Sunday, August 14, 2016

Zero K: The Usual Terror

Last February The New Yorker magazine published “Sine Cosine Tangent” by Don DeLillo, a short story narrated by a boy suspended between divorced parents – his reliable mother, mildly eccentric Madeleine, who is a “firm balance” between him and his “little felonies of self-perception”, and his absent, famous father, Ross Lockhart, a high-finance mogul who peers at his son from the cover of Newsweek and whose feeling for his boy is perhaps best defined by the pun of their family name. Negotiating a stumbling path between his parents, Jeff Lockhart develops oblique strategies to extract meaning from his confusion: he cultivates a fake limp, invents names for his mother’s lovers, and sees himself in certain unusual words, such as “Bessarabian” or “penetralia”.

A familiar DeLillo scenario, quirky, phlegmatic, insightful. But what struck me about the story was how rooted it is in ordinary moments. DeLillo’s usual aesthetic is one of masterful disengagement, where the day-to-day certainties of language, setting, and behaviour are framed and fragmented so skilfully that the usual pleasures of character and narrative give way to an eerie sense that surfaces, selves – even history itself – are unreliable constructs hiding a deep terror that may or may not envelope a spiritual answer to “the old despotic traditions”. The traditions of “Sine Cosine Tangent” are offbeat, to be sure, but the shapelessness of Jeff’s adolescence feels less like the unplumbed disquiet of DeLillo’s standard first person voice and more like a naturalistic representation of the “indirection and drift” we have all struggled through at that age. Here, I thought, was an interesting, late-life swerve from one of America’s most accomplished writers.

I should have known better. A few months later, on its day of publication, I started reading DeLillo’s latest novel, Zero K.  (...)

The book’s swing between Manhattan’s fragile intimacies (the smell of other people’s houses, Jeff eating muggy stew in cereal bowls, Madeleine watching birds land on the rail of their small balcony) and the desert world of uninhabited Kazakhstan, where the main action takes place, creates an emotional rhythm that turns those ordinary moments into powerful emblems of love recognised and death accepted. Those moments feel like antidotes to the familiar DeLillo coldness and offer evidence, alongside the powerful narrative and linguistic brilliance, that at nearly eighty years of age the master is still at the top of his game, willing to explore new dimensions to his favourite themes of technology-driven alienation, the erosion of language and the fear of death.

Not that there isn’t plenty of chill in Zero K. The title refers to zero on the Kelvin scale, the coldest temperature theoretically possible, as well as the deepest level of the Kazakhstan compound known as the Convergence, the novel’s principal setting and a facility where the dead are frozen cryogenically in anticipation of a future date when resuscitation becomes medically feasible. Of course, the title also echoes the name of The Trial’s hapless protagonist, and the book’s austere setting and uninflected contemplation of nightmare remind us of DeLillo’s debt to the stark parables of Kafka. Quintessentially American as he is, DeLillo has roots in European modernism. As he said in a Paris Review interview in 1993,
There was a time when the inner world of the novelist – Kafka’s private vision and maybe Beckett’s – eventually folded into the three-dimensional world we were all living in. These men wrote a kind of world narrative … Today, the world has become a book – more precisely a news story or television show or piece of film footage. And the world narrative is being written by men who orchestrate disastrous events, by military leaders, totalitarian leaders, terrorists, men dazed by power. World news is the novel people want to read. It carries the tragic narrative that used to belong to the novel.
Zero K’s world narrative begins with Jeff arriving at the Convergence to say goodbye to his stepmother, Artis Martineau. Dying of MS, Artis is readying herself for the sub-zero state that she believes will lead to her liberation from death. This is the first step in her pact with Ross, a major investor in the facility, who waits with her and plans on joining her in a frozen pod when his own time comes. We are far from Manhattan and from anywhere else, inside a bleak, sandblasted vision of global alienation, a place run by a technocratic cult that prepares its members for the future not just by preserving their bodies but also seeing them on their way with a “brain edit” that, its founders claim, will take them beyond “the narrative of what we refer to as history” and into a brave new post-apocalyptic world with no violence and a new language.

Incredible science fiction … except that a version of such a facility already exists – the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, incorporated in California in 1972, now located in Arizona, which, according to its website, “saves lives by using temperatures so cold that a person beyond help by today’s medicine might be preserved for decades or centuries until a future medical technology can restore that person to full health”. (Potential customers include Simon Cowell and Paris Hilton – raising the question: who would want to be reborn in an ahistorical future among such company?)

The irony pleases, but the Convergence is not satire. DeLillo has a great feel for the absurdities of contemporary life, but like Kafka he is more interested in using grotesque landscapes to reveal disturbing psychological truths. The Convergence is indeed chilling. Seen through Jeff’s eyes, the facility, “located on the far margins of plausibility”, is totalitarian and fake, full of false art and false religion, spooky mannequins that mimic desert saints, artificial gardens, and video screens that run silent movies of natural disaster: “Temples flooded, homes pitching down hillsides … water rising in city streets, cars and drivers going under”. Jeff’s shock and incredulity make the Convergence seem both entirely believable and out of this world. His attempts to talk his father out of sending Artis into this “controlled future” are indirect but moving. He is our link to the ordinary moments of love and memory, moments made significant by the acceptance of the pain and finality of death.

The emotional and rhetorical weight of Zero K is comparable to the intensity of three novels published in the eighties that established DeLillo’s reputation and which form the core of his oeuvre: White Noise, The Names, and Libra. Along with his 1997 masterpiece Underworld, these fictions are the finest work of a great artist who stands on the edge of American culture yet identifies and explores as well as anyone the forces of power and influence that define mainstream American life and undermine our persistent assumption of the autonomy of the individual. This exploration is both contemporary and prescient.

“Haven’t you felt it?” a character asks in Zero K.
The sense of being virtualized. The devices you use, the ones you carry everywhere, room to room, minute to minute, inescapably. Do you ever feel unfleshed? All the coded impulses you depend on to guide you. All the sensors in the room that are watching you, listening to you, tracking your habits, measuring your capabilities. All the linked data designed to incorporate you into the megadata. Is there something that makes you uneasy? Do you think about the technovirus, all systems down, global implosion? Or is it more personal? Do you feel steeped in some horrific digital panic that’s everywhere and nowhere?
This description of powerlessness, with its hints of apocalypse, captures perfectly the paranoia implicit in the invasive reach of twenty-first-century technologies.

by Kevin Stevens, Dublin Review of Books |  Read more:
Image: Joyce Ravid / Scribner via: