Zero K, by Don DeLillo

​Picador, £16.99, 288 pages

May 13 2016 / Financial Times

It’s poignant when a great novelist in old age writes explicitly about death, as Don DeLillo does in his beguiling new novel. “We edge nearer death every time we plot,” he wrote in characteristically aphoristic style in White Noise (1985). “It is like a contract that all must sign, the plotters as well as those who are the targets of the plot.”

At the age of 79, DeLillo is very much an old master, yet still working and still plotting. The novels are shorter now, the style much more spare. But the desire to document and interrogate American modernity is unchanged. Whether he’s writing about Lee Harvey Oswald and the assassination of President Kennedy (Libra, 1988), joining the dots between a celebrated baseball match and US nuclear tests (Underworld, 1997) or exploring the role of terrorist atrocities in shaping the consciousness of the age (Mao II, 1991), he has retained an acute sense of the here and now, and of the defining complexities of the present time.

DeLillo is drawn to catastrophe and the spectacular. The themes of his fiction can seem portentous and overwrought — there are always screens in a DeLillo novel carrying news of the latest man-made or natural disaster. “Terror makes the new future possible,” he wrote in Mao II, long before the al-Qaeda attacks of September 11 2001. The major work of terrorists “involves mid-air explosions and crumbled buildings. This is the new tragic narrative”.

The first part of Zero K is set in the vast “desert waste” of one of the former Soviet Central Asian republics, in a labyrinthine, windowless compound called the Convergence, where experiments in cryonics are taking place. It has all the clinical efficiency of a well-funded private hospital combined with the corporate luxury of a first-class airport lounge in one of the Gulf states.

The novel’s central subject could not be more contemporary in an era of Silicon Valley utopianism and high-tech adventurism: the attempted preservation of human life through cryonics, a procedure known here as “Zero K”. The cast of characters are the usual mix of paranoiacs, crackpot sages and artists. And while this is an archetypal DeLillo novel, in subject matter and theme, it has obvious influences and antecedents, from Samuel Beckett to JG Ballard and Andrei Tarkovsky to Arthur C Clarke.

Zero K is narrated by a 34-year-old American, the resonantly named Jeff Lockhart, whose heart, after a difficult childhood and listless early adulthood, seems indeed locked. He is obsessed with the obsessions of his father Ross, who he has never really known or understood. Ross is a billionaire with immortal longings. His much younger second wife, Artis, is dying and he wants to do something about it, to preserve her somehow and, later, to resurrect her. As a believer in the liberating potential of technology — technology as salvation, as the means to unlock the mystery of the universe — he has invested much of his fortune in cryopreservation.

The long setpieces at the Convergence, where Jeff visits Ross and Artis, are intercut with scenes from his childhood. DeLillo is less interested in character than in stylised effects, in broad brushstrokes rather than the intimate detail of personal interaction. He paints on huge canvases, eschewing the delicacy of the miniaturist.

Nevertheless, we get to know something about Jeff and his parents’ loveless marriage. As a narrator Jeff is clever and literary but ultimately as much of a mystery as his inscrutable father, whose faith in cryopreservation he dismisses as “a highly precise medical procedure guided by mass delusion, by superstition and arrogance and self-deception”.

Superstition and mass delusion are recurring themes in DeLillo’s fiction. The scenes set in the Convergence, especially those where Jeff discusses fundamental questions of existence with the wealthy individuals who have come there to die so that they might one day live again, are lucid and philosophically literate, in the usual DeLillo style. In one sense, the novel can be read as a long meditation on the metaphysics of personal identity.

The dialogue is stylised and gnomic — but enjoyable, all the same. One should not read DeLillo for his realism but for his searching intelligence, his radiant setpieces and cool, measured sentences, as well as his sense of the absurd. He’s a serious writer but also a funny one. His characters are mostly grotesques — such as Ross or Jack Gladney in White Noise, the professor of Hitler studies who does not speak or read German — and they seem doomed to try to make sense of a world that resists all explanation and interpretation.

In their different ways, the main characters in Zero K are self-deceivers. And they keep slamming into walls of incomprehension. This is Jeff on his parents’ marriage: “When I tried to imagine their life together … I came up with nothing, I knew nothing.”

But nothing will come of nothing, as King Lear knew. And it’s a presiding sense of nullity and fear of the void that leads Jeff first to stay at the Convergence and then — after Ross expresses the wish to be cryonically preserved alongside Artis — return to New York, where he attempts to rebuild his life. “No one could make this up,” Jeff says of his experiences at the Convergence. No one, perhaps, apart from Don DeLillo.

Zero K, by Don DeLillo, Picador, RRP£16.99/Scribner, RRP$27, 288 pages