“Faith based technology. That’s what is is. Another god. Not so different, it turns out, from some of the earlier ones. Except that it’s real, it’s true, it delivers.”
“Zero K,” lauded writer Don Delillo’s latest offering, brings it reader through the cold, clinical halls of death and the powerful offices of corporate financial wizardry with little time to spare, and not a word to be wasted. “Zero K” is about the passing of time, the evolution of money, the evolution of society, and the evolution of our very human nature. It’s also a startling critique on religion, made relevant by any of the numerous world-spanning terrorist attacks and the consequences of radical Islam.
The ultra-wealthy Ross Lockhart, a man “shaped by money,” invites his son, Jeffrey, to the resting place where his second wife, Artis, will, upon passing away, be cryogenically preserved as part of a movement known as the Convergence. This movement correlates to current movements in real life, most notably being that which is led by computer scientist Ray Kurzweil, that focus on extreme life extension. She is near death with ailments of various sorts, and both Ross and Artis believe this is the best opportunity for both of them. Says Artis, “I have every belief that I will reawaken to a new perception of the world.” The technological optimism that marks Delillo’s other novels also stands out as a hallmark of this one, with its characters seeming to make a religion out of digital progress, and where the progress does seem to expand out of simply the 1s and 0s.
Cryogenic preservation doesn’t come cheap, however, with one of the clinic’s administrators presciently pointing out that, “life everlasting belongs to those of breathtaking wealth,” and Ross becomes a stake-holding member of the movement to ensure his wife’s participation. He keeps an office amongst the clinic’s seemingly infinite halls and corridors where he and his son keep up their playful repartee on subjects deep and diverse, all the while casually acknowledging their new proximity to death. The two don’t have much of a relationship, as Ross walked out on Jeffrey and his mother rather early on, but the relationship they share in the novel cleverly ping-pongs its way into our admiration.
Through its freakishly clean halls filled with “art that belongs to the afterlife,” are to be found those caught in between states of living and dying, prepared to consign their bodies from this mortal coil to the freezer, which expects to keep them (as those familiar to cryogenics will know) in a preserved state until such time as technology will allow them to be brought back from the dead, or at least reanimated in some form. The Convergence extends, not to mere biological immortality, however, but also to other kinds of thinking relating to the future of humanity, where some kind of unity between cognizance and spirituality transcends previous forms as we know them. It consists of a various group, “there are social theorists involved, and biologists, and futurists, and geneticists, and climatologists, and neuroscientists, and psychologists, and ethicists, if that’s the right word.”
There he meets with various of the clinic’s administrators and the enigmatic character, the Monk, who converses with the near-deceased patients and offers his own deadpan takes on life and death. “What’s the point of living if we don’t die at the end of it?” he says, drawing from his deep wisdom as a kind of assistant ferryman into the next world. It explores the possibility of not wanting a future immortality, and wryly observes that, “death is a tough habit to break.”
An intense stream of consciousness chapter about halfway through the novel, Mr. Delillo continuing his turn as one of the most unique stylistic innovators of his time, takes on the thoughts of Artis as she prepares for her final moments. What might you or what could you think about being so close to death? Not just making those last minute preparations, for example, but thinking about your own perception of time and thought. How time slows down and every inch of this world becomes important. When details like the beads of water coming down a shower curtain become important and read into. Never is one closer to the mind of death than when reading this novel.
But Jeffrey is the reader’s surrogate in the novel, who, as a boy, “liked reading books that nearly killed him, books that helped tell him who he was.” He was, “the son who spites his father by reading such books.” Later on, he compares the flow of time of Artis to a rock sculpture he sees with his girlfriend, noting this rock will outlive them and possibly all humanity. Rocks don’t exist, humans exist, but there it is, and there Artis was.
Shaped with morbid and peculiar detail, Mr. Delillo’s book both addresses and leaves open all the social and emotional implications of immortality. “What will poets write about?” he asks. “What happens to history? What happens to money? What happens to God?” To characters Ross and Artis, immortality is not only desired, but actually sought after, and depending on one’s faith in this kind of matter, a distinct possibility.
Eventually, Ross decides that if his wife is going to die and be cryogenically preserved, he is going to share her fate – immediately – through a special unit called “Zero K.” Like “Fahrenheit 451,” this novel has the distinction of being named after a temperature. Substituting any reference to a church or a God, they seem to fall in with their jointly-believed new religion, that of cryonics and the Convergence.
A companion piece to “Cosmopolis,” Mr. Delillo’s 2003 novel, in that they both have in common a super-rich protagonist, a peculiar interest in financial technology and the future, and the possibility of immortality, he continues to write about the people who make higher-up decisions in our everyday life. They seem to be interested in the things we are, poetry, art, European novels, but what separates them is their enormous wealth and power. One must wonder if they would not rather be spending their time, in the real world at least, at fancy restaurants and polo matches. Instead, they’re approachable and think the same thoughts we do. They seem to have the same problems and concerns, yet we can’t quite have them. Another novel that seems to be about a sort of final conceit of the super wealthy.
Without exaggeration, “Zero K” offers as strong a take on death as does “The Death Of Ivan Illyich,” by Leo Tolstoy. Mr. Delillo doesn’t spare the reader from any morbid observation on the nature of dying and time stopped still. It’s tone is reminiscent of the ghostly essence of Jose Saramago, who died only a few years ago, and Mr. Delillo is a master of describing “things that normally escape the inquiring eye.” He creates in his characters a kind of visionary new religion, free of acts of religious terrorism and strife, and he allows the reader a look on those adherents who share his thoughts.
Overall, Mr. Delillo’s book has what all of his readers want, and what new readers will find most novel about his style and recurrent themes. For readers of his previous novels, this one will deliver Delillo in his primest form, and does not fail to dissapoint those who expect nothing but the best from him.
By Matthew C. Brock