For most of us, the body is simply the body. It is water falling off our shoulders in the shower, a kiss in the dark, a spouse’s hand grasped on deathbed. But for writers, language is the body. Their words are thoughts made visible, like flesh to the spirit.
No American writer of his generation has braided these concerns with the holy care of Don DeLillo.
In the last two decades, as pornography and terrorism used the body as the site of ongoing spectacle, DeLillo evolved a style that tracked this evolution of image and underlying meaning. From “The Body Artist” (2001), his brief tale of a performance artist, to his novel about the attacks of 9/11, “Falling Man” (2007), DeLillo has reflected on a world caught up in looking at itself.
One doesn’t need to be whacked with a selfie stick to know what havoc an image-based culture plays with intimacy. The values of spectacle are impact and ubiquity. Intimacy, however, is born on proximity and given urgency — as DeLillo points out in his powerful new novel “Zero K” — by finiteness.
This idea has slightly escaped billionaire Ross Lockhart, the father of DeLillo’s primary narrator. As the novel opens, Lockhart flies his 34-year old son Jeffrey from Boston to an underground bunker near Kyrgyzstan worthy of a Bond villain. Convergence, the title of the enterprise, seems to erase itself on the mind as it is spoken.
DeLillo has always described spaces with crystalline sharpness. This skill is on full display in “Zero K,” as Jeffrey wanders long halls. “Blank walls, no windows, doors widely spaced, all doors shut.” He has been brought there to join his father and Artis, his much younger, sick stepmother on whose behalf Ross has plunged a fortune into Convergence.
The point of the place is to extend life. Far below the earth, the sick, the infirm, the ambitious prepare to be frozen for a very long period, until their ailments and those of the world have been wrestled into submission.
DeLillo has written several plays in the past two decades, and this influence has refracted back into his novels. His recent work, like “Cosmopolis,” most of which takes place in a billionaire’s limo as it crosses Manhattan, picking up and depositing passengers, unfolds in eerily flattened philosophical dialogue, every sentence a declarative sentence.
As Jeffrey wanders the Convergence campus, he encounters stations, and people who test, challenge, and baffle him. In one scene, he enters an English garden with latinate tags and listens to a man named Ben-Ezra soliloquize about apocalypse and time and what life is.
“You sit alone in a quiet room and you listen carefully,” Ben-Ezra says. “What is it you hear? Not traffic in the street, not the voices on someone’s radio . . . You hear something but what? . . . What is it? The mind, the life itself, your life? Or is it the world, not the material mass, land and sea, but what inhabits the world . . . The world hum. Do you hear it, yourself, ever?”
“Were these people deranged or were they in the forefront of a new consciousness,” Jeffrey wonders at some point, describing the fine edge of disbelief DeLillo has put the reader upon.
DeLillo has always written with deep skepticism of the guru complex that drives parts of American culture — especially business. He has also written beautifully, especially in his 1982 novel, “The Names,” about the ways that language — naming a country, naming a product — are forms of control, folded in to the powerful’s attempts to tell us how to think, how to quantify life.
With so many late post-modernists, these concerns about language and its corruption form a closed loop, out of which it becomes impossible, eventually, to feel the life often smothered by language’s bureaucratese. Technospeak. One sees this happening in the later work of David Foster Wallace. But DeLillo takes care in “Zero K” to pitch Jeffrey’s interlocutors’s comments just to the left of sanity, but close enough to the vibrating sense of dread and awe anyone who has had some variety of religious experience will recognize. Jeffrey is susceptible: Since childhood, he has been taken with naming the things of the world.
These ideas begin to make far more sense once Artis moves from a period of waiting to the day she is “taken down,” as its called, for life on pause. The scene where Jeffrey accompanies his father to witness the procedure might be one of the most moving DeLillo has ever written. “I followed closely,” Jeffrey says, as they make their way to the observation room. “[N]either of us speaking, my hand in contact with his elbow.”
As the novel continues, Jeffrey becomes less its protagonist and more a kind of guide, describing, naming, observing, commenting on the way language is a spiritual prosthesis. “Vitrification, cryopreservation, nanotechnology,” he notes. “Cherish the language . . . Let the language reflect the search for ever more obscure methods, down into sub-atomic levels.”
In the later parts of the novel, DeLillo returns us to New York City, to the recognizable world we all live in — where elevators go up and down, not sideways. Where we must attend job interviews and catch public transport. Where the future isn’t a far point on the horizon, but what to make for dinner with one’s lover.
After their experience at Convergence, Jeffrey is emboldened to live, and all his father can think about is dying. Jeffrey takes up with a woman named Emma who has adopted a child from Ukraine. Meanwhile, his father begins giving away art. Son and father, once briefly united in loss, begin moving in opposite directions again, but with tenderer respect for these differences.
Until now, Don DeLillo’s fiction has satirized our impulse to purify, to be superhuman, to enter higher states, most notably, in his National Book Award winning “White Noise.” “Zero K” may poke fun at life extension, but it gives us the warmest depiction of a DeLillo novel yet at the intimate reason for this perpetual Icarus complex.
Yes, there is greed, and there are ways our culture encourages us to pursue our technocratic existence for eternity — in terrorism, in art, in culture, in finance. Social media. But ultimately, the most powerful reason for this desire for transcendence is love, and as “Zero K” so poignantly reminds, love is one element that does not survive at subfreezing zero kelvin.
By Don DeLillo
Scribner, 274 pp., $27
John Freeman is the editor of Freeman’s, a literary biannual, and author of “How to Read a Novelist.”