what is here.
In this way, Zero K might be regarded as a quarrel between two types of novels: the late modernist degree-zero blankness of consciousness and language contemplating itself vs. a more robust and realist aesthetic of the mind confronting reality in all its richness. But DeLillo, while perhaps favoring the latter, no longer seems quite equal to its demands. At the risk of being uncharitable, Lorentzen’s praise for the novel is the most that can be said for it:
DeLillo is now 79, and unlike Roth he hasn’t surrendered. In Zero K, he’s built a temple to house all his ghosts.
Two notes in conclusion on DeLillo more generally:
1. David Samuels, in his much-read and much-criticized profile of Barack Obama’s Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes, emphasizes Rhodes’s literary ambitions and his admiration for DeLillo, seeing in Rhodes something like a postmodern fictioneer using the world as his blank page or screen:
“What novel is this that you are living in now and will exit from in eight months and be like, ‘Oh, my God’?” I ask him.
“Who would be the author of this novel?” he asks.
“The one you are a character in now?”
“Don DeLillo, I think,” Rhodes answers. “I don’t know how you feel about Don DeLillo.”
“I love Don DeLillo,” I answer.
“Yeah,” Rhodes answers. “That’s the only person I can think of who has confronted these questions of, you know, the individual who finds himself negotiating both vast currents of history and a very specific kind of power dynamics. That’s his milieu. And that’s what it’s like to work in the U.S. foreign-policy apparatus in 2016.”
In this Obama-era version of Ron Suskind’s notorious Bush administration article (“We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality”), Samuels almost seems to want to hold DeLillo responsible for Rhodes’s apparent belief that he can remake reality in the image of his and his boss’s wishes. Leaving aside my reluctant sympathy for the Obama administration’s relatively dovish foreign policy realism (which, I take no pleasure in grimly speculating, may have a better chance of survival under the isolationist Trump than the interventionist Clinton), I suspect that DeLillo, when read carefully, counsels not an effort at reshaping reality but rather an almost mute awe toward its independence and mystery.
2. Nick Ripatrazone asserts that DeLillo is “simply, absolutely Italian.” After running down a list of all the ways DeLillo is not obviously Italian, much less absolutely so, he concludes that this does not contradict his thesis “because Italians are contradictory.” Truly and with all due respect, identity politics is bad for criticism. Culture is what the older radicals—Milton, say—used to call “custom”: I do it this way because my forebears did it this way. As such, I find culture somewhat contemptible, much the inferior of civilization—which is based upon reason—and art—which is based upon passion. Culture is the attempt to fuse civilization and art, to have it all ways, to turn venerable modes of cooking and dress and folklore into an ethic, and so to me it always seems like a sham. While DeLillo’s background is very similar to my own—down to the Abruzzi heritage (on my mother’s side; my father’s people are from Tuscany, some by way of Argentina)—I share DeLillo’s American cosmopolitanism, his worldly modernism. I consider myself in the artistic tradition of Hawthorne, which is also the tradition of Shakespeare and Dante, Virgil and Homer, and what has culture got to do with it? In their art—and DeLillo’s—I found what I was seeking: not a mirror but a window, or a door, to elsewhere.