Zero K – Don DeLillo

[I wrote this journal in four sections. I never started reading a new section until I had finished writing about the current one, so I didn’t know how any of it would turn out until I reached the end.]

31 August 2016
Chapters 1-7 – the first half of Part 1, In the Time of Chelyabinsk
‘Chelyabinsk’ refers to the meteor that exploded over Russia as it sped through the atmosphere in 2013. We might not be expected to remember this, but natural disasters and other troubling events form a backdrop throughout Part 1. I’ll come back to those.

A thirty-something narrator who has an awkward relationship with his father finds himself in the weirdest place imaginable. It might remind us of other places, like the hermetic Fortress of Solitude-like designer laboratory in Ex Machina…. But DeLillo has some serious business to conduct here, so I’d better let him get on with it. The father has had his son flown out to this place, which he has put up a lot of the money to create. It’s a centre where dying people are to be cryogenically preserved until future science will create them anew. DeLillo is 80 years old this year, and it isn’t uncommon for writers to focus on the meaning of life as they approach the end of it. Whatever the McGuffin – and it’s hard to see this place in the middle of a desert somewhere like Uzbekistan as anything but – it’s the meaning of life that DeLillo is interested in, and the ways that human beings have sought to come to terms with their own mortality. The narrator, for now, is a total sceptic. The father, and his dying second wife who is to be euthanised in a day or two, speak as though a future re-birth is a certainty.

One of the biggest themes to emerge so far is to do with the importance of names. The father, Ross Lockhart, has the kind of go-getting name that alpha males like him have in novels. And if the reader is thinking such sarcastic thoughts, DeLillo elbows them aside: the name was invented. The man was born Nicholas Satterswaite, and took on the new name after college. The narrator, Jeff – only his mother calls him Jeffrey – was only just ‘becoming’ himself when he found this out at the age of nineteen when his mother finally decided to tell him. (I realise now that we don’t know what surname he now uses. And he always refers to his father as ‘Ross’.)

Before the narrator tells us about the name-change in Chapter 7 – and, like his mother, he could have told us much sooner – there have been a lot of different name games. The place has no name, and nor does its function – although the science-fiction-sounding ‘Convergence’ is mentioned. (What exactly is it? A depository? A refrigerator? Limbo?) Ross refuses to name his first wife when they speak of her – it’s Madeline – and when the narrator is shown a kind of performance/lecture about some of the concepts they are dealing with there, by an unknown man and woman, he decides to name the woman ‘Artis’, which is actually the name of the terminally ill second wife. Jeff has a thing with naming unnamed people – it seems to be a part of the set-up that nobody is named – and, after a couple of particularly weird experiences he returns to his windowless room and finds himself giving the objects in it their usual names. Maybe he’s seeking reassurance of the reality of things – but if he is, he’s thrown when he notices the hand-sanitiser that wasn’t there before.

With names go identities. Jeffrey, the narrator tells us, is different from Jeff. Had he grown up as Jeffrey Satterswaite, he would have been different again. Wouldn’t he? After all, Nicholas, in becoming Ross, opened up new possibilities in his post-college life – partly, of course, by closing old ones down. Allegedly. Artis says something about being a particular person, as though assembling an identity from the expectations of Ross, or her stepson here to say goodbye forever. Or not forever. I’m not sure how convincing I’m finding it – and it’s just struck me that Ross, who loves to be the controlling force in the lives of people close to him, seems to see himself in the role of God. He’s the one who’s setting all this up, setting up the possibility of a new life for Artis and making sure his son is there to witness it. Ross likes to let him know that he knows everything, telling him details of the flight over that Jeff himself is vague about. If Ross doesn’t name it, maybe – gulp – it doesn’t exist.

I mentioned Limbo as a possible name for this place. It came to mind because it’s shot through with so many religious overtones and connotations that it’s another overarching theme. The set-up may be scientific – I say ‘may’ because we’ve seen no science so far – but the rooms are stark like monks’ cells, there is a kind of counsellor who wears a habit like a monk’s, and a lot of people raise the possibility of religious responses to death, if only to reject them. Artis (the stepmother, not the speaker Jeff sees) uses language that is almost indistinguishable from religious faith. The other ‘Artis’, and her male counterpart, and the Nordic-seeming designers of the place, all make implicit or explicit comparisons between what they are doing – promising a sort of afterlife – with religious belief. And… there are weird video installations, showing disasters and other harrowing scenes from recent history, in which religion often plays a part. Self-immolating monks, anyone?

What’s going on? And why does DeLillo so often like to make links with art installations in his fiction? (I’m reminded of the performance artist who replicates the iconic figure of the Falling Man of 9/11, in the novel of that name.) There are eyeless mannequins, burkha-clad figures Jeff takes to be real at first, those videos… and the architecture of the whole place seems designed to feel like a huge land art installation. Who is the artist? And who is it made to impress?

And are we, like Artis (but unlike Jeff and ‘the Monk’, as he calls him) supposed to believe any of it? Is it all, in fact, an elaborate hoax designed by Ross to unsettle the son who never showed him the respect he might have expected? I’ll let you know if we find out.

1 September
Chapters 8-10 and Artis Martineau – to the end of Part 1
We don’t. Find out whether it’s all an elaborate hoax, on Ross’s part or anybody else’s. The separate final chapter in this Part 1, Artis Martineau, suggests that some element of consciousness really has been preserved, as what appear to be the literally disembodied thoughts of the undead woman are presented, interspersed with a commentary by an apparently omniscient observer. But we’ve been in a strange, almost metafictional space for a long time now – any sense of this being a real place having long been subordinated to Jeff’s, or Ross’s, or DeLillo’s meditation on what it is to be human and mortal. The fact that in this particular universe some people believe mortality can be transcended seems irrelevant. The whole fictive superstructure sometimes seems irrelevant. The book, in that final chapter of Part 1, comes down to the eternal questions that have always been asked since mankind became capable of rational thought.

So what has happened in these chapters? First, I should catch up with things I didn’t mention before. As early as maybe Chapter 5 or 6, there are delays to Artis being ‘taken down’ – a phrase loaded with negative connotations – to be euthanised. So instead of a day or two, Jeff has been in the place four or five, waiting, and it adds to his growing disorientation. Other elements are added. He is given access to more sections of the place: his key fob, given a magic zap by a nameless staff-member, now opens more doors than it did before. He sees how the dying wait, sitting or lying in individual spaces to which Jeff gives the specialist name of ‘carrel’. These are the private cubicles in libraries, where people go to be alone. Ah. We know he likes names – but, as usual, it doesn’t help him. The space feels much cooler than the main complex, and it’s when I started to think of Limbo. This is where people wait for the moment that ends one life in order to begin another and, apparently, it has to be done alone.

In other words, the metaphorical implications keep staring us in the face. The thing that all the main characters are having to face up to, in addition to their family issues – maybe I’ll come back to those – are the fundamental questions of existence. Artis, right from the start, tries to articulate how her situation changes her sense of herself, how she is letting go of things that used to concern her. She keeps trying to define who she is becoming now and, as they spend more time here, so does Jeff. And so does Ross. What this place does is undermine any cosy sense of identity, certainty. Artis seems to be the one most capable of coming to terms with it, having made her choice. It isn’t so easy for the men she’s leaving behind.

Which leads to one of the rare new elements in the plot: Ross decides he’s going with her. Jeff has a row with him, because… what? It will mean he never will be able to resolve those issues. But Ross, buying into the reality of what the place provides, decides that he wants to be no older when Artis is revived than he is now. If he ends this life now, they will be reunited in just the same way that some Christian cultures would have it. It will be like life now only better. It seems second-rate to Jeff, merely his father’s inability to face what people have had to face since the beginning of time: the death of a loved one. He’s surprised that this master of the financial universe – he’s had his picture on the front of Newsweek, for God’s sake – can’t face reality like a man.

And then he changes his mind. Ross. The next morning, he is still around after Artis has been ‘taken down.’ He isn’t going to do it after all – and Jeff is annoyed all over again. What? This man who makes world-changing decisions as a matter of course can’t make his mind up? And for me, it becomes just another part of the never-ending American obsession with father/son relationships in fiction. Jeff’s life seems to have been spent in opposition to his father, who sees his as a meaningless, drifting existence. He has jobs, and relationships with women, but nothing he’s very passionate about. What seems to fill his thoughts – we’ve seen them throughout this novel – are mind-games designed to impose a sense of order. He’s always trying to name, define, work things out.

And these five days, if that’s how long it’s been, have completely undermined that. In addition to the altering dynamics of his relationship with his father and Artis, there have been his memories of his mother, the one who brought him up after Ross left. As an adolescent, Jeff tried to redefine himself, but his strategies sound bizarre. He hated the houses and apartments of friends, everything about them seeming too unfamiliar, too disorderly. Meanwhile, for a reason he doesn’t go into (or does he?) he invented a limp that he would affect with absolutely everybody. Except when he was with his father…. Go figure. At 34 – we’ve known his age from the start – he’s no more sorted out than he was as a kid. And he isn’t being helped in a place with art-like installations that become more and more realistic and more and more vivid – a tableau of the dried corpses in a catacomb, a video of panicking, running crowd that is suddenly followed by that same crowd actually running through the corridors. He has to press himself against the wall to avoid being run over.

Is this all designed to bewilder (his word, my italics)? Are all those videos of catastrophic or horrifying events just ‘visual fictions… computer-generated, none of it real’? Following the running crowd were the two main designers of the place, the Nordic-looking men to whom he’s given a jokey assortment of different Nordic-sounding names…. This is all orchestrated, it seems, and for his benefit. There’s nobody else in the corridors to see it. Then we get the last sentence of Chapter 10: ‘On the way back to my room I realised I was limping.’ As a reader of this elaborate fictive construct, I know how he feels.

It isn’t the end of Part 1, a I’ve mentioned. One- or two-line paragraphs, over six pages, give us Artis’s thoughts. If that’s what they really are. ‘But I am who I was. / I think I am someone. There is someone here and I feel it in me or with me.’ And so on. Every few lines, maybe a couple of times per page, we get the commentary. ‘She knows these words. She is all words but she doesn’t know how to get out of words into being someone, being the person who knows the words.’

Is it all like this? Yes. And by the end, the commentator having noted that she is ‘first person and third person with no way of joining them together’ – a constant theme of the novel, in relation to all the characters – she decides ‘I am who I was.’ Fine. But what the commentator sees might be different: ‘On and on. Eyes closed. Woman’s body in a pod.’ The commentary, I’ve just realised, is probably her own, in third-person mode. Ah. And there’s been the hideous suggestion of that other favourite trope, both in religion and in science fiction: she might be stuck here, on her own and with nothing to do, for eternity.

4 September
Chapters 1-5 of Part 2, In the Time of Konstantinovka
Am I becoming a little bored? Maybe, for reasons I might have mentioned earlier. The father/son relationship – which is given several additional twists in Part 2 – is still central, but so is that other big concern of Western fiction, the growth of the individual. Jeff, two years later and now back in New York, is still failing to come to terms with the anomie we recognise from Part 1. Most of his life seems to have been based on a rejection of what he perceives as his father’s values but… he still doesn’t know what he wants. I’ve been asking myself whether the fixation on the individual journey is a post-Romantic phenomenon. Or is it merely that in a culture with little to believe in, what else is there to attend to? Whatever it is, it’s hard to stay interested in this particular case.

What’s he up to? Not a lot. He’s now unemployed, and in a sexual relationship that seems to be bound within the strictest limitations. It isn’t that he has commitment issues, it’s that commitment isn’t an issue for either of them. They fulfil needs for one another, not just sexual, and Jeff seems prepared to accept this. Ok. But the woman, called Emma, separated from her husband in Denver, sees her adopted son for short visits from time to time, and this becomes important. I’m not sure why DeLillo introduces another mother/not-son relationship at this point but, like the location of the cryogenics place in Part 1, the boy allows him to widen the geographical scope. This isn’t only about navel-gazing New Yorkers, oh no, because the boy, called Stak, only left the Ukraine when he was six – he’s fourteen now – and he is very interested in a map of the former Soviet Union on his wall. And he is learning Pashto, the language of Afghanistan, for reasons that DeLillo keeps obscure. Stak talks to Afghani taxi-drivers, and makes things up about them to his mother and Jeff. If a character talks to another in this novel, any communication between them is always highly compromised. Jeff’s conversations with the woman are bound by unspoken rules of engagement – a kind of bantering tone seems to be the norm – and don’t ask about him and Ross. (I’ll come back to Stak, because there are developments.)

As Jeff’s stumbling journey carries on, so does his father’s. Ross, clearly wanting to leave things tidy – he’s decided after all that he’s going to be with Artis in one of the cryogenic pods – arranges a job interview for Jeff at one of his companies. Jeff attends the interview, knowing in advance both that he’ll be taken on if he accepts it and that nothing will induce him to accept the offer. He makes light of it when he tells Emma, and carries on not getting jobs in interviews he’s set up for himself. He goes to visit Ross in his town house, but is definitely going to stay in his own small apartment after his father has gone. He doesn’t even want his father’s pictures, or anything else to connect his dead mother – did I mention she was dead? – with his father’s stuff. He wants nothing in his life to be defined by his father.

Are you bored yet? This man must be 36 by now, and he’s still behaving like the fourteen-year-old he described earlier in flashback. I suppose we should be grateful that at least there’s no sign of the limp that spontaneously developed at the end of Part 1. And guess what? Stak is developing his own awkward adolescent features at exactly the same age. In Denver, he’s told his father he isn’t going to school any more – it has nothing to offer him – and Emma asks for Jeff’s help. What’s a perpetual adolescent to do? He tests him out in ways that Stak seems to find engaging. They visit an art installation – yes, another one – consisting of a huge rock in an otherwise empty loft somewhere, and Jeff tries the boy out with ‘Rocks are, but they do not exist.’ This turns out to be from Heidegger, and it gives DeLillo another chance to stroll around questions of meaning, definition and existence. He seems to like those as much as Jeff does.

There’s more to be covered, like the woman on the street whose actions might or might not be one continuous street performance – Jeff can’t tell and she isn’t saying – but I’m going to read on to the end instead.

5 September
Chapters 6-10 of Part 2 – to the end
I think I might have become more convinced by this novel as the end approached. Maybe the concerns of a liberal East Coast writer living in the unpredictable second decade of the 21st Century aren’t very different from those of a liberal living in England at the same time. That’s the point: the images Jeff is shown are from 24-hour streaming news footage available all over the world, and all they do is bewilder. That word again. Is Jeff an Everyman? Or is he a symbol of a culture that can’t find its way along well-trodden routes that no longer seem fit for purpose? DeLillo writes of an era in which the most popular option is disengagement, a mind-set that Jeff embodies perfectly. The problem for him, and us, is that it’s as unsatisfactory as anything that went before. And meanwhile, in DeLillo’s alternative universe, the older generation close down their own systems and wait for a better future we know will never come.

My objections have always been to the superstructure: as the world burns, it’s not easy to be interested in the efforts of two New York males to make sense of their lives. (How many authors are there doing this? Don’t tell me.) And, of course, we get their relationships both with one another and with the women they would like to share their lives with. ‘Would like.’ That’s the issue for me. What on earth am I supposed to make not of Jeff, but of Ross and his apparently boundless sense of entitlement? Is he a satirical figure, especially in these final chapters as his beard grows straggly and his hands begin to shake? Ecce Homo? If there isn’t much to behold as he becomes physically diminished in New York, there’s even less when he’s shaved and reduced to his literally bare essence on the slab in Uzbekistan. He is the alpha male who has reached the cover of Newsweek, and just look at him now. Ok…. It might work on a schematic level, but that doesn’t make me interested in Ross or any of the other characters. In other words, as a novel it has its limitations. I’ll shut up about them now.

So, does anything happen to bring on any kind of resolution? I’d say yes, but any resolution of issues is of the most limited kind. Stak goes missing, and Emma goes to be with her husband in Denver until he might be found. It turns out that he has somehow been radicalised – maybe that taxi-driver he spoke to really was formerly in the Taliban – and Jeff finds out in the most unlikely way possible. I said before that DeLillo isn’t trying to make the Convergence a plausibly real place, and the war footage Jeff sees now makes it clear that we’re not supposed to take it literally. After he has left Ross shaven and ready to go down, he sees projected on the drop-down screen a young soldier firing his rifle. He’s hit, loses his rifle, is hit again, and again…. Have you guessed who it is yet, in or near Konstantinovka in the Ukraine, the location that gives Part 2 its subtitle? Of course you can, and Jeff is devastated.

Before this, he had listened to more presentations by some of the people behind the Convergence, including one of the Nordic designers. He gives an ever more hysterical description of what the world has become, with war as a kind of ultimate end of mankind. It may not be the intention, he says, but it’s as though certain inherent tendencies in men (specifically men) lead to a kind of global chaos. Hiroshima and Nagasaki are mentioned, and so are many of the conflicts that have taken place since. We simply seem incapable of leaving our old habits behind us, so what on earth can we do? His answer: leave it all behind. The frozen bodies, their brains and other main organs removed and held separately like those of the pharaohs, are ‘heralds’ of a better future…. But never, ever, is it described how the better world will magically come about without their help. It’s DeLillo’s clearest indication that this really is a cult, quick to condemn but offering only promises in return for the dedication of its acolytes.

So Jeff is deeply disturbed by the footage he sees. He’s left his father in the hands of demagogues, while somebody else’s son has left his adoptive parents in order to – what? Fight for freedom? Die uselessly? Whatever, it all comes down to the same in the end. What’s our man to do? He knows that all along he has been trying to undermine everything the Convergence is supposed to offer, ‘to subvert the dance of transcendence with my tricks and games.’ But what instead?

What he does is accept a job that he thinks he will be able somehow to define for himself. The recruiter who finds the job tries to discourage him – it’s clearly way too limited for him – but Jeff decides it’s exactly what he wants. He will be working in a school outside the city – he will have to stay over in West Connecticut for four days a week – in order to help decide on the ethics of policies that will affect students. And suddenly, having wondered about whether he’s an Everyman, I’m reminded of Candide. Like Voltaire’s innocent abroad, Jeff has had to find a way through the fallen world – and he comes to a similar conclusion to Candide’s: ‘we must take care of our garden.’ Ah. That’s what we can do.

It isn’t enough, either for Jeff or for DeLillo. His job lets him ‘cross things off lists,’ and he describes the satisfaction not of erasing them but of clicking the strikethrough check box. ‘The instant of the strikethrough is the best part, with childlike appeal.’ But he isn’t a child, and in the next of the separated paragraphs that make up Chapter 9 – not far to go now – he knows why Emma didn’t stay with him. He blames ‘my sad damning failure to tell her who I was, to narrate the histories of Madeline and Ross, of Ross and Artis….’ Chapter 9 ends, after this realisation, when she calls for the last time and he doesn’t tell her something else – that he knew about Stak’s death before she did.

Is there any hope in the final chapter, less than two pages long? On a bus, for perhaps the first time in the novel, Nature offers our man something to celebrate. A disabled boy shrieks, having looked back to see a spectacular light in the sky. We know of such things from disaster movies – is it really this sort of tease? – but it’s the sun in all its glory, ‘balanced with uncanny precision between rows of high-rise buildings.’ As so often, a striking sight sends him back into his own thoughts… but, for once, he doesn’t stay locked in there. He notes that the boy’s howls are ‘far more suitable than words…’ which doesn’t stop him using the most poetic words he can find to describe what the boy sees. ‘The full solar disc, bleeding into the streets, lighting up the towers to either side of us…. [He] was finding the purest astonishment in the intimate touch of earth and sun.’ He turns to look forward, away from the sight. ‘I didn’t need heaven’s light. I had the boy’s cries of wonder.’ Has he, at last, learnt to connect with something, or somebody, outside himself?