Sunday 1 May 2016

Zero K by Don DeLillo

'Everybody wants to own the end of the world'

The arrival of a new Don DeLillo novel is always going to create a ripple of excitement. He occupies a place at the top of the pecking order in American literature and after Roth’s retirement some would argue he sits at the pinnacle. His books are seldom what might be called perfect however. Underworld may consistently appear on those lists of great American novels but it’s as bloated as some of those other greats meaning it sits unfinished on many a bookshelf and, personally, I’ve always felt that the opening section describing ‘the shot heard around the world’ is by far the best part of the book.

The excitement from readers and writers comes from the fact that he remains a writer who has consistently been able to see so clearly something about the times he writes in. He has been described by some as a seer for his ability to tell us not only where we are but where we might be heading. Zero K exemplifies this before you even start reading. That futuristic cover, the blurb mentioning cryogenics; this is all about man’s wish to extend life into the future, perhaps to avoid death at all. But this is far from a foray into science fiction. It is a book rooted in the now, in the world in which we live and in fact it articulates something about our anxiety so incisively that you realise he might just be the first to say it and how strange that the man to engage so brilliantly with the contemporary is an 84 year-old who doesn’t use email and still writes his novels on a type-writer.

Jeffrey Lockhart narrates the novel (the first-person narration is key to making this a more accessible book than some) as he visits the Convergence, a remote facility in which his billionaire father, Ross, has invested heavily. This facility allows the wealthy to enter a cryonic suspension until such time as technology and medicine have advanced sufficiently to awaken them again. Jeffrey is there to say goodbye to his stepmother, Artis, whose terminal illness has led her to this facility. The father/son relationship is brilliantly drawn, Ross has not been there for much of Jeffrey’s life and there is an awkwardness about their every exchange intensified by the strangeness of the surroundings.

Scenes of conflict, climate change and disaster are played on screens, the facility seems to be made up of long corridors of identical rooms, there is something dreamlike about everything that happens here, as if limbo were a place on Earth. I wouldn’t want to give too much plot away – this is a novel of ideas rather than plot anyway – but Jeffrey is a character far more interested in living the life he has been allotted rather than one that might be gifted now or promised for the future. DeLillo writes some stonking dialogue to go along with the rather more portentous stuff and I loved the brain-fizz that comes from reading something that makes you think ‘Yes! That is so true.’

This novel might appear to be ice-cold on the exterior but it manages to include an ending of such warmth that I couldn’t help but look back on what I had just read and think about the human heart that was beating throughout. It made me want to read it again, to examine those moments which hadn’t quite landed on the first read. Always a good indication of a novel that might last. If you’ve ever watched the news or looked around you and worried about the way the world is heading, wishing that you could transport yourself to some utopian future - DeLillo has expressed your anxiety in a piece of art.


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