Ever since Underworld, the 1997 book that marked the end of his ambitious middle period, Don DeLillo’s novels have been creepy, inconclusive, and short. Zero K, his 16th novel and a book that has the feel of a parting gesture, is no exception. Its first sentence, “Everybody wants to own the end of the world,” expresses the kind of sentiment that, if you’ve been steeped in DeLillo’s prose long enough, strikes a familiar chord. It might be profound; it might be nonsense. In any case, it has something to do with death.
The line belongs to Ross Lockhart, a billionaire Manhattan-based hedge-fund speculator. Ross is speaking to his unemployed 34-year-old son Jeffrey, who has come to visit him in a nondescript cluster of buildings, known as the Convergence, in a desert somewhere near Kyrgyzstan. Ross has brought his terminally ill second wife, Artis, to the Convergence to have her body entombed in a technologically engineered underworld, where it will be preserved until science has perfected the tools to reanimate her. Ross finds the process so exciting that, briefly, and despite being completely healthy, he elects to undergo it himself. Then, without any explanation, Ross changes his mind and returns to Manhattan. Then he changes his mind again. Father and son go back to the Convergence, and Jeffrey watches as Ross is lowered into Zero K, the special unit at the facility for healthy subjects willing to make a “certain kind of transition to the next level.” Afterward, Jeffrey wanders aimlessly around the halls of the Convergence before returning, just as aimlessly, to the streets of Manhattan.
There is one other relationship in the book besides the one between Ross and Jeffrey. When he returns to Manhattan the first time, Jeffrey begins seeing Emma, a special-education professional who has recently separated from her husband. Briefly, his and Emma’s domestic routine becomes a firewall to keep unruly thoughts at bay. “Gather all the forgettable fragments, fresh towels on the racks, nice new bar of soap, clean sheets on the bed,” Jeffrey tells himself. “This was all I needed to take me day to day and I tried to think of these days and nights as the hushed countermand, ours, to the widespread belief that the future, everybody’s, will be worse than the past.” But the “soporifics of normalcy” ultimately do little to alleviate his sense of foreboding. Emma returns to her husband, and Jeffrey, after his second visit to the Convergence, takes a job as an ethics and compliance officer at a small college. As he sits in his cubicle checking items off a list, the question arises whether we are not already living in the “suspended animation” of Zero K. “The long soft life is what I feel I’m settling into,” Jeffrey reports. “The only question is how deadly it will turn out to be.”
Jeffrey’s exhausted pessimism, vague sense of doom, and chronic ambivalence (his father refers to his “little church of non-commitment”) are the harvest of a childhood spent attempting to “steep” himself in European art and novels—a dynamic that further reinforced for me the parallels between Zero K and another novel published in the last year, Michel Houellebecq’s Submission. A work in the European modernist tradition, Submission is narrated by François, a middle-aged Huysmans scholar who meanders across a slightly futuristic Paris in a haze of dissociation and boredom. François, like Jeffrey, carries on a long-distance relationship with his own emotions: In both novels, the narrator reports the death of a parent as one would normally describe the demise of a toaster oven. Likewise, both men display a remarkable passivity and detachment in their interactions with their sexual partners, even as they seem to sense that the women in question represent possibly their last chance at meaningful human connection.