It is hard to describe a novel like Zero K in a review that uses mere language – words like beautiful, ephemeral, multifaceted, all come to mind, but in the end fail to capture the true essence of Don Delillo’s latest novel. In Zero K language is examined against the effort of the human mind to create meaning, while the background of an apocalyptic (yet eerily familiar) world serves as a testing ground for multiple themes – including love, abandonment, dysfunctional family dynamics, and the fight for human immortality.
The central character of the novel, Jeff Lockhart, is the adult son of global financier and billionaire Ross Lockhart, who has flown Jeff out to “The Convergence”, a remote and secret compound on the edge of Russia, where people come to die and then be reborn. Ross – a primary investor in this new technology, which promises scientific rejuvenation of old and ill bodies post-death, and secure body storage through cryonic freezing – has invited Jeff to farewell Artis, Ross’s younger wife, as she prepares for her journey into death and restoration. Surrounded by mystic, quasi-scientific rhetoric, apocalyptic warnings and the abstract and undefinable architecture of the complex itself, Jeff is confronted with more than the question over whether we should be able to control our own death, and engineer our own immortality. Here, at the edge of the world as he knows it, Jeff is confronted with his life-long struggle for definition – his quest to name something in its purest essence in order to truly understand it, and to have some kind of power over it.
While the world of “The Convergence” and its offer of immortality may seem like whimsical sci-fi territory, Delillo plays on the real-life ideas of the “Alcor Life Extension Foundation” – an organisation in the heart of Arizona, USA. Here, for a steep price, the future promise of post-death cryonic freezing is something that is available to every US citizen who is not quite ready to face the unknown of death. In the novel, however, the search for human control over what happens to us after death also includes the control how and when we die; which means that “Zero K” is also the term used for the procedure on people who are not ill or dying, but who are choosing to end their life in order to be rejuvenated and frozen. When Jeff’s father decides that he wants to accompany his wife as she is in the last stages of dying from multiple sclerosis, the plot delivers Jeff – and the reader – into an almost surreal investigation of the ethics of assisted suicide.
In Zero K Dellilo approaches language in a sublime and wondrous way – the narrative happens but you don’t feel it happening – words are examined, concepts are presented, mulled over and left there without any real answers given, yet you never notice the construction of it. A master of subtleties, Delillo takes us from the semi-sci-fi inner workings of the compound and the incomprehensible characters it houses, to the busy streets of an everyday New York, and then back again without the jarring of a note out of place, a scene that doesn’t belong, or a character that does not make sense to the central working of the narrative.
Like the movie screens within “The Convergence” complex, which come down at random times and in random places, and which make Jeff stop in his tracks as he becomes spellbound by filmed scenes of world destruction and human suffering, so Delillo’s writing keeps us spellbound in one place, engaged despite the fact that we may want to look away. The novel is also one long conversation – between Jeff and his father, his girlfriend, and himself – conversations that are sometimes poignant, sometimes silly, but in the end, always fascinating.