Thursday, May 19, 2016

Zero K - Don DeLillo (2016)

Oeuvre rule: I have read White Noise, Underworld, Cosmopolis, Mao II and the first 50 pages or so of Americana.  Don DeLillo is one of my favorite authors, period.  Obviously one of my very favorite living writers.  I would return to Americana (and likely will one day, as my friend Katerina gave me her copy, at the same time she gave me this book and an autobiography by Isadora Duncan), but I must leave it out of this ranking.  Here is how I would rank these four novels, alongside Zero K.

White Noise

Zero K
Mao II

Granted, the only one I reviewed was Underworld.  I met DeLillo when I bought Cosmopolis, and recorded the encounter in the Underworld review.  Both White Noise and Underworld are modern American classics, but White Noise is the stronger novel, in my opinion.  Underworld is a powerhouse novel, but White Noise is just so sharp and pointed and entertaining and hilarious and deep and moving, where Underworld is, primarily, impressive.  I'd really need to read Mao II and Cosmopolis again to articulate my rankings, I just remember them as a bit boring (I still haven't seen the film of Cosmopolis, but I did see Game Six, and that was also pretty good).

So then, Zero K begs immediate comparison to White Noise, as Meghan Daum points out in her review, which reminded me that I should reserve this book at the CPL.  I did that, and I was the first person to reserve it from my branch and I got it immediately.  This is definitely one of the most "current" reviews I've done, certainly from a traditional fiction author that I like very much.

It begs comparison because both are deep meditations on death.  In White Noise, it is the medication  of fear of death, and in Zero K it is mastery over death through cryogenics.  But White Noise has a better story, and Zero K is more impressionistic and abstract.  It feels very meaningful and heavy as DeLillo approaches 80.  But it is strange and ultimately difficult to really "get into."  That's not to say that there aren't a few great parts,  Overall I would call it a very good novel, it just didn't grab me by the throat in the way that say, White Noise or Underworld  did.  And it has so much potential, because it has a pretty good plot setup.  A science fiction writer, or so-called speculative fiction writer, could have taken this novel in dazzling directions, but that's not DeLillo's style.

Essentially, the story is narrated by Jeff Lockhart, who is 34 and the son of a very rich and successful businessman who has decided to tell him about his secret operation, the Convergence, which is somewhere in the desert of Eastern Europe/Western Asia, not far from where the meteor fell in Chelyabinsk a few years ago.  The novel seems to take place in true present day.  There are references to the Taliban (though not ISIL) and the recent disturbances in Ukraine.  His father, Ross, is in his mid-to-late 60's, and married to a woman dying of a terminal disease (Artis).  Previously, Ross had been married to Jeff's mother, Madeline, but he left them abruptly and Jeff deals with this throughout the novel.  It is a bit surprising that he admires Artis and seems to connect with her very closely as a kind of stepmother, though Ross was not really in his life at all.  As he remembers, Ross's face was on the cover of Newsweek when Madeline died.

Artis is dying and Ross has invested in this facility that will freeze everyone and bring them back at some point to be determined in the future when technology will allow them to live again.  At the beginning of the novel, Jeff is blindfolded and transported for the better part of two days and brought to the facility and given a sort of extended tour.

As Jeff meets new people along his journey, he gives them names.  They never introduce themselves.  Two of the more notable architects of the Convergence are the so-called Stenmark twins.  Their back-and-forth pleasantly reminded me of a similar scene in White Noise, where Jack Gladney and a new professor at their college traded details about Hitler and Elvis and their mothers:

"'When the time comes, we'll depart finally from our secure northern home to this desert place.  Old and frail, limping and shuffling, to approach the final reckoning.'
'What will we find here?  A promise more assured than the ineffable hereafters of the world's organized religions.'
'Do we need a promise?  Why not just die?  Because we're human and we cling.  In this case not to religious tradition but to the science of present and future.'
They were speaking quietly and intimately, with a deeper reciprocity than in the earlier exchanges and not a trace of self-display.  The audience was stilled, completely fixed.
'Ready to die does not mean willing to disappear.  Body and mind may tell us that it is time to leave the world behind.  But we will clutch and grasp and scratch nevertheless.'
'Two stand-up comics.'
'Encased in vitreous matter, refashioned cell by cell, waiting for the time.'
'When the time comes, we'll return.  Who will we be, what will we find?  The world itself, decades away, think of it, or sooner, or later.  Not so easy to imagine what will be out there, better or worse or so completely altered we will be too astonished to judge.'" (74-75)

The first thing I'd mention about this comparison is that the writing is just not as sharp as in White Noise.  I've never read The Body Artist, but I've heard that it's sort of abstract and experimental, and I'd say the same thing about Zero K, particularly the the short section of the book that seems to portray Artis's consciousness after the cryogenic process.  I'm not sure how DeLillo comes out on this issue, but my guess is that he thinks the concept is insane, but may actually gain traction.  DeLillo is often portrayed as some kind of cultural psychic, that he sees the way things are now and he predicts the way things will be.  The idea of consciousness after freezing and before "rebirth" is sort of frightening, perhaps more frightening than an absence of consciousness.  In this sense, DeLillo may be expressing an acceptance of death in a different way than many other artists before him.  Death is one of the greatest inspirations for art, and his achievement with this novel is noteworthy, but I am sorry to say it is not as essential a work as those previously mentioned volumes.

But I love DeLillo and want to read several of his other books.  This is sort of a chilling addition to his oeuvre, and a pretty cool one to release at his age.  Some artists might put out their best work around age 80 (I'm thinking primarily of Thomas Mann here), and though in my opinion this is not DeLillo's best, it's quite good, good enough to say he hasn't lost it and could put out a still more impressive book yet, if he hasn't run out of subjects that he'd like to write about.

Regardless, there are still little moments of comic absurdity like this, which is pure DeLillo:

"Soon I was turning a corner and going down a hall with walls painted raw umber, a thick runny pigment meant to resemble mud, I thought.  There were matching doors, all doors the same.  There was also a recess in the wall and a figure standing there, arms, legs, head, torso, a thing fixed in place.  I saw that it was a mannequin, naked, hairless, without facial features, and it was reddish brown, maybe russet or simply rust.  There were breasts, it had breasts, and I stopped to study the figure, a molded plastic version of the human body, a jointed model of a woman.  I imagined placing a hand on a breast.  This seemed required, particularly if you are me.  The head was a near oval, arms positioned in a manner that I tried to decipher--self-defense, withdrawal, with one foot set to the rear.  The figure was rooted to the floor, not enclosed in protective glass.  A hand on a breast, a hand sliding up a thigh.  It's something I would have done once upon a time.  Here and now, the cameras in place, the monitors, an alarm mechanism on the body itself--I was sure of this.  I stood back and looked.  The stillness of the figure, the empty face, the empty hallway, the figure at night, a dummy, in fear, drawing away.  I moved farther back and kept on looking." (24-25)

Ultimately, my opinion of this book is colored by feelings of wasted potential and obfuscation.  It seems like there is another deeper layer to this novel that I'm just not getting (it may have something to do with Stak--and indeed I felt the strongest part of the novel was the middle part outside of the Convergence) and it seems like DeLillo doesn't want to write the more "commercial" version of this novel that would be more of a crowd-pleaser, something about how the Convergence actually turned out in the end, and deciding if it is a good or bad thing.  Like I said, my feeling is that it's a bad thing, and DeLillo (ever the satirist) is mocking science and the belief that we can be all powerful gods with a mastery over nature, when we don't even know what that means for us spiritually (i.e. we are not meant to live much longer than 100 years on this earth).  Even though I think DeLillo is ultimately better off being ambivalent, I am still sort of a sucker for the happy ending.  Having said all that, it's definitely an interesting read and I recommend it--I just don't think it will change your life the way say, two of his other novels might.

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