Book review: Zero K by Don DeLillo – on the quest for meaning and immortality
The acclaimed American novelist has written a profound and deeply moral sci-fi story that laments the mess humanity has made of the planet
by Don DeLillo
Don DeLillo’s latest novel toggles between a remote compound in central Asia and the workaday world of New York. In the bunker an apocalyptic cult is engaged in the cryogenic preservation of humans, whose brains and bodies are being frozen until the time when diseases have been cured and human consciousness perfected.
Meanwhile, in Manhattan, an introspective young man named Jeffrey Lockhart, whose father, billionaire Ross Lockhart, is an investor in the cult, is trying to come to grips with his unhappy childhood and uncertain future.
The story is narrated by Jeff, who’s been summoned by his dad to the Convergence, somewhere between Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, and Almaty, Kazakhstan, to witness the “cryonic suspension” of his stepmother, Artis, who is younger than Ross but suffers from several disabling illnesses. Ross adores her and wants to join her in the afterlife – and Jeff likes her, too – but he can’t shake the rage he feels towards his father for walking out on him and his mother when he was 13.
Both men are haunted, in different ways, by the spectre of death, a theme captured in the book’s sci-fi title, Zero K, referring to the low end of the cryogenic temperature range, when molecular motion all but ceases. Although Jeff’s struggle to find meaning in his underachieving existence, led in the shadow of his larger-than-life father, comes across as poignant and believable, the passages about the cult and Ross’ megalomaniacal quest to achieve immortality can, at times, feel tedious.
DeLillo excels at descriptions of the “ordinary moments [that] make the life” – the shocking “smell of other people’s houses” that frightened Jeff as a child; the “smooth burn of … whiskey going down”; the “radiant moment” when, on a cross-town bus, Jeff sees the “flaring sun … bleeding into the streets” during the semi-annual occurrence called Manhattanhenge.
Although the plot of Zero K doesn’t always hang together, DeLillo has written a profound and deeply moral book. His outrage at the mess we’ve made of the planet comes through loud and clear. In the bunker, wall-size screens run continuous video loops of human and ecological disasters, reminders of how violence and suffering persist despite our technological advances. To quote one of the cult leaders: “Half the world is redoing its kitchens, the other half is starving.”