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The Usual Terror

Kevin Stevens

Zero K, by Don DeLillo, Picador, 288 pp, ISBN: 978-1509822850

“Everybody wants to own the end of the world.” ‑ Ross Lockhart

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. Ten pages in, the first line of the earlier story appeared: “He was a man shaped by money.” Déjà vu. The opening segment of “Sine Cosine Tangent”, I saw, was the first in a series of flashbacks in the new novel. Fragmented and spread across the next hundred pages, the short story took on a different cast, ballast to the novel’s more bizarre narrative, New York-bound early action contrasting the strange, apocalyptic desert landscape of Ross Lockhart’s specious search for transcendence. Had DeLillo written the short story first, layering it into a later narrative? Or had he extracted it segment by segment from the finished novel for magazine publication? The novelist in me wanted to know. But did it matter?

Not really. The story worked, I could vouch for that. But in the context of the novel, its events and sentiments gain additional power. 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. But DeLillo has been examining this trend for over three decades, building emblematic backdrops in his unique style that reflect and examine the atmosphere of media saturation, consumerism, and conspiracy that has come more and more to define the American experience.

In White Noise the backdrop is an “airborne toxic event” that hangs, literally and figuratively, over Jack Gladney (a professor of Hitler studies at the College-on-the-Hill) and his wife, Babette, who is so afraid of dying that she cheats on her husband to gain access to an experimental drug that treats death terror. In The Names, set in Greece, it is the activity of a murderous cult that mirrors and mocks Owen Brademas’s search for a divine order that might counter the emptiness of his role in an ex-pat subculture of “business people in transit” who collude with intelligence agencies to assess the risk of terrorism to multinational corporations. And in Libra, a great American novel that dares to take on the Kennedy assassination, it is the vast apparatus of government, intelligence, organised crime and various postwar subcultures that form a labyrinthine context for Lee Harvey Oswald and his hope that a single act of violence will lift him from insignificant selfhood into the spotlight of history.

In each of these novels, characters search for something more meaningful than the debased identities and violent dislocations of contemporary explanation, more permanent than a data-dominated culture where information and representation have grown further and further away from reality. The search inevitably falls short, yet the books offer not just the consolation of philosophy but the joy of DeLillo’s near faultless craft. We are disturbed by his sharp depiction of a world derailed by the gap between image and object, between signifier and signified, but we are thrilled by the precision of his language and the elegant brick-on-brick construction of his novels. He describes his method this way:

The basic work is built around the sentence. This is what I mean when I call myself a writer. I construct sentences. There’s a rhythm I hear that drives me through a sentence. And the words typed on the white page have a sculptural quality. They form odd correspondences. They match up not just through meaning but through sound and look.

And the sentences in Zero K never flag:

I’d never felt more human than I did when my mother lay in bed, dying. This was not the frailty of a man who is said to be “only human,” subject to a weakness or a vulnerability. This was a wave of sadness and loss that made me understand that I was a man expanded by grief. There were memories, everywhere, unsummoned. There were images, visions, voices and how a woman’s last breath gives expression to her son’s constrained humanity. Here was the neighbor with the cane, motionless, ever so, in the doorway, and here was my mother, an arm’s length away, a touch away, in stillness.

The second half of novel takes place two years after Artis’s death. Back in the US, Jeff continues the struggle to be “more human”. He has a girlfriend, Emma, whose politically precocious son mirrors the gawky traverse of Jeff’s own adolescence. After the sterility of the Convergence, New York street life feels vibrant and expansive: rooftop views at dusk, storms whipping across the river, blue sheets for lovemaking. We are back among ordinary moments, made more poignant by the knowledge of what has been and what is to come. But these moments never coalesce. Jeff and Emma’s relationship fails. Emma’s son is steered by circumstance towards disaster. And the reader knows that the desert landscape and underground chambers of Kazakhstan will reappear. For the novel’s very structure is elegiac.

“When we returned from the Convergence,” Jeff says, “I announced to Ross that we were back in history now.” But his father has no interest in history. He lets his hair grow wild, becomes stooped and slow, wanders silently about his house staring at monochrome works of art. His apathy in the face of the inevitable affects Jeff. “I follow along and stand a while in the doorway, watching the man stare at something that is not in the room…I know that his mind is tunneling back to the dead lands where the bodies are banked and waiting.”

“All plots tend to move deathward,” says Jack Gladney in White Noise. The pull of absolute zero is absolute, and father and son return to Kazakhstan so that Ross can join Artis in suspended animation. Jeff follows him through the mock-ritualistic preparations that culminate in Ross lying naked on a slab, semi-conscious, “hovering at some level of anesthetic calm”. That is their last moment together. Afterwards, Jeff wanders the surreal halls, encountering symbols of terror, suspended himself in an exhaustion of consciousness. “Once the dark is total, I will simply stand and wait, trying hard to think of nothing.”

Ross Lockhart’s intention to own the end of the world, stated in the first line of the novel, has led to hollow despair, and his arranged death is reflected in Jeff’s last thoughts in the bowels of the Convergence, fragmented, disconcerting, haunted. Ross’s wishes have unravelled into mute apocalypse, into a familiar DeLillo vision – what in the novella Point Omega he calls “the usual terror”. More than the fear of death, it is the desire for obliteration, the need to escape the failure of language and the increasingly meaningless downward curve of history. “When you strip away surfaces, when you see into it, what’s left is terror. This is the thing that literature was meant to cure.”

Has literature failed us? So DeLillo seems to suggest, but in Zero K the implication is denied, not just by the joy we receive from the book’s language and construction but by its short, two-page, coda where Jeff, again back in New York, experiences an ambiguous moment on a crosstown bus, when the setting sun is “balanced with uncanny precision between rows of high-rise buildings”, something that happens “once or twice a year”, and the sun’s rays align with the city’s street grid, like light piercing the depths of a neolithic tomb in the dead of winter. A young boy is pointing at the flaring sun and wailing. Jeff asks himself, is the boy seeing the end of the world?

The full solar disk, bleeding into the streets, lighting up the towers on either side of us, and I told myself that the boy was not seeing the sky collapse upon us but was finding the purest astonishment in the intimate touch of earth and sun.

By giving us another novel that prompts our own astonishment, DeLillo has again shown that the difficult work of the novelist to carry the tragic narrative of history is not just possible but, more than ever, necessary.

1/7/2016

Kevin Stevens is a Dublin-based writer on literature, history and jazz. His most recent novel is A Lonely Note (Little Island, 2015).

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