Zero K by Don DeLillo

Jeffrey’s billionaire father, Ross Lockhart, has asked him to travel to an unknown destination in the desert to witness the passing of his wife Artis. The compound he finds himself in is mostly windowless, its residents hidden behind walls of doors only some of which are real. Strange statues and video installations appear at intervals through the myriad corridors. Nondescript meals appear from hatches. Jeff’s only dining companion is a monk in a stolen habit.

Ross tells his son that he is here to say goodbye to Artis as she is taken from the present and frozen for a future that will cure all her ills and provide her with unending life. Somewhere deep in the heart of the compound there is also a facility for those who chose to enter this stasis before death begins to claim them. Zero K is a road that Ross is being tempted towards, but what does this mean for Jeff? How can he reconcile the thought of an unending life for a man who abandoned him and his mother when he was still a child? What new form of materialism, possession, dominion is this?

I really enjoyed reading this story. I felt like I was travelling a path that others like Angela Carter (All About Eve, The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman) and Margaret Atwood (Oryx and Crake and the rest of this trilogy) have travelled alongside. There were echoes of Nineteen-eighty-four, touches of Saramago, Houellebecque, Philip K Dick, Isaac Asimov and Borges, hints of familiar philosophy, representations of belief in art. However, upon reaching the final page, it was hard to understand exactly what this novel was trying to say.

Zero K allows characters to rage against technology and its ‘ownership’ of individuals who are constantly monitored and controlled via screens and handheld devices and yet it offers a vision of a future entirely dependent upon technology to preserve, renew and reawaken the consciousnesses of those in the compound. The compound is developing a new language without simile or metaphor, a pure language closer to mathematics and yet it uses art to express meaning even in the design of the compound itself. How we are then to interpret the compound is left very open to the reader – this is both impressive and frustrating. We get a brief representation of Artis preserved in her pod, her mind barely conscious and endlessly questioning in an ongoing present that allows for little more than repetitious iterations of uncertainty. And then Jeff’s girlfriend’s son appears.

Stak was a Ukrainian orphan adopted by Emma and her former husband. Stak is a fiercely intelligent teenager who tries to grasp the modern world through language, weather, jujitsu, desperately seeking a place in which he feels at home.

I’m not going to explain what happens because that would spoil the plot, but I do want to say that Stak’s desperation to interpret is akin to Jeff’s, though Jeff has retreated from active engagement in the world, preferring to witness and comment. Stak feels important as a character because he suggests a connection between Jeff and Ross. What links Jeff with his father? Are they all seeking a place in which they feel at home and for Ross this involves creating a new place, a new world beyond the destruction nature and mankind are busy inflicting upon the world? How would that new world be any better? How is ongoing life better than death? How can such an aim free itself of war and conflict, of natural disaster?

These are the kinds of questions Zero K asks.

I enjoy many of the images of the compound – its maze like structure and the positioning of the bodies in their pods. Probably the book will call itself speculative fiction but for me, this is science fiction, full of ideas and questions about how we live now and how we might live in the future. In some ways I wish it pushed the science fiction element more than it does. A healthy extra dose of feminism wouldn’t go amiss either, but these are both personal preferences that speak from a tradition less wedded to the canon.

Ultimately, Zero K is highly enjoyable. The exacting and careful prose you expect from Don DeLillo is there in abundance. Zero K is delightfully cerebral, contemplative, questioning, but whereas in Hamlet the prince is forced to act, Jeff remains firmly on the side-lines, undecided, as passive as he can possibly be and yet continue to live (and once you start thinking about the possible comparisons with Hamlet, it’s hard to stop – you’ll see). Is this what Don DeLillo is trying to say to us: wake up before you sleep forever? Or is he pointing out that in the contradictory, messy, futility of everything, the only greatness humanity can grasp is that of striving, a kind of natural survivalist drive?

In the end both Jeff and Ross opt for something that allows them to drift in the current of the present, but Jeff has little faith in a future peopled by those who may not all be deserving, who may not all contribute to something better or even new.

I’m looking forward to discussing this novel with friends and reading its more established reviews. This is certainly a novel that will spark debate.

Next week I’m rereading Othello by Virginia Woolf.