There are times when you find yourself confronted—as a reader, a viewer, a watcher, a listener—with a work so formally unquestionable, resplendently insightful and somehow, on some level, just invariably right that you feel at a loss, nearly, for not necessarily words, but for whatever sort of cognitive adhesive it is that allows you to gather your thoughts and link them together coherently, leaving you with no option for subsequent act but to remain immobile for a time, silently contemplative. This is a wonderful thing to experience, an elusive feeling to have and hold, a rare and extraordinary state of mind to navigate. One rather sure way for you to sense just such a loss, however, and to feel thusly moved is to read Don DeLillo’s new novel, Zero K, an engrossing work of narrative art that will have you reading, viewing, watching and listening all at once, and that serves well to further the notion that the only thing this formidable writer is incapable of producing is even one unnecessary or extraneous syllable.
That might sound like so much hyperbole, but in fact it might even be understatement. How else to assess the greatness of the newest book by a writer who has already had so many books hailed, upon issue, as his ‘latest masterpiece,’ especially when this latest work in particular seems to so brilliantly mine, resituate and, quite literally, reawaken so many of his previous works’ most captivating themes and modes of narrative intrigue? Here you will find, for instance, a certain sense of the epic expansiveness of Underworld; the familiarly distracting, lusty, hyperactive, realistically unreal New York City of Players, Cosmopolis, Falling Man, and several of the stories in The Angel Esmeralda; the broad-scoped geographies and far-flung solitudes of The Names, Point Omega, and the play Valparaiso; the mathematical underpinnings and numerical cogitations of Ratner’s Star; the clinical bizarreness of the play The Day Room; the passively prophetic narrative arc of a grand catastrophic event foretold, as in White Noise; the crucial role played by multifariously mediated artworks found in so many of this author’s books; the now spare, now effusive, now internally self-aware dialogical meters found in basically all of them. Here, too, in Zero K, is a story of disjointed families seeking unity and intimacy despite abundant odds. Here, too, a story of exorbitant wealth so outsize as to exit and fold back upon itself, swallowing itself up in an experimental, post-ethical dice-roll with physical and metaphysical eternity. Here, too, coldest indifference and deepest love. Here, too, war absolute.
Here, too, and critically so: language activated and hewn down with such relentless refinement as to be both reduced and elevated to its most profoundly expressive, most minimally consummate core. DeLillo’s prose is generally known to be pointedly poetic and imaginatively humongous. In Zero K, though, the author’s words dig so deeply, and refer back to themselves so consistently—etymologically, philosophically, syllabically—as to be lifted right off the page, sublimely alive. Indeed, if you’ve ever wondered if written language itself could undergo a kind of sublimation from constituent graphemes and locutions, say, into some other apparently state-skipping form—like solid matter turning directly into gas, for example, or more relevantly here, like bodies frozen in cryogenic preservation so as to one day, with some flick of a switch, quicken right back up—then, well, here you go. This treatment of language is most keenly conveyed via the musings of the story’s meta-pensive narrator, Jeffrey Lockhart—son of Ross and Madeline, stepson of Artis, boyfriend or “lover” of Emma, friend of no one in particular, namer of others, “heir apparent” of sorts to a mega-fortune of sorts that he sort of doesn’t want. Jeffrey ponders into and around the things he says or thinks even as he is saying or thinking them, repeating words and names to build them up or break them down until they become acceptable structures of reference or containment for the objects, events, people, places, ideas and other matters at hand. Here he is making mental remarks during one of many tepid encounters with his father:
“We talked and ordered and I kept looking into his face, thinking of a certain word. I think of words that lead me into dense realities, clarifying a situation or circumstance, at least in theory. Here was Ross, eyes tired and shoulders hunched, right hand trembling slightly, and the word was desuetude. The word had a stylish quality suited to the environment. But what did it mean? A state of inaction, I thought, maybe a lost energy. I was looking at Ross Lockhart, handsomely outfitted minus the relentlessness and craft that had shaped the man.”
Such searches for, reiterations of, and disquisitions on words and utterances are everywhere to be found in Zero K, but they never register as superfluous. The tone they strike is always just right, or something. Or the somethings they describe seem to truly beg such verbal meandering. Or perhaps DeLillo has successfully devised a kind of prose-yielding mechanism involving linguistic algorithms and a tuning fork.
If so, then that clever device would’ve played some sort of role in producing a most curious character, a kind of splendid phantom, Ross Lockhart. Chilling and enigmatic from the book’s opening sentence, Jeffrey’s father is so self-made, self-aware, self-actualized and self-absorbed that he becomes ultimately almost autophagic, his multiple-nation-GDP-like riches amassed via private wealth management having permitted him to indulge in a post-career pursuit of providing cryogenically prolonged life for a presumably elite echelon of people who can afford it—a sublimated form of private wealth management, in a sense, for some sort of imponderable forever. Financial matters and expletive-worthy wealth in Zero K, though, are but narrative fodder, binder, means. This book might well foretell a future in which ‘frozen assets’ means something quite different—and in which philanthropy has completed its perhaps natural circuit by ridding itself entirely of altruism, the better to become self-reflexively ouroboric—but it is not about the economy. The word itself doesn’t even appear once, as such—although it does turn up one time in the plural, and once adjectivally. No, Zero K is about something far larger than the economy. It is about controlling and administering not merely wealth, but literally life and death under the aegis of a mysterious, immaculately conceived, dreadfully serene, haunting and certainly haunted edifice set so far away from anywhere that it becomes the definition of nowhere. It is about a world being rendered asunder, and about whether that is an escapable thing. It is also about the philosophy of all of this, and about not necessarily the end of humanity, but rather the ever-questionable endgame of humaneness. This is not to say that Zero K is without notes of humor. In their proper context, the Stenmark twins, a dish called “morning plov,” the expression “bilateral mandate,” and the adjective “Staklike” are almost uproarious. Such comic relief is of course a fine distraction from the otherwise ever-audible, ominous knells resounding throughout this story of ‘convergent’ notions of that which could be a heaven, or could be a hell.
It could even be both, or some place in between. It could also, of course, be all three. And it is as such that Zero K seems to not only present itself as an exceptional admixture of certain elements deftly derived from DeLillo’s broader corpus, but to also place itself quite firmly in the tradition of another author’s most particular, and particularly storied narrative sphere—a truly epic, veritably timeless one that dates back over seven hundred years—that of Dante’s Divine Comedy. In fact, the parallels here are very many, and very striking. Both books, for instance, are full of science and philosophy, ethics and theology, yet passively so as the means through which to depict and critique a world. Both deploy ‘new’ languages both figuratively and literally, and conceptually as potential for narrative rebirth. Both feature arcs from subterranean darknesses to celestial lights. Both constantly operate on multiple levels of first-person narrative auctoritas. The narrators of these texts are around the same age, both in search of a kind of “diritta via.” They’re both shunned and forsaken by kindred loved ones and external forces. Jeffrey is ‘guided’ through stages of life and afterlife-like realms by plausible stand-ins for Virgil and Beatrice, Dante’s primary guides. Both books feature otherworldly ‘shades’ of sorts who confound, warn and inform. Zero K even features a couple viable counterparts to one of Dante’s most strangely contrived characters: the babbling, variably disfigured femmina balba. What’s more, there is also a certain reference to bread in Zero K that seems sliced right from the meaning-enriched “pane altrui” passage in Dante. There are other parallels as well, even some pertaining to chilled lairs and Dantean contrapassi, but these will have to suffice for the moment.
For at the moment, this reviewer will conclude this assessment of Don DeLillo’s superb new novel with a not-quite-silently, rather quietly contemplative note: Should this account of Zero K not evidence cohesion in its extent and flow, it is due to the unshakeable hold, mystifying harmony and engulfing aura of the book’s ultimate tableau. And now this reviewer will go out in search of a big loaf of unsalted bread.
* * *
Zero K will be available on May 3rd. Cover art and author photograph courtesy Scribner.