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Back to the Future

Don DeLillo’s techno-prophetic novel hungers for tradition.

For 45 years, Don DeLillo has been our high priest of the American apocalypse, having tackled just about every man-made disaster: nukes in End Zone, nukes and garbage in Underworld, toxic pollution in White Noise, financial busts in Cosmopolis, terrorism in Falling Man, terrorism and the death of the novel in Mao II, war in Point Omega. His latest novel, Zero K, clears out every end-times scenario left in the bag: climate change, droughts, pandemics, volcanoes, biological warfare, even meteor strikes and solar flares. But these only menace in the background as future probabilities, and the novel’s focus is not human extinction but its inverse: immortality through cryonics.

Our narrator, Jeffrey Lockhart, is a high-rolling factotum (past gigs include “cross-stream pricing consultant” and “implementation analyst”) with an even higher-rolling father, Ross (“private wealth management, dynasty trusts, emerging markets”) who’s poured his riches into the Convergence, a project to cryonically freeze and store terminally ill people deep underground—namely, his multiple sclerosis-afflicted wife, Artis.

Ross and Jeffrey are foils, representing two competing visions of a human being, not to mention DeLillo’s competing impulses as a writer. In Jeffrey we have the Enlightenment humanist, a book-lover as much concerned with the death of the humanities as with the death of humanity, who dismisses the Convergence as “a highly precise medical procedure guided by mass delusion, by superstition and arrogance and self-deception.” His skepticism is rooted in a belief that death and identity are essential to being human, and that the human essence is monistic—one body, one soul, under God, indivisible: “You die as someone with a certain name and with all the history and memory and mystery gathered in that person and that name,” he avows. “But do you wake up with all of that intact?”

His father, meanwhile, is the visionary posthumanist, who sees death as a logistical problem, life as a quantifiable and measurable phenomenon (“A period so brief,” he tells Jeffrey, “that we might measure it in seconds”), and the human as a separable biological entity, essentially reducible to body and brain. He’s eager to slip the bonds of personal and cultural history, and is driven to engineer immortality from a doomed present through his command of high technology.

ZERO K by Don DeLillo
Scribner, 288 pp., $27

The novel’s first half is set in the Convergence facilities somewhere in remote central Asia, a bureaucratic bunker with restricted access areas and featureless green and gray walls. The Convergence is a vision of the future where nobody has a name and nothing has a clear purpose: Inexplicable skulls and mannequins adorn the windowless hallways; movie screens randomly appear, playing scenes of violence and disaster without context; a monklike man in a cloak dispenses cryptic phrases: “The thinness of contemporary life. I can poke my finger through it.” Most of this section has Jeffrey ambling around trying to make sense of these things in the days before his ailing stepmother, Artis, is medically euthanized and frozen.

Halfway through the novel, the perspective briefly shifts to Artis’s fragmented, koan-like thoughts while in cryonic suspension. (“I listen to what I hear. I only hear what is me. I am made of words. Does it keep going on like this.” Yes, yes it does.) Jeffrey then returns to New York City, and the narrative settles into a more familiar and conventional mode: characters with names, jobs, ex-husbands. We meet Jeffrey’s girlfriend and her adopted son; Jeffrey dithers over applying for jobs. In the novel’s final act, Ross decides to join Artis in her ice-capades.

Draped over this scant armature of plot are swathes of vintage DeLillo—vintage in the sense that he was doing all this stuff 30 years ago. The motifs are the same: cultic organizations, sinister media, big money, hermit artists, guerrillas, teen prodigies and holy children, strange projects in nameless locations, high-tech vehicles, systems jargon, physical sciences, sports metaphors. Likewise the style; I’ve always felt that DeLillo’s dialogue makes more sense if you pretend the characters are conversing over a bad phone line, talking past each other in non sequiturs and repeating themselves. This is certainly the case here, as in this exchange:

I stood in front of him and asked him how he was feeling.
He said, “Who are you?”
I told him I was a visitor eager to be educated. …
He said, “Who are you?”
I said, “Don’t you feel the chill, the damp air, the tight space?”
He said, “I’m looking right through you.”

DeLillo has spoken before of painstakingly composing each of his paragraphs on a fresh page, but in Zero K this particular unit has become downright algorithmic. The DeLillo paragraph contains four ingredients: terse description; sentence fragments; rhetorical questions; a ponderous, generalized aphorism. Usually a one-line paragraph follows. There’s one every few pages:

Did such a man have a family? Did he brush his teeth, see a dentist when he had a toothache? Could I even try to imagine his life? Someone else’s life. Not even a minute. Even a minute is unimaginable. Physical, mental, spiritual. Not even the merest second. Too much is pledged into his compact frame.
I told myself to calm down.

Or, later: 

How many days now, how many interesting things to look at? The screens, the catacombs, the skull on the wall in the stone room. They were drenching me in last things. I thought about these two words. This is eschatology, isn’t it? Not just the damped echo of a life that slides away but words with all-encompassing impact, beyond appeals to reason. Last Things. I told myself to stop.
Ross lowered his head, closed his eyes.

If you’re a longtime DeLillo fan, you could call Zero K a grand summation of his career themes and prose stylings. You could also call it recycling.

Given all the similarities, it’s probably more efficient to discuss how Zero K isn’t like DeLillo’s past novels. It’s interesting to find DeLillo spending entire paragraphs, whole pages riffing on lint rollers, the hierarchy of types of napkins, water drops on a shower curtain, and the furtive way subway riders look at panhandlers—musings reminiscent of the least DeLilloish writer alive, Nicholson Baker. These are expressions of Jeffrey’s humanism, his tendency to connect and assign meaning to the humblest of things, as opposed to DeLillo’s usual mode of meditating on the grandly strange and surreal. 

Religion in this book similarly has the function of linking the old and traditional to the human. In his previous work, DeLillo has often approached religious fervor as fringe cult—Mao II’s Moonies, or The Names’s language murderers. But here the representatives of “old-time religion” are closer to the nuns of Underworld, a symbolic vestige of old-world values, supplanted by modern attitudes and technology. The new men of the cryonics laboratory can only strain for the same “link to older beliefs and practices.” A Convergence representative, lecturing a roomful of unknown people for an unknown reason, refers to their project as “a radical technology that simply renews and extends those swarming traditions of everlasting life.” The overtones are clear: Cryonics are “life everlasting,” the frozen people are dubbed “heralds,” Ross and Jeffrey are repeatedly referred to as “the father” and “the son.” In his horrified rejection of the father’s vision, DeLillo seems to place himself—via Jeffrey—in the unlikely camp of those nostalgic for the traditional. 

If all that sounds heavy-handed, even more so is that DeLillo never misses an opportunity to force-feed his points to us. He’s never been thematically subtle, but he goes to gratuitous lengths here to interpret his own symbolism. Jeffrey, who has remarked on the facilities’ mannequins throughout the book, muses: “Could I avoid interpreting the figures as an ancestral version of the upright men and women in their cryonic capsules, actual humans on the verge of immortality?” He follows this up with a critique of the very tendency he indulges: “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.” Right, exactly. And if we didn’t get it already, when he later gets a look at the frozen heralds: “It occurred to me that these were humans as mannequins.” Even this might be interesting enough, if he didn’t retread the same four related insights over and over: that words constitute our understanding of things and ourselves; it’s weird when forms are emptied of content; technology is supplanting religion; and what are humans without history and identity?

The repetitiveness of these insights is reflected in similarly repetitive dramatic beats and stylistic tricks. A typical exchange has Jeffrey encountering some nameless person or object and failing to name it. He encounters a door that slides open but isn’t a sliding door; he eats unidentifiable food described as a “meatlike specimen.” “Was it a site or just an idea for a site?” Jeffrey thinks. “They led us to a space that became an abstract thing, a theoretical occurrence,” Jeffrey thinks. Characters lapse into echolalia: “I’m so eager. I can’t tell you. To do this thing. Enter another dimension. And then return. For ever more. A word I say to myself. Again and again. So beautiful. For ever more. Say it. And say it. And say it.” Whenever they make a point about how human life is countable in units of time, characters enumerate chronological units (at least nine times in the first hundred pages!): “The day, the hour, the minute,” “Days, years and minutes,” “Seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, decades.”

One drawback of DeLillo’s seemingly omniscient grasp of abstruse technical domains is that any botched detail, any sign that he’s behind the times, sends the illusion of his cool command hilariously toppling. My favorite example is the mangled fictional web address near the end of Underworld, with “www” and “.com” placed willy-nilly: “http://blk.www/” So close, Don.

And this is a real problem for Zero K. Whereas DeLillo’s past inventions have always felt drawn from the bleeding edges of the present—the anti-thanatophobic drug Dylar in White Noise, or the trash-nuking project in Underworld—those in this book have already been exhausted by science fiction and reality, which makes him sound less cautionary than curmudgeonly. Though his characters dismiss sci-fi with mild disdain (“I hate the phrase biological mother. It’s like science fiction”), and we are reminded that “nothing here is speculative,” there’s little about the ramifications of cryonics, posthumanism, and nanomachines that hasn’t been explored by, say, Futurama.

DeLillo has always dealt with the most occult strata of knowledge and society, and has approached pop culture mostly through the lens of hindsight. So to hear him talk about the weirdness of airport security screenings, or the loss of humanity to infernal technology (“Die a human, be reborn an isometric drone”), or the angst of smartphones (“Every touch of a button brings the neural rush of finding something I never knew and never needed to know”), is to start doubting his transcendence, or even awareness, of these pop clichés. Even when he does seem aware, he defensively waves it off. When Jeffrey points out that cryonics is old news, Ross replies: “This is not a new idea. It is an idea ... that is now approaching full realization.” Yes, DeLillo knows perfectly well that he’s treading familiar ground; the problem is that rather than reconceiving the existing ideas, he is simply invoking them.

But perhaps this is less DeLillo’s failing than a symptom of who we trust to tell us the future. At a time when “innovation” has become a value independent of its goals, and when media platforms have become subjects of greater interest than the “content” they deliver, we are bound to find the standing of the techno-prophetic novel diminished. Our trust in quantifications of the future, whether it’s Nate Silver’s election forecasts or prediction markets for terrorism, poses as much of a threat to the visionary novelist as the terrorist spectacles of Mao II. Technology’s threat to the humanities is exemplified by Zero K itself; the book warns us of cultural effects that have already been realized, and the warning feels less than adequate. “People say that no one could make this up,” Ross says to Jeffrey. “But someone made this up, all of it, and here we are.”