In a passage in White Noise, Don DeLillo’s ninth novel, which won the 1985 National Book Award for Fiction, a husband and wife fret together about who should die first. It’s a love scene of sorts. The wife, Babette, has gotten hooked on a medication called Dylar, a black-market pill that’s supposed to control the fear of death. The husband and narrator, a liberal-arts professor named Jack Gladney, is similarly obsessed with his own demise. “Who will die first?,” Jack muses. “She says she wants to die first because she would feel unbearably lonely and sad without me, especially if the children were grown and living elsewhere.” He tells Babette that he wants to die first, that without her he would “feel miserably incomplete,” that they are “two views of the same person.” Later, in the privacy of his mind, he recants. “The truth is I don’t want to die first,” Jack admits.
Given a choice between loneliness and death, it would take me a fraction of a second to decide. But I don’t want to be alone either … Let us both live forever, in sickness and health, feebleminded, doddering, toothless, liver spotted, dim-sighted, hallucinating. Who decides these things? What is out there? Who are you?
Ross Lockhart and Artis Martineau, the couple not quite at the center but certainly at the existential heart of DeLillo’s latest novel, Zero K, are experiencing a nonhypothetical version of Jack and Babette’s imagined dilemma. Ross is a billionaire businessman of the art-collecting, island-retreat-owning, private-jet-traveling variety. Artis, his elegant, formidable, and younger second wife, is an archeologist in the end stages of multiple sclerosis. One is dying and the other, who doesn’t want to lead the life he’d be leading without his wife, is not. And whereas Jack had the misfortune (or was it the benefit?) of being told by a computer program that he was likely to die prematurely, Ross, who is in his 60s and in generally good health, is faced with an indefinite number of years alone.
But the man is a doer, a change agent, a global financier of master-of-the-universe proportions (he has appeared on the cover of Newsweek in a pin-striped suit). If not exactly a visionary himself, he’s an enthusiastic bankroller of what is arguably the most complicated and far-reaching vision DeLillo has concocted over the course of his 17 novels, some of which have pursued metaphysical inquiry into the realm of science fiction. Headquartered in a mysterious compound, the “Convergence” is a many-tentacled community/project/scientific and spiritual movement whose mission revolves around preserving life through cryonic freezing. Bodies are stored in capsules, sometimes with brains or entire heads removed for future thawing and reassembly. In the meantime, advancing technology will soon allow organs to be refreshed and colonized with embryonic stem cells and “nanobots.” Brain receptors will be re-fed the stimuli acquired over a lifetime.
In other words, this is more than a fictionalized version of the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, a real-world enterprise with a facility in Scottsdale, Arizona, where 144 bodies are currently stored in liquid nitrogen. The Convergence is nowhere near Arizona or even the hypnotic desert DeLillo conjured in another time/space odyssey, 2010’s Point Omega. Days of travel from any remotely familiar place, its physical habitat is a “subplanet,” a network of areas that cumulatively function as a portal through which a handful of believers—Artis among them—can escape a decaying Earth and “stretch the boundaries of what it means to be human.”