Christianity’s waning influence in the West has not reduced our desire for apocalypse. We still look to the future expecting closure, or at least a grand finale. Jaded by experience and suspicious of narrative, we cannot credit the secular prophecies of the past two centuries, which divined the end of history in a worker’s state or the global triumph of democratic capitalism. The idea that history moves with cunning logic to a final destination has not survived the actual convulsions of history. In the imagination of the postmodern West, the end comes courtesy of techno-magic or meaningless catastrophe. Writing at the height of the Cold War, Walker Percy wryly summed up the mood of the atomic age: “What people really fear is not that the bomb will fall but that the bomb will not fall.” What we really fear is not that zombies will come but that they will not come.
Don DeLillo has made fear of death and the lure of apocalypse a key theme in his fiction. He takes the theme up again in Zero K, a novel that explores the implications of technological optimism and its program for outwitting mortality. But, as a character in the novel notes, humanity’s fear of death and fascination with disaster do not arise from conflicting impulses. On the contrary, both are rooted in that intimate, small-scale apocalypse that comes at the end of every life. “It is,” DeLillo says, “an escape from our personal mortality. Catastrophe. It overwhelms what is weak and fearful in our bodies and minds. We face the end but not alone. We lose ourselves in the core of the storm.”
In DeLillo’s 1985 breakout novel White Noise, catastrophe takes the form of a chemical accident that threatens a mid-American college town. The accident occasions general panic, which contrasts with the mundane fear that defines the characters’ everyday lives. Prior to the disaster, they unconsciously sought refuge in the ambient “white noise” of American life, the steady drone that emanates from television, freeways, and shopping malls. By comparison, the disaster comes silently—a cloud on the horizon—and interrupts the everyday static, forcing deliberate action. Ultimately, the emergency ends and the characters resume their everyday lives. The toxic cloud leaves behind, however, a succession of lurid sunsets, which every evening draw awestruck crowds to the edge of the freeway. Here they face another silent spectacle, a strange intensity of color more frightening, in its way, than the chemical disaster. The sunsets look apocalyptic and evoke each person’s lonely progress toward death.
For DeLillo, history is “yearning on a large scale” (to borrow from Underworld). The fundamental yearning that underlies all action, the creation and the destruction of civilizations, is the yearning to escape personal mortality. But the feats of modern science have tempted some to believe that science can defy human mortality altogether. The principal characters of Zero K belong to that group.
We meet them in a remote medical facility to which they have retreated, a sleek compound hunched low like a tomb in the desert. Ross Lockhart, the narrator’s father, makes exactly this comparison, but the image that recurs most often is monastic. The inhabitants live as secular desert monks, solemnly awaiting the end in cloistered silence. The end is both immediate and distant. They have come to have their bodies frozen and preserved for restoration in the future, when science will have abolished death.
The novel’s narrator, Jeffery Lockhart, has come to visit his billionaire father and his father’s second wife, a woman named Artis who suffers from multiple sclerosis and has reached the point of death. Her exit will be hastened in the cryogenic lab, where patients lie frozen in a pod awaiting resurrection. (Whether the pod people die or not is a subject of debate at the Convergence.) In conversation with Jeffery, Artis mystically envisions the world she will find upon awakening: “I will be reborn into a deeper and truer reality. Lines of brilliant light, every material thing in its fullness, a holy object.” Jeffery wonders whether the person who returns will have the same identity. Artis responds with dreamy serenity: “Will my soul have left my body and migrated to another body somewhere? … Or will I wake up thinking I’m a fruit bat in the Philippines?” What Artis describes is not personal immortality or extreme longevity but a luminous void, a medical Nirvana.
The Convergence provides space to rehearse such a future. Here the yearning clamor of history falls silent. Society’s “white noise” does not travel across the desert and through the compound walls. Here the residents find repose in a spooky social void, though the facility incorporates vivid images of human misery. In a particularly eerie touch, scenes of disaster play on the facility’s walls. Volcanoes erupt, tornadoes lay waste, Buddhist monks self-immolate, and screaming crowds run zombie-like toward the viewer. Here again, the dream of disaster runs alongside the dream of immortality, and it is not entirely clear which dream the residents prefer.
In White Noise, neither disaster nor society’s everyday noise provide release from morbid terror. A late encounter with a nun who mocks belief in the afterlife rules out religious hope for DeLillo’s characters. Apart from anguished resignation, only techno-magic remains, which brings us to the Convergence. Like the nun in White Noise, the residents follow a religious form of life but do not hold a religious faith. They look instead to cryogenics, but with the ambiguity I have observed. Do they want to suppress death or sew shut the wound of consciousness? Their ambition, we hear, is “to establish a consciousness that blends with the environment.” Artis describes a future alive with color but devoid of people. Her own place in that world looks doubtful, with her identity altered or even dissolved. “We’ve fallen out of history,” a resident guru informs Jeffery. The dead who arise, he claims, “will be ahistorical humans. They will be free of the flatlines of the past, the attenuated minute and hour.”
Revealed religion never spoke more obscurely, or with greater implausibility. Nothing in cryogenics entails transcendence of history, only a lengthening of the present with more troubles ahead. In the end, Jeffrey delivers his father to the Convergence but returns to New York aware of the truth, that his father has joined Artis in death: “I stand forever in the shadow of Ross and Artis and it’s not their resonant lives that haunt me but their manner of dying.” In the final pages, the novel’s most poignant, Jeffrey wanders New York seeking absorption in the daily round, in the city’s perpetual din. As in White Noise, a sunset dominates the novel’s end: the chance alignment of sun and urban grid known as Manhattanhenge. At first, Jeffrey sees in the sunset a portent of apocalypse, but his mood changes when a child greets the scene with exuberant wonder. The child sees not death but something wonderful and new. The flame of young life seems to melt the chilly promise of techno-magic and charge Jeffrey with non-transcendent purpose: “I didn’t need heaven’s light. I had heard the boy’s cries of wonder.” This passage shares something in common with Camus’s determination to conquer nihilism with noble feeling. But the change comes too suddenly and feels, upon reflection, oddly sentimental.
Zero K thus extends the reach of the earlier novel. (The idea of conquering mortality with technology receives only passing notice there.) Hailed as a postmodern classic, White Noise reads today like a survey of midcentury doubts about America, a place reduced in the minds of many to a sprawling, plastic, air-conditioned nightmare. The book sets out to corner a big reductive theory about history and death but closes in on local targets like TV and supermarkets—easy prey for the satirist. (If civilization serves mainly to distract us from death, does the quality of its distractions matter much?) Skilled at capturing the small, telling gesture, DeLillo can unfold a scene so richly observed it would hardly look out of place in Tolstoy. When he turns to theory and cultural critique, however, his writing becomes less fine-grained. The ideas provoke—but we have heard them before, in other books or films or in college bull sessions. Even so, DeLillo the observer has a large presence in White Noise, giving ballast to the novel’s central ideas (those offered in earnest, not as academic satire). We meet that DeLillo rather less often in Zero K. The book delivers mainly a heap of ideas and an eerie setting, cold and surreal in the science-fiction tradition. The result is smart and finely written. But from a writer of DeLillo’s talent and ambition, should we not expect more?
Richard T. Whittington holds a Ph.D in philosophy from Baylor University and serves as a priest for the diocese of Little Rock.