I’ve read all DeLillo’s novels except his first, Americana. I’ve read Underworld three times and would make the claim that it’s the best novel written by a currently living novelist. When he’s inspired his prose is as searing, insightful and exciting as it gets. Unfortunately he’s probably had his golden age – White Noise, Libra, Mao II and Underworld are his four masterpieces, written between 1985 and 1997, and pretty much unrivalled by any other living writer as a brilliant sustained feat of exalted artistry. Quite simply DeLillo has helped me understand the nature of the world we live in. Since Underworld in 1997 he’s, understandably, begun to wane. Most noticeably his prose has suffered a diminishment of its old searing clarity, its inspiration and vitality.
So, Zero K. In terms of theme and profundity this is probably his best book since Underworld; however the inspired prose still isn’t quite there. (He’s nearly eighty years old though and as such this is a phenomenal achievement.)
On page one there’s an example of how good he can be at enabling us to see the depth charges of an everyday modern gesture when he describes the wearing of sunglasses in a room as “bringing the night inside”. I’m not even sure why that observation excites me so much. But it does. It reveals to me that not only has the world changed but gives me an insight into how it’s changed. No one, for example, would wear sunglasses indoors in a DH Lawrence novel! Or there’s this about airports (I hate flying!) – “Those blanked-out eternities at the airport. Getting there, waiting there, standing shoeless in long lines. Think about it. We take off our shoes and remove our metal objects and then enter a stall and raise our arms and get body-scanned and sprayed with radiation and reduced to nakedness on a screen somewhere and then how totally helpless we are all over again as we wait on the tarmac, belted in, our plane eighteenth in line, and it’s all ordinary, it’s routine, we make ourselves forget it.” Unfortunately these eloquent insights into our changing world aren’t anywhere near as frequent as in his best novels. Instead it’s the novel as a whole that seeks to achieve this end. DeLillo always pivots his novels on the outer edge of where the world is headed which is why he is almost unanimously deemed our most prophetic novelist. And Zero K certainly maintains this prophetic stance.
To some extent he returns to one of the themes of White Noise – a husband and wife who can’t bear the thought of surviving each other’s death. He also returns to the central character of Cosmopolis – the global financier. The mission in Zero K is to survive death, the ultimate act of hubris. Because a central theme of this novel is man’s ever growing hubris and the irreversible damage this is causing our cultural, financial and physical environment. This hubris is personified by Ross Lockhart, an example of a new cultural phenomenon, an individual who is richer and arguably more powerful than most entire countries, a master of the universe billionaire who owns islands and huge land masses. The novel is about Convergence, the project funded by Lockhart, intent on preserving life through cryonic freezing. Bodies are stored in pods in the hope that advancing technology will soon allow organs to be refreshed with embryonic stem cells and “nanobots.” Brain receptors will be re-fed the memories acquired over a lifetime.
Lockhart’s son, Jeffrey plays a similar role in relation to his father as Nick Caraway plays in relation to Gatsby – he, ironically, is the past viewing and questioning his father’s idealistic romantic vision of the future. He, like Nick not morally flawless himself, is providing a more grounded, humble moral perspective of what actually is going on here. In some ways this is a 21st century version of Gatsby, a new technological dramatisation of the American dream.
For me, Zero K doesn’t quite reach the heights of DeLillo’s finest achievements but is still an important work by, in my opinion, the greatest living American novelist.