Don DeLillo, the author of White Noise and Underworld, has given us one of his best novels to date at the ripe old age of 79. The subject matter is fitting. It’s about mortality, life after death — or its absence — and is a poetic meditation on the potential of science to extend said life. It may also be about the potential for junk science to heighten and exploit our delusions regarding the hereafter, but DeLillo doesn’t tell us how we should take this. One way or the other. And its success, its strong, compact prose, its aphoristic beauty in parts, its solid craftsmanship, also go against one of my own (poorly supported) theories about artistic creation: That its quality tends to go down over time, and with novelists, especially, declines rapidly after one’s 30s or 40s. DeLillo is clearly, skillfully playing with our prejudices and beliefs on several levels. What is “decline”? Is it all in our heads? Is it something we can prevent? Should we even try?
“Gesso on linen” is one of the enigmatic phrases we get from the narrator’s father, Ross Lockhart, a billionaire in search of a cure for his dying wife, Artis. But not just any kind of cure. A cure that entails her being frozen and stored in a cryogenic pod for who knows how long. Hopefully, so she can awaken one day into a new world where her disease no longer exists, and her mortality is just a memory. To me, this is also an apt metaphor for life’s start in general, for what a painter faces with a new canvas, or a writer when she begins the book, for what any artist must do first before they make art. It may also be that one of the book’s chief locales, underneath an unspecified Asian desert, is just such a foundational moment and place, the gesso on linen needed to induce creation.
And that underground bunker is described in ways uncertain, as a mystery of sorts, and reminded me of Sci-Fi novels from the past, as did the mood set by the narrator. Likely taking their cue from Poe, at least indirectly, many a Sci-Fi book tries to set a mood of the ordinary in the extraordinary, the calm in the midst of a strange and magical storm. The narrator, Jeffrey, does this as well, for the most part, virtually never raising his voice, and almost always speaking in short, measured, careful sentences, reaching the level of poetry at times. There is also one beautiful change-up roughly in the middle of the narrative where the style shifts to match the subject of childhood, and becomes child-like itself — then shifts again. Jeffrey twice voyages to the unknown, underground, with his father, like a Virgil, or a Heracles, harrowing hell.
But it’s not really hell. It’s more like a waiting room between light and darkness — though, again, DeLillo is too smart and too skilled to ever tell us how to think of these things. He presents us with evidence, metaphors, descriptions of our world and the one that seeks escape from it, and then lets us choose. In this way, it differs from his earlier books, which were more insistent and urgent regarding these choices, that we see the systems, above and below ground, and their effects for what they are, now, before it’s too late. In a sense, Zero K assumes it’s already too late, and that our choices don’t really matter, other than choosing which kind of boat for our final departure.
I also really liked one of the habits of the narrator. He feels compelled to name people he doesn’t know, and generally doesn’t want their real name to intrude upon this. Where some people might play the vocation game on a subway, or in a restaurant, and weave stories about secret agents or killers on the loose, Jeffrey seeks to bestow names on people he meets or sees from a distance. He tries to make the name suit his vision of that person, using ethnic clues, personality traits, and other hints to get there. It must calm him in some way, because he almost always seems so calm, again, even in the midst of the extraordinary. Jeffrey is so like an author, or an author’s author.
Perhaps my only (very minor) quibble with the book is I wanted more. I wanted to hear more about Jeffrey’s relationship with his mother, Madeline, who preceded Artis in Ross’s life. I wanted to know more about Jeffrey’s lover, Emma, and her possibly autistic son, Stak. Down in the bunker, on his second and last visit, the narrator sees scattered (news) images of the makings of an apocalypse, death and destruction, wars, famine, torture, and the very young Stak is a part of it, as a soldier now. This is a leap from our last sighting of the young man, though it follows from that sighting and is internally consistent. And the form DeLillo chooses in this novel, elliptical, aphoristic in parts, accepting of mysteries, lacunae and pregnant gaps in time, supports the lack of details I might otherwise want to see. Filling in those gaps would likely destroy the integrity of the story as written. But rereading the book . . . rereading it could both support its integrity and resolve the minor quibble.
Of all the “faults” a book can have, that must rate among the least. Needing to be reread, and provoking that call.