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Book Reviews Review: In Zero K, Don DeLillo’s literary death march gains new, reinvigorating momentum

In Don DeLillo’s Zero K, the super-wealthy can pay to have a form of everlasting life.

AGF s.r.l. / Rex Features/Rex Feature Ltd.

Title
Zero K
Author
Don DeLillo
Genre
Fiction
Publisher
Scribner
Pages
274
Price
$36

"All plots tend to move deathward," Jack Gladney says in White Noise, Don DeLillo's 1985 breakout novel, and his first stone-cold masterpiece.

It's an idea DeLillo revisited in his follow-up, 1988's Libra. There, ex-CIA spook Win Everett is of the same mind as Gladney, believing that "the idea of death is woven into the nature of every plot." Like Gladney and Everett, Don DeLillo seems to believe that all stories, like all lives, taper inevitably toward death.

It's not just that death is literature's great subject. It's that literature itself works as a stand-in for death. Here's Everett, in Libra, again: "A plot in fiction, he believed, is the way we localize the force of the death outside the book, play it off, contain it." As much as stories may be marked by their grandeur and and magnitude, their potential to be about anything and everything, they are just as marked by their finitude, by what Jane Austen called "the tell-tale compression of the pages," by that harrowing inevitability of an end. Meditation is sometimes described as the practice of death, and the same can be said of writing, and reading, fiction. And especially Don DeLillo's fiction.

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In Zero K, DeLillo's deathward plotting would seem to find its plainest expression. The author's latest – which, it should be said, is handily his best book since 1997's magnum opus Underworld, which is about as close as American fiction has come to producing a novel that is truly about anything and everything – feels very much like a companion piece to White Noise, a novel similarly preoccupied with death and dying.

In that earlier book, Jack Gladney chairs an academic program devoted to Hitler, in order to better understand the 20th century's most formidable death cult. Meanwhile, his wife experiments with a pharmaceutical called Dylar, synthesized to allay the fear of the death. Zero K's characters confront these fundamental, flatly human anxieties head-on. Instead of diminishing the presence of death, they embrace it, willfully and readily entering into a compact of temporary death. The book unfolds largely in a subterranean facility in Central Asia called Convergence, where the super-wealthy can pay to have their bodies suspended and their consciousnesses virtualized, granted a form of everlasting life, in a process called "cryopreservation." As one of Convergence's countless scientist-guru-pitchmen puts it, "Life everlasting belongs to those of breathtaking wealth."

It's all too easy to wring all kinds of boring analogies from Zero K: it's a book about the wealthy 1-per-centers, the world on the edge of apocalypse, our renewed debates about euthanasia and "death with dignity," the way our go-go techno-modern world reduces our identities to the data set of our digital signatures. But such flashily topical filigrees are only incidental, humdrum accoutrements. Once again, it's Death that's the main event. And DeLillo attacks that great subject – of literature and of human life – with the kind of wit, severity and raw, unembarrassed intelligence that makes the brain feel like it's going to explode.

For DeLillo, circling back thematically also marks an auspicious return to form. In the nearly two decades since Underworld, his fiction has suffered diminishing returns. It was a problem of both a) Underworld being such a consummate work that it effectively said everything DeLillo (or any American author) could hope to say; and b) the radically shifting tone of the new millennium, especially post-9/11. Indeed, the September 11 attacks feel like the sort of massive spectacle of death you'd find in a DeLillo story: drawing the themes of death, crowds, the return of the West's repressed anxieties and the sheer bludgeoning force of history into a confluence that could be convincingly called "DeLillovean." (Even Underworld's original cover featured the World Trade Center, shrouded by wan fog, foregrounded by a small church, its protruding crucifix drawing crosshairs on the towers.) It's as if DeLillo, American letters' most formidable chronicler of both death and the power of historical forces, had been outdone by death and history themselves.

DeLillo's post-Underworld, post-9/11 output wafted into abstraction. "These are the days after," he writes in 2007's Falling Man, a novel that deals explicitly with the emotional, ideological and spiritual fallout of 9/11. "Everything now is measured by after." And indeed it seemed as if DeLillo's recent output could be similarly cleaved into clean periods of "before" and "after." The books became slighter. The ideas, likewise. DeLillo's once outsized, maximalist acumen became intimated through terse dialogue and clipped, Zen-like observations whose airiness betrayed a bulbous portentousness.

Zero K is rife with such pseudo-mystic proclamations. This is a book in which two characters openly contemplate the difference between existence and mere being. The crucial difference is that Zero K's narrator, who is brought to Convergence by his father (the project's architect and chief financier) to bear witness to the spectacle of life everlasting, is constantly interrogating this kind of hollow ponderousness. When he describes one of Convergence's many monk-like death-peddlers as "a crackpot sage," it feels like an implicit criticism of the elder DeLillo, awash in the eddies of his own intellect.

For all its grandiose talk of dying and nothingness, as well as its higher-order investigation of various metaphysical queries – what form does consciousness take when removed from the body? Can human beings exist ahistorically? Is it possible to conceive of a world that exists without us? Would not contemplating such a world immediately turn it into just another object of human consumption? – Zero K is not a novel that surrenders to empty profundity. Nor even to the cold inevitability of death.

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Rather, it is a book that speaks to the vitality and beauty of life, however mundane. It is a book that contemplates the banal gestures of being, such as patting your pocket to make sure your wallet's there, or triple-checking that the front door is locked, or giving names to things in order to understand them, as the very stuff of identity, and existence, itself.

DeLillo's earlier treatise on death took its title from the omnipresent panic of mortality, there in the ceaseless bombardment of media signals and in the too-rare silences. Zero K offers a revision. Here DeLillo's narrator attempts to tune himself into "the oceanic sound of people living and thinking and talking, billions everywhere, waiting for trains, marching off to war, licking food off their fingers, or simple being who they are." Not a staticky "white noise" but rather "the world hum."

Zero K is DeLillo, and literature, and life, in reverse – a plot that originates in death and moves, with sly, subtle triumph, ever life-ward.

John Semley writes a regular column for Globe Books.

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