While DeLillo is unquestionably one of the greatest American authors of the last fifty years, Zero K is unfortunately his weakest work by far, exhibiting tendencies that resemble the foibles of a first time author rather than a literary giant.
Zero K (2016)
New York: Scribner
Reviewing the work of a major author is always a tricky affair, particularly when that author has previously garnered a number literary awards and accolades throughout his or her career. Don DeLillo certainly falls into this category. He has been a finalist for the Pulitzer twice (Mao II and Underworld), winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award, winner of the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction, and winner of the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction, among many others. To say DeLillo is a major author is no exaggeration, and as a result, it feels almost strange to hold his work to the same standards one would apply to any other work of fiction coming out the blue by an unknown writer. And yet, as Zero K shows us, sometimes even the most renowned authors must be reminded of the standards of great, or even good, fiction.
This need for continued critical evaluation comes from the fact that greatness in the past does not guarantee continued greatness with subsequent fiction. Desiccated husks of failure hang from literature’s rear view mirror as reminders of how far literary achievement can fall. Let us never forget John Updike’s Terrorist, with the main character named (you’d think you couldn’t make this up) Tylenol Jones. Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons and Philip Roth’s The Breast round out this list as well. I could go on and on, but eventually I’d be naming books you’ve never heard of because the reputations of these authors were neither made nor broken upon these questionable works of fiction. The point remains, however, that even great writers can put out stinkers, despite how much our society of hero worship and celebrity culture would like to believe otherwise.
Unfortunately, Don DeLillo’s newest book Zero K—his only foray into science fiction—falls into such a category. While DeLillo is unquestionably one of the greatest American authors of the last fifty years, Zero K is unfortunately his weakest work by far, exhibiting tendencies that resemble the foibles of a first time author rather than a literary giant. At times a Zen meditation—a hymn to what the mind can perceive when completely undistracted—DeLillo’s novel has a certain unidentifiable charm to it even as it meditates upon such heavy themes as death and the meaning of life. It was this charm alone that helped me find within myself the desire to keep going, to keep following the story deeper, much like the main character cannot help but continue checking doors and rooms in the mysterious facility. Hope springs eternal, I suppose.
In terms of themes and focus, Zero K has a tendency to shine with an eerie pal as it ruminates upon death, the future, and the meaning one can find in the shadow of the inevitable. The first chapter begins with the prescient statement, “Everybody wants to own the end of the world,” setting the tone for the novel’s exploration of how death and dying could be handled in the future, especially one where the ultra-wealthy can stave off death (or can they?) with deific technology and pseudo-religious fervor. The resonance of DeLillo’s ideas here are only enhanced by the fact that companies like DeadSocial have already begun popping up in our time, helping us find ways to extend our social media lives beyond the grave. Zero K establishes this opening line and concept and expands it throughout the novel, taking readers to a hidden facility deep in the post-Soviet wastelands of Chelyabinsk. Every element of this black monolith, fading in the desert like Keats’s Ozymandias, exists to break down both an individual’s identity and his connection to life itself; there, much like in death, all differentiation, all rank, all defining features, are stripped away until only the barest of humanity remains. It is a facility of the dead, for the dead, placed in the Russian wilderness, where the main character’s journey through its cavernous passageways is both physical and psychological. DeLillo’s ability to “zero” in on this fact and explore the exact nature of death is where readers can see his genius at work, where his past as a great writer shines through Zero K’s splintering veneer.
But this is where DeLillo’s magic ends. The rest of the novel is populated by stilted dialogue, inhuman characters, and self-realizations that seem more at home in the notebook of an overly emotional teenager than in a novel that starts on a such a serious and innovative note. The dialogue in particular veers wildly between genuine insight and conversations that sound as though they were generated by a 1980s IBM, sputtering from over-exertion. For example, one of the earlier sections in the novel presents a typical conversation between the main character Jefferey Lockhart and his father, Ross:
“What were you doing in Boston?”
“My girlfriend lives there.”
“You and your girlfriends never seem to live in the same city. Why is that?”
“It makes time more precious.”
“Very different here,” he said.
“I know. I’ve learned this. There is no time.”
“Or time is so overwhelming that we don’t feel it pass in the same way.”
“You hide from it.”
“We defer to it,” he said.
It was my turn to slump in the chair. I wanted a cigarette. I’d stopped smoking twice and wanted to start and stop again. I envisioned it as a lifelong cycle.
“Do I ask the question or do I accept the situation passively? I want to know the rules.”
“What’s the question?”
“Where are we?” I said.
He nodded slowly, examining the matter. Then he laughed. (28-29)
The novel is, unfortunately, filled with dialogue like this (sometimes worse, even), and much of the writing comes across as a series of disconnected philosophical thoughts, rather than an interchange of ideas and language between two human characters. The overall effect of such stilted interaction is that Zero K seems like an essay about death that somehow became a novel but never finished the transformation—it keeps one foot firmly planted in each world in a way that keeps the novel’s form from fully coalescing into a unified whole.
Perhaps the most glaring problem with this book is that DeLillo doesn’t seem to know whether he wrote a novel or a film script. Certain points in Zero K that were clearly intended to be visually stunning, in actuality come off as confusing, disjointed, and smelling distinctly of fiction with aspirations for the big screen. Much of Jeffrey’s journey through the mysterious facility is punctuated by his visions of death that appear on a number of screens extending from endless hallways ceilings. However, there are other moments where the main character encounters death as art, and those are so visual that they seem out of place in the novel:
I looked at Ross, who was staring past me toward a far corner of the room. It took me a moment, everything here took me a moment. Then I saw what he saw, a figure seated on the floor near the junction of the two walls. Small human figure, motionless, seeping gradually into my level of awareness. I had to tell myself that I was not somewhere else trying to visualize what I was actually seeing, here and now, in solid form.
My father walked in that direction, hesitantly, and I followed, walking and pausing. The seated figure was a girl, barefoot, legs crossed. She wore loose white pants and a white knee-length blouse. One arm was raised and bent toward the body at neck level. The other arm was waist-high at a matching angle. …
Her eyes were closed. I knew that her eyes were closed even if this was not evident from where we stood. Her youth was not necessarily evident but I felt free to believe that she was young. She had to be young. And she had no nationality. She had to be nationless. (148-49)
Ignoring the problematic idea that a person could be nationless, the description here seems almost too visual, to the point where the physicality of the moment overpowers its textuality. Such visual moments populate the novel, and while some truly hit home, others fall flat (like the example above), and they leave a confusing from in their wake.
Top all of this off with the most unrelatable, obnoxious, navel-gazing obsessed character I’ve ever read, and Zero K becomes a book that takes commitment and fortitude to pursue all the way to its lackluster ending. Jeffrey Ross is a character who constantly reminds readers that he is “special,” and no one else can see just how special and original he is. When he turns down a job, for instance, he tells us how “interesting” he is: “It was time finally and I called Silverstone and turned down the job. He said he understood. I wanted to say, No you don’t, not everything, not the part that makes me interesting” (193). I often tell my students that if a restaurant has to tell you it’s “world famous,” it probably isn’t all that famous after all. Perhaps the same principle could apply here as well. Ross also behaves in ways that make him seem more angsty teenager than grown adult in a difficult situation. He constantly talks about how he likes to stand in dark room with his eyes closed (because he’s “interesting”), and he often responds to tense situations by doing pushups or jumping up and down. The rest of the characters aren’t presented in a much better light. Later in the novel, readers are apparently supposed to be impressed that a teenage character can define what a rock is after deep thought. In the end though, Jeffrey Ross is the worst offender, and he can serve as a stand-in for all of the other character problems scattered throughout this disjointed work.
Overall, if you’re looking to dive into a good science fiction read and were hoping that DeLillo had delivered his usual crescendo of literary quality, you will be sorely disappointed. This is by far DeLillo’s worst book, and while some may find value distributed throughout its underwrought pages, I highly recommend doing just about anything else other than reading this travesty of a novel.