Book Review: Don DeLillo's Zero K / by Neal Auch

Death has long been a favourite theme for Don Delillo.  Sometimes he comes at this theme somewhat orthogonally but in Zero K -- a novel that feels very much in dialogue with Delillo's classic work White Noise -- the topic is placed on centre stage.  

The plot of this novel concerns a young man who accompanies his estranged billionaire father and terminally ill stepmother to The Convergence, a high tech cryogenics facility buried deep below the desert landscape of  Kyrgyzstan.  The set-up borders on goofy science fiction territory, but the book never descents into that space.  Instead, because this is a Delillo novel, the scientists who run The Convergence speak in long, beautifully poetic quasi-religious, quasi-philosophical monologues and the cryogenics facility itself is decorated with cryptic modern art installations.  The facility and its denizens feel like a mix between a death cult, a successful Silicone Valley start-up, and a modern art museum.  Much of the novel is spent with our narrator wandering the austere halls of this facility, contemplating these strange art installations, contemplating mortality, contemplating the strange journey his mother in law will embark upon.  The narrative is full of space: empty hallways, empty rooms, long periods of waiting.  Even when we leave the cryogenic facility and return to the city the novel is still haunted by a feeling of vastness, of emptiness.  The characters often speak past each other in cryptic fragments of poetry.  This is pure Delillo.  It's the kind of stuff that I gather some readers can't stand but, personally, I love the ever loving fuck out of it.  It's also the kind of stuff that defies conventional review.  Delillo is best read like Beckett or Kafka, both of whom this novel recalls at points.   The reader is best off focusing on the poetry of the prose and mood and atmosphere.  There's a quote from Harold Hobson that I've always liked.  Hobson was speaking about Beckett, but his words might apply just as well here (and to Delillo's career writ large): "Beckett is a poet; and the business of a poet is not to clarify, but to suggest, to imply, to employ words with auras of association, with a reaching out towards a vision, a probing down into an emotion, beyond the compass of explicit definition. "

Zero K is Delillo's 16-th novel.  At this stage in his career his voice is so polished that he makes writing like this seem effortless.  I'm endlessly impressed by how much meaning Delillo can pack into a single sentence or a single image.  Near the beginning of the book our protagonist's father is wearing sunglasses indoors, which Delillo describes as "bringing the night inside".  In this single line we have a wonderful metaphor for the cryogenic experiment this man will later embark on: "bringing the night inside" here suggests an attempt to take control of the vast and mysterious darkness that surrounds us all.  The promise of cryogenics is an attempt to domesticate death, in some sense.  These kinds of gems are scattered throughout Zero K.  The novel ends on yet another wonderful metaphor.  I won't spoil it, but the final passage is painfully beautiful and does an impressive job of summing up Delillo's central thesis about death in a way that is at once both infinitely clear and infinitely open ended.