The great American writer's latest book presents death as deliverance from modern anxiety
Don DeLillo has always been a writer obsessed by death. His major novels have all grappled with the finite nature of existence, but never has he tackled it so directly as he does in Zero K. The first line of the novel, “Everybody wants to own the end of the world,” keys us in to the main preoccupations – eschatology and apocalypse – that will echo across its rich, slinky pages.
Ross Lockhart is a millionaire financier whose wife is dying from a terminal illness. He’s also an investor in a secret facility in the windswept wastes of Central Asia where failing bodies are euthanised and cryogenically frozen until a time when they can be resurrected back to full health.
Our narrator is Ross’s son, Jeff, an aimless drifter, the opposite of his rapacious capitalist father, visiting the facility to see his dying stepmother for the last time. That’s about it as far as plot is concerned. You do not read DeLillo for plot but for the cool grasp of his sentences and the raw fire of his ideas, and Zero K offers plenty of instances of both.
DeLillo’s last novel, Point Omega, was similarly obsessed by time and death, taking its title from the theories of the Jesuit priest Teilhard de Chardin. DeLillo was educated at Fordham, a Jesuit university in New York, and Zero K is perhaps his most Jesuit-influenced work: an investigation into the nature of existence and consciousness in the face of death.
Yet Zero K, unlike most of DeLillo’s previous novels, isn’t so much about the fear of death as the fear of life. An apocalyptic anxiety runs through its pages and the minds of its characters. Zero K’s setting is the landscape where the Chelyabinsk meteor came close to destroying the earth in 2013. DeLillo seems to be saying that in a world of random chaos and violence, where a rock falling from the sky could wipe out the entire span of human existence, we have lost our fear of death and instead yearn for it as a deliverance from the sinfulness and anxiety of modern life.
Jeff, the narrator, feels increasingly uneasy with the project and rightly sees its sinister logic: “I wondered if I was looking at the controlled future, men and women being subordinated, willingly or not, to some form of centralised control. When does utilitarianism become totalitarianism?”
DeLillo has always been preoccupied with how technology has altered our inner consciousness, but in Zero K he goes one step further, with endless atrocities being screened 24 hours a day on rolling news stations, fears of unknown viruses and pandemics, financial crashes and natural disasters, reducing human beings to walking bundles of eschatological anxiety. St Augustine is quoted: “and never can a man be more disastrously in death than when death itself shall be deathless” and the reader begins to sense a growing suspicion of such ahistoric desires.
Zero K is one of DeLillo’s strangest novels – which is saying a lot. The sentences shimmer like specimens in laboratory jars and the characters flicker like ghosts, but at its core the novel is trying to balance the atrocities and sufferings of life with its small, human pleasures: walking down a street, checking your wallet, starting a conversation with a stranger.
The last page of this book concerned with last things is one of the most striking DeLillo has ever written. Riding on a bus through Manhattan, Jeff sees a blood-red sunset that seems to portend the end of days. But then he notices a small child, also watching the sunset, his face drowned in wonder. The sunset is literally awesome – both terrifying as a sign of the impending apocalypse but, also, at the same time, a marker of God’s grace spilling into the fallen world.
This article first appeared in the June 3 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here