In Don DeLillo's new novel, "Zero K," words have come unattached from the things they mean. The title indicates the temperature zero Kelvin, best known as absolute zero. But in the story, Zero K is an elite level of cryogenics, and even the scientists who work there admit it's not actually part of the process.
That's only the beginning. Our thirtysomething protagonist Jeff doesn't meet people so much as observe and define them. "I named them the Stenmark twins. They were the Stenmark twins," he decides about a pair of artist-futurists, never learning their actual names. But even then his designation is unsettled; they are, he concludes, "Jan and Lars, or Nils and Sven." When young, Jeff would challenge himself to define a word, chasing it down through the dictionary: Fishwife to shrew to shrewmouse to insectivorous to vorous. He hasn't given this up, and his attempts to find definitions lead to words and more words, while the real object remains far from reach.
This gap between the word and the thing, the signifier and the signified, is appropriate for DeLillo, one of the masters of postmodern literature. "White Noise," which won the 1985 National Book Award, is a darkly humorous classic of alienation, doublespeak and suburban life.
DeLillo has a signature prose style, language intelligent and abrupt, choppy, atomizing philosophies and ideas. It sets his work apart from much of American fiction, where you're likely to find tactile descriptions and articulated emotions. In leaving interpretive spaces between the words he's written — in "Zero K," sometimes the only way to understand what a character is feeling is to read about him observing his own reaction in a mirror — DeLillo has baked postmodernism into his work.
With this powerful alienation animating his novels, he has chopped away at slices of society: Rock 'n' roll and fame in "Great Jones Street" (1973); conspiracy and paranoia in 1988's bestselling "Libra," a reimagining of the John F. Kennedy assassination via Lee Harvey Oswald; scientists and science fiction in "Ratner's Star" (1976); linguistics and expatriates in "The Names" (1978); football in 1972's "End Zone." In 1997 he published "Underworld," a behemoth of a novel that wrapped nearly all his ideas into a single great book.
From time to time, almost presciently, he has contemplated terrorism and its effects on Americans: A shooting on the floor of the stock exchange in "Players" (1977) in which a character works at the World Trade Center, "White Noise's" accidental Airborne Toxic Event and its attendant chaos, and terrorist hostage-takers in 1991's "Mao II." This was the unthinkable stuff of fiction, of course, until the 9/11 attacks.
"History is turned on its end," he wrote in a Harper's essay in December 2001. The year marked a significant split in his work. His creative output slowed; his books got smaller; their scope shrank. "The Body Artist," released earlier in 2001, is a stretched-out novella in which a mourning woman walks around her house. "Cosmopolis" (2003) takes place in a single day, during which a billionaire is chauffeured across Manhattan for a haircut. "Falling Man" (2007) was a straightforward 9/11 novel, one of the best to date but with a realism that was, for DeLillo, flat. And in "Point Omega" (2011) a military adviser retreats to a remote Southwest desert to contemplate his deeds and eternity and discuss these ideas with a prospective documentarian.
Which brings us to "Zero K." Again the desert landscape, this time near Kyrgyzstan. Again a billionaire — our protagonist Jeff's father, Ross Lockhart. There is his stripped-down language, his grappling with ideas. But does the book have the animated edge, the worrying of a cultural pebble of his most vital work? This time, does DeLillo's intellectual knife have something to cut into?
I think so. He is, after all, taking on death.
Ross Lockhart brings Jeff to an isolated desert compound where big money and techno-futurists have developed a secret cryonics facility. They call what they have planned the Convergence — it's like the buzzy "singularity," in which human mind and computer technologies merge, but with the bonus of animating life beyond death. And freezing corpses or, quite possibly, the not-quite-entirely dead.
Jeff can't figure out if the people in charge are philosophers or scientists or cult leaders, conceptual artists or hucksters. Often we hear, or overhear, them expound on the future the techno-utopianly preserved will awake to after the coming environmental and social collapse. This future is available for only the super-rich and, of course, for those who believe. It could be the work of true visionaries, but it might be the Egyptian-pyramids-meet-Silicon Valley, well-preserved dead awaiting an afterlife that never arrives.
What is clear is why Jeff is there: His father wants him alongside as his fatally ill stepmother, Artis, passes over — something skeptical Jeff sees as simply dying.
But Artis believes. "I will become a clinical specimen," she tells him. "Advances will be made through the years. Part of the body replaced or rebuilt. . . . Note the documentary tone. I've talked to people here. A reassembling, atom by atom. I have every belief that I will reawaken to a new perception of the world."
These are the preoccupations of the novel: What death means, the hopes or dissimulations of futurists, their analysis of our contemporary, verging-on-catastrophe moment, contemplations of faith and the afterlife. The devotees of the Convergence are promised not just life after death but also human (albeit nanobot-enhanced) life eternal. "Forevermore," Artis says, with reverence.
If Jeff doesn't buy it, that doesn't mean he lacks empathy for her. "This was transcendence, the promise of a lyric intensity outside the measure of normal experience," he thinks. And who would not want a dying loved one to believe transcendent immortality awaits them?
This is not the only time Jeff has had to witness a parent's death; first was his mother. He returned from college to sit at her bedside in a painful, melancholy scene. Her illness and death meant nothing to Jeff's father, who had abandoned the family years before and subsequently become a multi-billionaire.
DeLillo puts the two scenarios in contrast: Lockhart sinking millions, maybe billions, into the Convergence to save his young wife's life versus his forgetting, or pretending that he's forgotten, Jeff's mother's name. Jeff holds nothing against Artis — in fact, his scenes with her contain some of the book's most lighthearted, human exchanges — but the resentment lies between son and father, unspoken.
Jeff's disbelief in the cryonics project should drive the plot, but the creators' haphazard, arrogant philosophies remain unconvincing; it's too easy to be on Jeff's side. Instead, it's the pas-de-deux between father and son — about the cryonics project on the surface, but actually much more — that seesaws the novel forward. Like his wife, Artis, Ross believes, and Jeff can't quite grant him his faith. "My father had grown a beard. This surprised me," he observes. "Was this the beard a man grows who is eager to enter a new dimension of belief?"
Artis' final day does not arrive on schedule, so Jeff explores the complex, wandering its halls, stumbling across a garden, following along and observing the meeting where he assigns names to the twins. A few times, in the otherwise unpeopled cafeteria, he encounters a secular monk who talks about death and devotion, and who serves as a kind of Charon to those preparing for their cryogenic crossing.
The facility, mostly underground, is minimalist to the point of being a satire of minimalism, or that is how Jeff seems to take it. He passes down its halls and comes to think that the closed doors contain nothing, that the halls themselves are conceptual artworks. As if triggered by his presence, screens lower from the ceiling to display videos of scenes that begin sylvan and pleasing but, as his time there progresses, grow increasingly apocalyptic.
Described in detail, the scenes are grotesquely extreme, but they could also be seen any day on CNN. Floods. Fires. Bombings. Panic. Environmental devastation. War. Refugees. Man's cruelty to man. Jeff cannot tell if they are documentary footage of the world outside or video art.
DeLillo's last novel, "Point Omega," began with a man observing a video installation in a gallery, fascinated. Although the book doesn't name the piece, it's "24 Hour Psycho" by Douglas Gordon, as Delillo explained to the Wall Street Journal. And "Zero K" also namelessly incorporates visual art, but here it's not in a gallery but embedded into the book's architecture.
Some of the videos Jeff sees closely resemble Dutch artist Aernout Mik's, which include staged military scenes and newsreel footage of the same. There seems to be reference to the work of conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth. Later, when he returns to New York — and he must — Jeff finds a woman who stands at the center of a crowded New York street impossibly compelling, positioning himself in front of where she is "frozen in place…. She had pledged herself into a mental depth." Although her eyes are closed, in her presence and silence she's a fair approximation of performance artist Marina Abramovic.
Those versed in contemporary art will recognize the referents. There are also nods to literary figures, such as Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal. But for the most part, this intertextuality is a layering — not of meaning, as you might expect, but of distance from it.
Cultural references go unnamed throughout: Rather than simply say "Busby Berkeley musical," DeLillo describes "lavishly choreographed dance routines from Hollywood musicals of many decades past, dancers synchronized in the manner of a marching army." This is the specific decontextualized, made foreign, as if seen by a man who has just fallen to Earth.
Which brings us back to alienation. If words are at a disjuncture from what they mean, what does that mean for a project, like a novel, that relies on words for its building blocks? This has been the challenge for a certain set of novelists since the deconstructionists' ideas made their way to America. When DeLillo tackled it in "The Names," his efforts to use language to explore language felt like a surgeon trying to operate on his own hand. Now, he's got a lighter grip, tackling the ideas with wry humor.
And maybe losing the signified for the signifier gives the novel its own totemic power. It will be able to be read by not just space aliens, but people who are unfettered by our cultural clutter, many decades hence. Maybe that's DeLillo's plan: to be read a century from now by the techno-futurists of the Convergence or just plain human descendants. And is that not the kind of belief we would wish for our favorite novelists?
By Don DeLillo
Scribner: 288 pp., $27