Structural redundancy. Risk appetites. Hyper-connections. Simulation models. Clustered and non-clustered environments.
If you’ve read Don DeLillo, you know these could only be DeLilloisms. Martin Amis called him “the laureate of terror,” but he’s also the laureate of jargon—of tech slang and business argot, of an alien, hypermundane language. DeLillo has always made a kind of poetry of the modern idiom. He’s plundered the lexicons of atomic warfare (End Zone), high finance (Cosmopolis), performance art (The Body Artist), corporate culture (The Names) and rock n’ roll (Great Jones Street). He’s immortalized grocery stores (White Noise), baseball games (Underworld), counter-culture magazines (Running Dog) and avant-garde films (Point Omega). He’s on the bleeding edge of everything: Even his oldest novels feel like dispatches from the future.
DeLillo’s new book, Zero K, is quintessentially DeLillo. Every new DeLillo book is, in its own way: A snatch of dialogue or a glimpsed turn of phrase is enough to confirm his presence. The book’s name refers to a piece of machinery, built and stored in an underground laboratory somewhere in the Middle East, that enables its user to “make a certain kind of transition to the next level”—a level that, if the people designing and funding this machinery are to be believed, promises the “deeper and truer reality” of some distant future. The Zero K is what science-fiction movies usually call “cryo-freeze.“ It’s a box built to preserve your body in the hope that it can be thawed and revived later on. Or as DeLillo puts it, “Die awhile, then live forever.”
The narrator-hero, Jeffrey Lockhart, arrives on site to watch his stepmother undergo the process at her husband’s apparent behest. That husband, Jeffrey’s father, is Ross Lockhart—“a man shaped by money,” a benefactor of the facility and the man most invested in its possibilities. Ross has invited Jeffrey here either to watch the proceedings or to persuade him to make them stop. It isn’t entirely clear to Jeffrey which. DeLillo of course gives Jeffrey a very DeLillo-y voice with which to comment and observe. “I hadn’t known until now the depth of my objections to what was happening here,” he thinks early on; “a response obscurely coiled within the rhythms of my father’s voice in his desperate reminiscence.” The hyper-modern tech that animates the Zero K, meanwhile, elicits yet more of the author’s unmistakable musings: “Catastrophe is our bedtime story.” “I corrupted the moment.” “This was the unseeable texture of a life except I was seeing it.” And most important: “What’s the point of living if we don’t die at the end of it?”
All of this is a great pleasure to read, naturally. DeLillo’s knack for making poetry of jargon electrifies every page. But then it always does. The trouble in recent years has been the sense of creative indifference that pervades the work. The novella Point Omega seemed a case of literary supertalent by rote; Falling Man and Cosmopolis, his two weakest books, felt gamely written but uninspired. Not so here. Zero K isn’t simply DeLillo’s finest novel in nearly 20 years; it’s his most vital and his most indispensible. For the first time since Underworld, the material is worthy of the gifts brought to bear on it. This book has the urgency and vigor its author has been wanting for two decades.
Zero K is DeLillo’s first novel in six years. It’s the first, that is, since the smartphone completed its ascension as the central fixture of our lives. Difficult as it may be to imagine a 79-year-old recluse thumbing through Tinder or Snapchat, DeLillo appears to have kept up with the change and stayed sharply attuned to the various philosophical implications. “I maintain myself on the puppet drug of personal technology,” our narrator confesses, enjoying the drip feed of the device in his pocket. DeLillo doesn’t especially disapprove. He mentions the “numbing raptures of the web” and the “thinness of contemporary life,” but there isn’t the note of out-of-touch complaint you’d expect of a septuagenarian novelist aiming to contend with the new.
DeLillo can’t sound old. To him the iPhone is simply another inescapable emblem of progress—one more modern thing to write about better than anyone else. But the displacement of self afforded us by constant access to “the touchscreen storm,” as he calls it, isn’t so far removed from the efforts of Ross Lockhart to die awhile and live forever. The Zero K whisks you into “a phantom life within the braincase.” Ross and his wife will be “unfleshed,” mere “floating thought,” while they await the bodies of the future. What’s living online if not life unfleshed? What’s Twitter if not floating thought? DeLillo understands that the internet is much an immortality project as the Zero K.
“Were these people deranged,” Jeffrey asks of the Zero K’s disciples, “or were they living in the forefront of a new consciousness?” With this book, DeLillo is looking at us all and wondering the same thing.