The Big Zero

The latest from Don DeLillo subjects readers to suffocation in a plotless environment hosting flat zerokcharacters who live out an endless procession of questions about life, death, and the consequences in between. That is Zero-K.

Whether or not the flattened nature of this enterprise is intentional—to emphasize confinement, restriction, joylessness, life as a movement toward death—the result is the same: the reader just can’t be made to care about the fate of these individuals. Rather, we are relieved to find oxygen and light again upon closing the book. Approximate quote:

The room is dark. I shut my eyes. Are there other people who shut their eyes in a dark room? Is this a meaningless quirk? Or am I behaving in a way that has a psychological basis, with a name and a history? Here is my mind, there is my brain. I stand a while and think about this.

This isn’t to say the book and its ceaseless parade of questions are without depth and poignancy. Nor is it to suggest that the line-by-line writing isn’t itself exact, meticulous, and technically—technically—sharp. DeLillo portrays the sterile angles of an Orwellian nightmare, an isolated space where a team of scientists and philosophers, linguistic experts and theorists, money-grubbers and new-age pitchmen connive to establish the Convergence. Life ever-lasting. Immortality. These efforts have their corollary in the real world, and the novel is true to the creepiness of such an enterprise. But that’s about the only gift it brings.

The novel’s lopsided structure builds around a sterile world of low ceilings, side-ways elevators, wrist-disc monitors, soundless large-screen videos of water, fire, humanity on edge, sparsely-populated corridors (eye contact disallowed, distrust in abundance); this otherworld leaves off mid-way through with an awkwardly-rendered passing of Artis (no need to explain who she is; you won’t care about her; she isn’t made human), a passing that reads less like art and more like an indecisive transcription of the author’s notebook; into the narrator’s real-world life in New York (you won’t much care about him, either); back to the creepy underground science experiment of life everlasting (its subject, again, a cipher made more awful by the fact that he’s enormously rich and indeed financially responsible the project).

The narrator witnesses all but experiences none. Beyond the suffocation, neither do we.

DeLillo may well have intended to give the world his stark vision of tomorrow’s future today. Every bit of the suffocation may be intentional. But the result—true to artistic desire or completely errant—is ponderous and morbid, devoid of philosophical revelation. It is Socratic but starving for answers. Recognized as a master, DeLillo offers a work here that fails to move beyond the most amateur mistake. Approximate quote:

Do we see ourselves living outside time, outside history? Can we be impervious to terrorism? Can we ward off threats of cyberattack? Will we be able to remain truly self-sufficient here?

 Can we stop with the questions already and have a little plot?

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