At 79 years old at the time of writing, it seems fitting that death looms large for Don DeLillo in his most recent novel, Zero K. Fitting also is DeLillo’s pseudo-scientific subject matter in an era driven by high-techological consumerism and the concomitant concerns regarding the potentially insidious role technology may play in our future.
“All plots move deathward” (221) DeLillo wrote in Libra. Zero K, however, “reverse[s] the text” (128), beginning with death as its subject and never leaving it. In Zero K death is not thematically revealed through plot, but takes center stage from the outset as DeLillo gets his teeth into the great existential debate of cryogenic freezing, whereby wealthy patrons can come to a scientific facility called Convergence to “Rewrite the sad grim grieving playscript of death in the usual manner” (76).
Critical responses thus far have tended to see Zero K in biographical terms as a repository for an ageing DeLillo’s own time-end meditations, or as prophecy of our society’s movement towards so-called “faith-based technology”(9). While there is certainly much ground to cover on both of these subjects, I would suggest that the novel’s central question has less to do with death or the sciences, and a great deal more to do with the position of art itself in the postmodern world – a question, perhaps, all the more intensely pondered by man acutely aware of the reality that his art will outlive him.
As a facility, Convergence lies somewhere between a laboratory, a chapel, and an avant-garde art installation, described as “a model of shape and form, a wilderness of vision, all lines and angles and jutted wings” (229). DeLillo’s protagonist, Jeffrey, leads us through a series of bare, sterile rooms and endless halls with pastel doors that appear to open on to nowhere. Jeffrey is keenly aware of the artifice of the whole spectacle, remarking on the “museum quality” (122) of the carefully constructed walled garden and asking the man he meets if he thinks the garden “suggests a kind of mockery” (123).
Indeed, this sense of fabrication and imitation is embodied by the very characters themselves: Ross and Jeffrey Lockhart carry a borrowed name whimsically chosen, while Ross’ wife – the archaeologist who leaves behind a life of uncovering the past for a presumed future – is saddled with the most obviously loaded first name, ‘Artis’. DeLillo’s choice of title also reveals much about his conception of the novel as a cultural artifact, “Zero K” being in itself a stylisation based on a scientific phenomena which is not even part of the cryogenic process: “The term, then, was pure drama” (143).
In all the novel’s self-aware artifice, DeLillo is engaging with postmodern theories of art and images, such as that of Signs and Simulacra in which Jean Baudrillard argues that we live in a state of hyperreality and can no longer distinguish reality from simulation.
“Simulation is no longer a referential being or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreality.” (Baudrillard I)
The notion of hyperreality is explored in the novel through the screens in the Convergence hallways, projecting a torrent of images of catastrophe. The introduction of these images to the story raises powerful questions of how violent images become embedded into our culture to the point of desensitization.
Jeffrey, although frequently overwhelmed by what he perceives to be his “role” to “watch whatever they put in front of [him]” (139), recognizes that these images are exactly that: “computer generated, none of it real” (152). Artis, too, is aware of this and it is precisely to escape this indefinite “referral of signifier to signified” (Derrida 25) that she turns to Convergence.
“We’re seeing only imitations. The rest is our intervention, our way of constructing what is actual, if there is any such thing, philosophically, that we can call actual.” (45)
The Convergence promises that its subjects will be reborn into a “deeper and truer reality”, with a new language based on “objective truth” (130). In this way, DeLillo’s conception of Convergence presents an imagined escape from the intellectual cul-de-sac of postmodernism and its trappings of self-referentiality. Yet Artis’ soliloquy following her ‘death’ points up the utter fallacy of the Utopian notion of objective truth altogether: in her disembodied state the language her consciousness calls up is divorced from any meaning and exists only as words in the ether, “open prose of a third-person voice that is also her voice” (272).
In Zero K DeLillo comes to largely ignore the many debates initially posed by his science-fiction premise. Instead, he sets out to question the very nature of art itself, setting it up against science and death only to reclaim it as a means of representing and organizing reality. As DeLillo himself stated, “art is one of the consolation prizes we receive for having lived in a difficult and sometimes chaotic world” (qtd DeCurits 74). There is no beauty to be found in death, no art, and it is with this assurance that the novel comes to a close – with the rejection of “heaven’s light” (274) and the abundantly alive cries of a young boy.
Baudrillad, Jean. Signs and Simulacra. Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1994.
DeCurtis, Anthony. “An Outsider in this Society: An Interview with Don DeLillo”. Conversations With Don DeLillo. Ed. Thomas DePietro. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1995.
DeLillo, Don. Zero K. London: Picador, 2016.
DeLillo, Don. Libra. London: Penguin, 1989.
Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. John Hopkins University Press: Baltimore, 1976.
Browne, Malcolm. “The Burning Monk”. Rare Historical Photos. 2nd April 2017 http://rarehistoricalphotos.com/the-burning-monk-1963/