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Zero K: Ars Longa, Ex Machina 

by Woody Lewis


Zero K by Don DeLillo. 288 pgs. Scribner, 2016. $27.00.


Don DeLillo’s novels often contain self-portraits that double as narrative elements. The reclusive Bill Gray of Mao II shares his creator’s occupation, as well as his aversion to publicity. Gray’s monk-like devotion to writing, solitary lifestyle, and obsession with terrorists pull the novel to its dark dénouement. Nick Shay, the protagonist of Underworld, grows up, as DeLillo did, in an Italian neighborhood in the Bronx. His journey through urban adolescence into suburban adulthood mixes the shadows of the author’s past with the glare of postmodern capitalism to produce a canvas brimming with forward motion.

Like Norman Rockwell working with mirror and easel, DeLillo uses color and shape to embellish characters moving through time. He captures those movements with wide-angle shots like the Zabriskie vista near the beginning of Underworld—“It was hardpan and sky and a wafer trace of mountain, low and crouched out there . . .”—or with close-ups like the one of Billy Twillig, the Bronx-born math prodigy in Ratner’s Star: “He calculated with the ease of a coastal bird haunting an updraft.”

DeLillo reprises that sensation in his latest novel, Zero K, putting characters on a canvas where motion has been suspended along with beauty. The story of a billionaire seeking redemption is really about the struggle of those characters to reach a dénouement. Lacking the impetus of conflict, they wander through a labyrinth disguised as an art gallery. Movement occurs in a higher plane where flickering shapes and conversation fill the narrative space.

Ross Lockhart has built the Convergence, a cryogenic facility in remote Kyrgzystan, to preserve his second wife, the dying Artis. He has invited his son Jeffrey, child of his first wife Madeleine, to observe Artis as she enters a frozen state, where she will remain until her resurrection sometime in the future. Jeffrey’s account of his father’s conflict (whether or not to accompany Artis on her journey) starts out as clear narrative. Guiding us through the galleries of people, images, and objects housed in the Convergence, he conducts a dialogue with his father Ross against a backdrop of conversations with theorists who are so opaque that he makes up names for them: a pair of Nordic-looking men he calls the Stenmark twins, a tense authoritative woman he calls Zara. The reader anticipating vintage DeLillo—the aphoristic statements of sharply drawn characters—must watch the Convergence for clues. What could work as suspense, however, becomes distraction over time as the conversations collapse under the weight of gravitas.

Once again, DeLillo blurs the boundary of subject and canvas, as he did in Point Omega, where an art exhibit shares equal billing with the characters. The Convergence lies underground near the site of the remote nuclear waste depot found at the conclusion of Underworld. We see laboratories, dorms for residents in various stages of the cryogenic process, and galleries containing animate objets d’art. Wandering its halls, Jeffrey studies the arrangement:

I wondered whether this was visionary art, involving colors, forms and local materials, art meant to accompany and surround the hardwired initiative, the core work of scientists, counselors, technicians and medical personnel.

Jeffrey encounters a procession of scientists and business leaders who have been recruited by Ross to manage the facility. His conversations with them provide texture and dimension, but no direction. The speeches given by the Stenmark twins offer far-reaching solutions to world problems, but fail to connect with Jeffrey’s reality. Are they waiting for his response, or have they left the immediacy of the human far behind?

DeLillo reprises aspects of his Bronx adolescence in the relationship between Ross, who was born Nicholas Satterswaite, and Jeffrey, whose deceased mother Madeleine evokes Proustian memories, details of ordinary life that feel laden with  meaning:

It was a shock, the way people lived . . . pan handles jutting from the sink . . . a woman’s stocking draped over the towel rack, pill bottles on the windowsill . . .

The particulars stand out against the backdrop of abstracted and suspended existence, but they do not give us enough of the human frisson.            

Ross Lockhart accumulated wealth by “analyzing the profit impact of natural disasters,” the type of meta-profession found in Underworld and White Noise. His own uncertainty about having himself frozen along with Artis might have raised the psychological stakes. But he vacillates, deciding first in the affirmative, reversing that decision and then reverting to it. For the reader, potential tension eventually dissipates into indifference.

Zero K contains an interlude between two main sections, a stretch of white space meant to depict Artis in her suspended state. Here, DeLillo works with an actor onstage and an offstage narrator identified by italics:

Time. I feel it in me everywhere. But I don’t know what it is.
                             .                             .                             .
She is trying to understand what has happened to her and where she is and what it means to be who she is.

DeLillo has inserted interludes in other work, like the song lyrics from Bucky Wunderlick in the middle of Great Jones Street. As in that novel about a rock star suspended in self-deprecation, DeLillo wants the blank speech from Artis to stand in for dialogue and exposition, to move the narrative in unconventional ways. Bucky Wunderlick, however, is a moveable feast of satire, and the lyrics reflect the worship of his followers, who are hungry for any sign of life after his long hiatus (another suspended state). Poor Artis, on the other hand, has been left to sort things out on her own: “Are the words themselves all there is. Am I just the words.”

Zero K is really about the death of art at the hands of technology. Early on, Jeffrey acknowledges his personal surrender to the dark side: “I maintain myself on the puppet drug of personal technology.” Later, this darkness becomes trompe l’oeil, as Artis recounts her recovery from eye surgery: “I do know that the optic nerve is not telling the full truth. We’re seeing only intimations.”

But DeLillo also sees the chance to remake art. He says this in a recent Guardian interview: “I think in a very realistic, modern way, a three-dimensional way, and my role as a writer is to create language . . .”

In Zero K, Ross Lockhart retains a staff of philologists to create a special language for the Convergence:

A language isolate, beyond all affiliation with other languages . . . To be taught to some, implanted in others, those already in cryopreservation.

Similarly, in Ratner’s Star, a scientist works to create a language based on mathematical symbols and radio pulses:

I can’t perfect the control system without a meta language . . . until I figure out how to separate the language as a system of meaningless signs from the language about the language.

The sweep of Underworld has been radically compressed into Zero K, DeLillo’s longest novel since that magnum opus. The works in between—The Body Artist, Cosmopolis, Falling Man, and Point Omega—have flattened his language into a puzzle worthy of Borges, whose short essay “Borges and I” holds the key:

Years ago I tried to free myself from him, and I moved on from the mythologies of the slums and outskirts of the city to games with time and infinity, but those games belong to Borges now, and I shall have to think up other things.

DeLillo embraces the mythology of self. His first novel Americana tells the story of self-exploration in the form of a road trip. In Great Jones Street, Bucky Wunderlick explores his musical self without leaving his East Village hideout. Mao II dramatizes Bill Gray’s retreat into himself, while Underworld does the opposite in describing Nick Shay’s escape from his childhood self. The post-Shay novels show DeLillo grappling with his own games of time and infinity: the ghost character in The Body Artist, the eponymous falling man. He turns more inward in these works, past exploring to eulogizing his inner qualities, what Jeffrey in Zero K calls “my little felonies of self-perception.”

Like Borges, DeLillo confronts himself in every work. Grouped together, his novels resemble a matryoshka doll whose nested members become more dense as they grow smaller. Autobiographical patterns repeat themselves along the way, but the innermost element is compacted, like an imploded star whose mass is out of proportion to its size. Zero K suffers from hyperdensity. DeLillo has written through all his colors and textures, producing a dark miniature of his previous art. It’s not clear where we go from here.

 

Woody Lewis is the author of Three Lost Souls: Stories about Race, class and loneliness (Gotham Lane, 2016). His work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, Consequence, The Southampton Review, and elsewhere. (10/2016)

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