by don delillo
scribner, 288 pages, $26
In 2013, Jonathan Safran Foer claimed that “Only those with no imagination, and no grounding in reality, would deny the possibility that they will live forever. It’s possible that many reading these words will never die.” Many other intelligent, successful individuals today are similarly convinced that we might “cure” death within a generation, and that this would be a good thing.
They have forgotten the lessons offered by José Saramago’s Death with Interruptions (2008), a novel in which death takes a holiday, chaos and misery ensue, economies collapse, and hospitals overflow with grievously injured patients who only wish they could die. They have forgotten, too, the myth of Tithonus, whose lover, Eos, titaness of the Dawn, asks Zeus to grant her mortal beloved eternal life. But Eos neglects to ask for eternal youth, and Tithonus fades in strength and health until he is as tiny and shriveled as a cicada. “Let me go: take back thy gift,” Tithonus cries, in Tennyson’s poem: “Why should a man desire in any way / To vary from the kindly race of men / Or pass beyond the goal of ordinance / Where all should pause, as is most meet for all?”
Now Don DeLillo, arguably the greatest living American novelist, has brought us a new cautionary tale, updated for twenty-first-century sensibilities. Zero K is not a fable, and there are no gods in it with whom to make deals—only technologists and futurologists, who live and work in the Convergence, a secretive compound in a remote part of Central Asia. There, they proffer salvation through cryogenics, “preservation of the body until the year, the decade, the day when it might safely be permitted to reawaken.”
The novel’s protagonist, Jeffrey Lockhart, is a thirty-four-year-old New Yorker who has been drifting through life, from one vague and interchangeable job (“cross-stream pricing consultant,” “implementation analyst,” “systems administrator at a networking site”) and relationship (“She lived on First Avenue and First Street and I didn’t know whether her name was spelled Gale or Gail”) to the next. When we meet him, he is traveling to Kazakhstan, where his father—Ross Lockhart, a self-made billionaire and heavy investor in the Convergence—is about to bid farewell to his ailing second wife, Artis.
What Jeffrey finds, when he arrives, is a strange mix of hyper-rationality and extreme credulousness. Even the movement’s name, convergence, “sounds religious,” he observes, though it also has a meaning in mathematics (namely, the property of approaching a limit). These first impressions turn out to be astute. The Convergence, Ross admits, is indeed a “faith-based technology. That’s what it is. Another god. Not so different, it turns out, from some of the earlier ones. Except that it’s real, it’s true, it delivers.”
Later, the twin brothers in charge of the project reveal that their ultimate goal is—like Faustus, Icarus, the builders of the Tower of Babel, and Adam and Eve before them—to “stretch the boundaries of what it means to be human—stretch and then surpass.” That such surpassing might also amount to a surrender of one’s humanity is a prospect they raise at length in a kind of bizarre board meeting and then immediately dismiss—not as untrue, but as beside the point. There are limits to be exceeded, illusions of immortality to be sold, and profits to be made. There is even a monk of sorts wandering the grounds, offering consolation to those awaiting what they hope is not the end.
Everything about the Convergence is vague. Meals are taken in something “called a food unit and this is what it was, a component, a module.” The food itself is “edible but not always nameable.” The room Jeffrey is assigned to sleep in is “small and featureless. It was generic to the point of being a thing with walls.” These passages are feats of description. DeLillo manages to grasp with words these deliberately indistinct and ungraspable spaces: “We entered a passageway that dead-ended in what appeared to be a solid surface.” In contrast to this background of smooth planes in muted colors, giant screens occasionally lower from the ceilings to show scenes of catastrophe in high enough definition that they seem to Jeffrey “immediate and real, a woman sitting life-sized on a lopsided chair in a house collapsed in a mudslide.”
The vagueness unnerves Jeffrey more than the televised tragedy. The purpose of the Convergence’s anodyne design, DeLillo suggests, is to dull clients’ perception and lull them into the kind of forgetfulness and docility needed to participate in what is essentially assisted suicide. Jeffrey recoils at the compound’s “aesthetic of seclusion and concealment,” and describes its leaders as “bland in appearance, demonologists in spirit.” After listening to Ross and Artis describe her fate in cheerful, scientistic terms, Jeffrey is livid. He imagines what will actually happen: “They would come and take her. They would wheel her into an elevator and take her down to one of the so-called numbered levels. She would die, chemically prompted, in a subzero vault, in a highly precise medical procedure guided by mass delusion, by superstition and arrogance and self-deception.”
Jeffrey is even more outraged when his father decides to go with Artis, despite having no health problems himself. “There’s a special unit,” Ross explains, in language as indistinct as the compound’s walls. “Zero K. It’s predicated on the subject’s willingness to make a certain kind of transition to the next level.” When Jeffrey sneaks into the basement of the compound with the Monk, what he finds beneath the bland decor confirms his suspicions of the Convergence’s sinister motives and fraudulent ways. Clients are alone in small carrels, strapped down to padded benches, in varying states of unconsciousness. They look less like “patients” than “subjects, submissive and unstirring. I stood before a sedated woman wearing eye shadow. I did not see peace, comfort and dignity, only a person under the authority of others.”
Jeffrey shakes off the bleak scene as only a DeLillo protagonist would. He goes to his room and names every object in it. He looks in the mirror and says his own name aloud. It is hard to overestimate the power of naming in DeLillo’s fiction, and of language’s ability to help an individual develop both consciousness and a conscience. In a pivotal scene in Underworld (1997), a Jesuit priest sits down with the protagonist, Nick Shay, when he is a young man and asks him to name all the parts of a shoe—the cuff, the counter, the welt, the vamp, the aglet, the grommet. “Everyday things represent the most overlooked knowledge,” Fr. Paulus tells Nick. “These names are vital to your progress. Quotidian things. If they weren’t important, we wouldn’t use such a glorious Latinate word. Say it.”
After this vocabulary lesson, the priest asks, more or less rhetorically, whether Nick has recently signed a petition in support of Senator Joseph McCarthy. Ashamed, Nick admits that he did, but only because others with him were signing, too. The priest registers his disappointment: “So you signed. The others were shitting, Father. So I shat.” But he refrains from further advice. To do so would be superfluous: The seeds for Nick’s “progress” have already been sown, and if he is going to work out the difference between right and wrong in any meaningful, lasting way, he must do it on his own. Nick leaves eager to look up words:
I wanted to look up velleity and quotidian and memorize the f——-s for all time, spell them, learn them, pronounce them syllable by syllable—vocalize, phonate, utter the sounds, say the words for all they’re worth.
This is the only way in the world you can escape the things that made you.
Language gives Nick the raw materials to begin establishing a sense of self—to learn how to differentiate his views from those of the group, and to discern and heed the call of his own individual conscience.
Jeffrey Lockhart, too, is driven to the dictionary at a formative age, not by a priest but by his parents’ acrimonious marriage and divorce:
Once, when they were still married, my father called my mother a fishwife. This may have been a joke but it sent me to the dictionary to look up the word. Coarse woman, a shrew. I had to look up shrew. A scold, a nag, from Old English for shrewmouse. I had to look up shrewmouse. The book sent me back to shrew, sense 1. A small insectivorous mammal. I had to look up insectivorous. The book said it meant feeding on insects, from Latin insectus, for insect, plus Latin vora, for vorous. I had to look up vorous.
Later, Jeffrey sets himself the challenge of making his own definitions. He starts with a lint roller, and quickly progresses to concepts: “Define loyalty, define truth. I had to stop before it killed me.” But a facility for language doesn’t kill him; rather, it provides him with a way to resist the siren song of the Convergence. Sitting in the food unit, he realizes that in order to stay sane in Kazakhstan, “every act I engaged in had to be articulated at some level, had to be performed with the words intact. I could not chew or swallow without thinking of chew and swallow.”
Perception, like articulation, also helps Jeffrey maintain a sense of self, sanity, and perspective while at the Convergence. In a place designed to make you forget—everything from the reality of mortality to your own name—he is constantly searching for physical specificity and for a window, two different routes back to reality. In this way, too, DeLillo quietly fosters a wonder for quotidian things. There is a beautiful passage describing that eternal marvel, light on water, in the humble context of droplets slipping down a shower curtain liner. It accomplishes the goal that DeLillo set for himself when living in Greece three decades ago. Composing The Names at that time, he told the Paris Review in 1993, marked “the beginning of a new dedication” to language and seriousness as a writer. Since then, he continued, I have “worked to find a clarity of prose that might serve as an equivalent to the clear light of those Aegean islands.” And he has; you will be forced, at least once, to pay attention the next time you shower. It is of such moments of conscious appreciation of the world, DeLillo suggests here and in his other books, that a life is made.
When Jeffrey returns to New York in the second half of the novel, it feels like climbing out of a tomb and into the light. There are pedestrians and taxi drivers, kebab carts and revolving doors, and Jeffrey revels in the low-tech humanity of it all. He wants to pay cash, turn off the TV screens in taxis, stop using his credit card entirely. He starts a relationship with a woman whose name he can remember, Emma, and moves into maturity and adulthood. All is not smooth sailing: Emma’s adopted son will fall prey to another great lie on offer in the twenty-first century and become a foreign fighter in his native Ukraine, while the children she teaches struggle with autism, anxiety, emotional problems, and speech disorders. “They faced obstacles to everyday learning,” Jeffrey relays, “how to gain basic kinds of awareness, how to comprehend, how to fix words in proper sequence, how to acquire experience, become alert, become informed, find out.” How, in other words, to live.
But Emma carries on with her work, humbly and pragmatically: “Some days are better than others,” she says. Jeffrey, too, navigates his way from consciously lived moment to consciously lived moment, to bear up against our seemingly apocalyptic present:
Know the moment, feel the gliding hand, gather all the forgettable fragments, fresh towels on the racks, nice new bar of soap, clean sheets on the bed, her bed, our blue sheets. This was all I needed to take me day to day and I tried to think of these days and nights as the hushed countermand, ours, to the widespread belief that the future, everybody’s, will be worse than the past.
It is a lesson he learned from his mother, and the passages in which Jeffrey recalls their life together and her death are moving. The ending, which I won’t ruin here, beautifully captures this faith in quotidian things and mankind’s inexhaustible capacity for wonder.
Twenty-five years ago, DeLillo stated his aspirations for novel-writing through the protagonist of Mao II (1991), himself a novelist: “A writer creates a character as a way to reveal consciousness, increase the flow of meaning. This is how we reply to power and beat back our fear. By extending the pitch of consciousness and human possibility.” While I was reading Zero K this spring, first-year cadets in my introductory literature course at the United States Military Academy were reading Mao II. In class one day, we discussed the differences between, say, an ISIS propaganda video, which is designed expressly to project power and instill fear in viewers; cable news coverage of the same event; and how that event might be treated by a novelist. Standing at the blackboards that cover all four walls of the West Point classroom, each cadet sketched out a novel about the life of Muath al-Kasasbeh, the Jordanian pilot who was captured and burned by ISIS in Syria. They thought about the family al-Kasasbeh had come from and the wife he left behind; they wondered why he had joined the Air Force, how he had trained, what he thought as he stood in a cage and saw a man holding a can of gasoline. Some imagined the backstory of the man with the gasoline, too. They tried to think of what might have come next to redeem such a brutal loss of life: al-Kasasbeh smiling again, if only in his wife’s memory; King Abdullah, himself a pilot, suiting up for an airstrike. In the process, cadets tried to discern continuity and causation in complicated events, and from a name, mere words on a page, they worked to reverse-engineer a life.
That’s what human beings can do—ex ungue leonem: From the claw, we can tell that a lion once was here. From a part, we may judge of the whole. I think of this sometimes in the face of what seems like endless bad news, at home and abroad—the continued power of narrative to humanize statistics and help us understand how we got to this moment and, perhaps, where we are going.
In Zero K, DeLillo momentarily questions whether fiction is still equal to the task. Jeffrey is in many ways a writer manqué: He makes up names for the nondescript twins at the Convergence to cut them down (“They were the Stenmark twins. Jan and Lars, or Nils and Sven”), and heartbreaking backstories for the children he encounters to round them out. At one point, he doubts whether “inventing names, noting accents, improvising histories and nationalities” is an adequate response to technological authoritarianism and looming apocalypse. It is good news for all of us that he decides that it is: “What I needed to do was what I was doing.”
Cassandra Nelson is an assistant professor of English at the United States Military Academy.