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.”
Ross’s son, Jeffrey Lockhart, is the narrator of Zero K, which returns to the well-trod DeLillo territory of unstable families. Ross walked out on Jeff and his mother when the boy was 13. Now 34 and personally and professionally adrift, Jeff is summoned to the compound by Ross, purportedly to say goodbye to Artis. (Jeff has already sat at the deathbed of his mother, Madeline—whose name Ross is either unable to remember or unwilling to say aloud.) Soon, however, it becomes clear that Ross wants Jeff to assume a role in his business ventures. On the eve of Artis’s scheduled encapsulation, Ross announces that he will be “going with her.” Since he’s nowhere near a natural death, he’s headed for a special unit called Zero K, available to subjects willing “to make a certain kind of transition to the next level.”
When Jeff blows up at Ross for wanting to check out early, the exchange brings some much-needed heat to the novel’s otherwise chilly pages. DeLillo’s characters can often sound more like delivery mechanisms for existential inquiry than like real people. And though the two men share a few moments of lighthearted tenderness or humor—at one point Jeff asks his father if the men in the storage pods ever get erections; “ask the guide,” says Ross—they also share an Asperger’s-like quality endemic to many DeLillo characters.
Mostly, Ross is a narcissist. By his logic, he’s not choosing between life and death; he’s embracing the prospect of ending one version of life “to enter another and far more permanent version.” Jeff sees his father as simply brainwashed. Pushed to the edge, the father hits the son. The son retreats, eventually stepping into the room where Artis lies in bed. Soundlessly moving her lips, she says, Come with us. It’s a “last loving joke,” Jeff thinks (he wouldn’t dream of going), but it’s also the echo of “the billionaire’s myth of immortality … Give the futurists their blood money and they will make it possible for you to live forever.”
The arrival of the stranger in an almost indescribably strange land is also familiar DeLillo territory. In the 1976 novel Ratner’s Star, a child math prodigy is brought to a clandestine research lab and tasked with interpreting an apparent signal from outer space. Jeff is dropped into a futuristic rabbit hole that alternately seduces and repulses him. In this world, dining takes place in “food units,” and wraithlike, pseudonymous figures (some human, some mannequin, and some seemingly in between) act as docents and escorts. Endless rows of doors (some openable and some not) serve as both metaphorical and literal representations of the journey into the next life. Screens drop down from the ceiling at seemingly random intervals and display video images of mass destruction: villages swallowed by mudslides, self-immolating monks, chemical clouds hanging over treetops, tsunamis, and the ravages of bloody wars.
If this were a setting from DeLillo’s earlier period, say, before 1997’s epic Underworld—back when readers could count on more levity or at least wryness amid the destruction—Jeff might seem less wraithlike himself. But in later DeLillo, just about everything is deadly serious, and Jeff is not so much his own man as a case study in contemporary alienation. His professional life is a string of jobs with titles like “cross-stream pricing consultant” and “implementation analyst.” His personal life is also vague, with one girlfriend whose name he isn’t sure how to spell and another to whom he reveals practically nothing of his history. Despite the occasional sexual urge, he’s a low-wattage presence. Jeff travels through the world like a slowly moving dot on an interactive map.
Adjectives like cold and numb are frequently applied to DeLillo’s work, even—perhaps especially—by those who consider him a genius. Zero K, a novel that is literally about coldness, is duly benumbed and also duly brilliant in its imaginative scope (which, rather miraculously, the author manages to contain to fewer than 300 pages). But nearly half a century into DeLillo’s career, his signature brand of phlegmatic paranoia—his obsession with the lulling effects of corporate branding, the real and metaphorical toxic clouds that hang over every scene—is turning the writing itself into a brand.
In DeLillo-speak, what passes for everyday conversation sounds like the voice-over for a high-art disaster film. Back in New York, in a taxi with his girlfriend, Jeff talks nonchalantly about “minor matters that define us,” his words competing with traffic sounds and news reports from a television screen that can’t be turned off.
“Those blanked-out eternities at the airport. Getting there, waiting there, standing shoeless in long lines. Think about it. We take off our shoes and remove our metal objects and then enter a stall and raise our arms and get body-scanned and sprayed with radiation and reduced to nakedness on a screen somewhere and then how totally helpless we are all over again as we wait on the tarmac, belted in, our plane eighteenth in line, and it’s all ordinary, it’s routine, we make ourselves forget it. That’s the thing.”
She said, “What thing?”
“What thing. Everything. It’s the things we forget about that tell us who we are.”
This is classic DeLillo. As such, it will cue the usual stream of breathless marveling about the degree to which the author “gets” the estranging effects of postmodern (or is it now post-postmodern?) culture. But invoking dehumanizing air-travel rituals isn’t quite the novelty it once was, and in any case, when a voice this idiosyncratic becomes as recognizable as DeLillo’s now is, the classic can start to feel like a tic. Think of Werner Herzog, a man whose blunt, German-accented syntax has become a beloved cultural meme, the mode that can make a children’s story sound like it’s about the end of the world. A similar fate may well await DeLillo’s stylistic trappings, if it hasn’t already arrived. In 2014, The Atlantic’s Megan Garber wrote a satire titled “The Author of White Noise Reviews Taylor Swift’s White Noise.” Canada’s iTunes, you may recall, had mistakenly released eight seconds of static as a track from Swift’s 1989 album, and the parody began with an actual line from DeLillo—“It is possible to be homesick for a place even when you are there”—and went on:
… White noise. Black hole. The gravitational pull of nothingness. The silence’s soft ecosystem, nourished by Apples and Cokes and plotted upon plastic products whose names begin with i.
You get the idea (although, rather deliciously, some readers did not). DeLillo’s language and preoccupations have been officially trademarked in the popular consciousness. We’ve grown accustomed to the guy’s voice despite not always following what he’s saying. We have deemed him worthy of affectionate ribbing even if he no longer delivers much in the way of humor himself. That DeLillo would undoubtedly recoil at the idea of being a trademark only adds to the meta-ness of his whole persona. It highlights, as Richard Powers put it in his introduction to the 25th-anniversary edition of White Noise, the “naked earnestness hiding inside a style” that is DeLillo’s mien.
So what are we to make of the naked brutality of Zero K? The severed heads, the broken bodies, the grisly images on the screens? If some 30 years ago DeLillo suggested, in White Noise, that the primal human terror is the fear of death, Zero K appears to be a novel about the fear of life. On its face, the Convergence’s mission may be convincing people that other and far more permanent versions of life are preferable to this life, and certainly to death. But what it’s really selling is the idea that the world as we know it is slowly coming to an end. The big prize is the realization that in dying (even, God forbid, the old-fashioned, nonfrozen way), we’re not really going to miss much. On the contrary, given what lies in store, we’re going to want to miss most of it.
When it comes to death, fear of the unknown is only part of the equation. There’s also the fear of missing out on what is already known, the grief of saying goodbye, the terrible thought of having your membership in the human race expire while loved ones continue without you. But in DeLillo’s world, such membership is rapidly losing its advantages. Does this have something to do with the fact that the author is approaching 80? Is Zero K perversely intended as a self-soothing device as well as a work of apocalyptic science fiction? Is the apocalypse itself—the promise of it, the relief of it—the thing that soothes? Is death more palatable if the whole world dies with you?
These are the kinds of unanswerable questions that DeLillo’s characters love to ask—and that would drive any real person mad. I confess that Zero K drove me a bit mad. Yet in relentlessly raising such questions, DeLillo homes in on what may be the ultimate—and deceptively simple—lesson of his novel, which is that in the end, the questions we ask about where death takes us are the same ones we ask about where life takes us. Maybe, after all these decades and all these novels, it was Jack Gladney who put them most concisely: Who decides these things? What is out there? Who are you?