Everybody wants to own the end of the world. So says Ross Lockhart, giant of global finance and father of Jeffrey, the narrator of Don DeLillo’s 16th novel, “Zero K.” I don’t know what that means, but it hangs like a sort of ecstatic death sentence over the book, in which saying something and “owning” it are generally related, usually conflated and often the key to experience itself.
The end, for Ross Lockhart, is at once an imperative and a choice. On the declining side of middle age, he has put his considerable resources to work for a project called the Convergence, in which those who can afford it are cryogenically suspended in anticipation of a superior future.
In Ross’ case, at least at first, Convergence is the answer to the terminal condition of his second wife, Artis, Jeffrey’s stepmother. Artis is a young archaeologist who, for the purposes of the book, becomes something of a living mummy, stripped to her regal essence among the ranks of the frozen hopefuls.
The facility where the Convergence takes place is a subterranean wonder sunk into a trackless desert in Central Asia. There, the dissonance of what Jeffrey deems “science awash in irrepressible fantasy” is made manifest in the wall art he encounters in the (also trackless) hallways. In murals that spontaneously appear, scenes of earthly devastation unfold, natural and man-made disasters in intimate detail and on a grand scale, most notably war, in which a “warped nostalgia … a soldier with a cigarette in his mouth, a soldier asleep in his bunker, a bearded soldier with a bandaged head” give way to an actual horror touching Jeffrey’s life.
As in most of DeLillo’s work, naming is critical to engaging reality. When Jeffrey reflects on his early life — drawing a clear contrast between his father’s first and final departures, and between the death of Jeffrey’s mother and Artis — names are everything. They confer meaning. And when he discovers that his father’s name is not in fact Ross Lockhart but Nicholas Satterswaite, he calls it “the decoding of my baffled adolescence. I was someone I was not supposed to be.” This dovetails nicely with the pronouncement of the attenuated Artis just before the Convergence, who feels “artificially myself. I’m someone who’s supposed to be me.”
Artis, an interesting and lovely creation, is in some ways Jeffrey’s philosophical opposite. “I knew the word,” she says. “The other names. This was all I needed to know.”
This, for the most part, is how people talk in DeLillo’s novels, where plots, and characters’ quandaries, are largely philosophical — and what’s being worked out is precisely that distinction between the world of thinking and that of “ordinary people sitting at home.” “A force that changes history,” Artis says.
To reconcile the two — the fear of death that informs so many egregious acts, for instance, and the little everyday moments that make up so much of life — is the problem DeLillo takes up again and again, and the impossibility of it is what makes his work so powerful, so comical, so frustrating and so fine.
Ellen Akins is a writer in Wisconsin and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.
By: Don DeLillo.
Publisher: Scribner, 274 pages, $27.