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When High Technology Meets Immortality

Zero K

by Don DeLillo
Scribner, 274 pp., $27.00
Don DeLillo, New York City, 1990s
Dominique Nabokov
Don DeLillo, New York City, 1990s

In Zero K Don DeLillo has found the perfect physical repository for his oracular visions, his end-time reveries, his balladry of dread. The place is called the Convergence. It is a sealed, self-sufficient, subterranean cryogenic facility, funded by wealthy patrons and secret government agencies. Within are chambers in which the bodies of hundreds of wealthy patrons are frozen in gleaming pods. The essential organs are stored within smaller pods. The bodies and organs are to rest in a state of suspended animation until our inevitable, impending apocalypse has run its course. One character calls this “faith-based technology.” It requires several forms of faith: that the pods will remain frozen indefinitely; that future civilizations will be able to reanimate the bodies and grant them immortality; that life in the distant future will be preferable to death.

The Convergence, which is buried underground in the southern Kazakh steppe, has the appearance of an intergalactic spaceship. The facility looks much like the compound in Alex Garland’s film Ex Machina (2015), with which Zero K shares a tonal affinity. Access tubes and airlocks and sliding walls connect long hushed hallways lined with pastel-colored doors. Most of the doors do not open and those that do require the assistance of an encoded wristband, the kind one might wear at an all-inclusive Caribbean resort. The “veer,” a horizontal elevator, travels between various numbered levels, the most distant requiring special clearance. A visitor’s bedroom is not so much a room as it is a “scant roomscape.” Wandering the halls are mute, spectral figures draped in priestly gowns, a young boy “in a motorized wheelchair that resembled a toilet,” and prostitutes from former Soviet states. The Convergence is not merely a laboratory, after all. It is also a conceptual art project, “a model of shape and form, a wilderness vision, all lines and angles and jutted wings, set securely nowhere.”

Within it are various installations. We encounter screens projecting images of catastrophic floods, tornadoes, and war in the Middle East; a catacomb of plastic mannequins; a room in which all four walls are painted with a continuous image of the room and its furniture; an empty white marble room in which a small barefoot girl cowers silently in the corner. These tableaux appear suddenly and often without comment, like images glimpsed while surfing late-night public access television. The Convergence, writes DeLillo, “was a form of visionary art…with broad implications.” The same description applies to Zero K and, for that matter, much of DeLillo’s fiction. His vision is ironic, sere, crackling with static like a horror film. But those broad implications—what are they exactly?

Our escort through the Convergence is a thirty-four-year-old American named Jeffrey Lockhart. He spends his days “in middling drift,” working at jobs with titles like “cross-stream pricing consultant,” “implementation analyst—clustered and nonclustered environments,” “human resource planner—global mobility,” “solutions research manager—simulation models.” He does not appear to have any better sense of what these words mean than we do. Lockhart is an immediately familiar DeLilloan character, a sibling of the television executive–turned–documentary filmmaker David Bell (Americana, 1971), the non-German-speaking Hitler academic Jack Gladney (White Noise, 1985), the freelance technical writer James Axton (The Names, 1982). Lockhart is afraid of other people’s houses and addicted to the “puppet drug of personal technology.” He is obsessed with definitions and the naming of common things: lint, roller, hanger. “The drift,” he says, “was integral to the man I was.”

Jeffrey’s most distinguishing characteristic is his pedigree: his father is Ross Lockhart, a titan of global finance. Ross is a Richard Branson figure, a self-made man; his actual birth name, we learn, was the insufficiently virile “Nicholas Satterswaite.” “Broad-shouldered and agile,” Ross “made an early reputation by analyzing the profit impact of natural disasters.” He wears gym suits and speaks in short, declarative sentences. He is not only one of the Convergence’s major benefactors—he’s also a client.

His wife, Jeffrey’s stepmother, Artis Martineau, is in the terminal throes of several illnesses, and he has brought her to the facility for freezing.* Most of the people entombed within the Convergence are terminally ill, but not all. Those who wish to enter cryonic suspension before their time are ushered to a special unit called Zero K. As Artis approaches her freeze-by date, Ross decides that he will enter Zero K and join her in suspended animation.

“All plots tend to move deathward,” says Jack Gladney in White Noise, but Zero K begins steeped in death and never leaves it. The plot does not advance very far beyond its premise. Jeffrey is disturbed, despite their distant relationship, by his father’s decision to enter suspension prematurely. But Ross is more fearful of death than he lets on and, at the last moment, he has a change of heart. During an interlude, set two years later in New York City, Jeffrey drifts his way into a relationship with Emma Breslow, a counselor at a school for children with learning disabilities. Emma struggles to understand her adopted adolescent son, Stak, whose obsessive fascination with disaster arcana mirrors that of White Noise’s Heinrich Gladney (and, for that matter, DeLillo):

He’s interested in numbers. High, medium, low. Place-names and numbers. Shanghai, he will say. Zero point zero one inches precipitation. Mumbai, he will say. He loves to say Mumbai. Mumbai…. Riyadh, he will say. He is disappointed when Riyadh loses out to another city. An emotional letdown.

Jeffrey takes Stak to an art gallery where the lone object, on display for the last twenty years, is a single rock.

This gallery show recalls the scenes that open and close DeLillo’s previous novel, Point Omega (2010), set at the Museum of Modern Art during an exhibition of Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho. In Gordon’s installation, Alfred Hitchcock’s film is projected at about 1/12th speed, extending its running time to a full day. The sustained contemplation of the black-and-white film in a dark room forces its viewer into a depth of reflection—and boredom—that, DeLillo suggests, is rarely possible in our culture:

The less there was to see, the harder he looked, the more he saw. This was the point. To see what’s here, finally to look and to know you’re looking, to feel time passing, to be alive to what is happening in the smallest registers of motion.

DeLillo has always been skeptical of traditional plot convention but this skepticism has passed through three different phases. His first seven novels, Americana through The Names, are filled with action, but little happens that needs to be taken too seriously, by either the characters or the reader. A representative exchange in The Names:

“What happens next?”

“Why does something have to happen next?”

Among the Himalayas of his middle career—White Noise, Libra (1988), Underworld (1997)—he allowed greater concessions to narrative convention. (Mao II, with its indifferent, fragmented plot, is in this aspect a throwback to the earlier phase.) Matters of great consequence occur, not only within the lives of the characters but in the life of the nation: an environmental disaster, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the perfection of the hydrogen bomb. The depth and richness of the narratives align with the scope of his vision. In the five novels since Underworld, DeLillo has taken a third approach. He has slowed the machinery of plot, applying obsessive, prolonged scrutiny to a single bleak scenario, much in the way that Lauren Hartke, in The Body Artist (2001), spends hours watching a live video feed of a deserted road in a small Finnish city at night. “The dead times,” thinks Hartke, “were best.”

The Body Artist takes place almost entirely within a single house, inhabited by two characters, one of whom may be a ghost; Falling Man (2007) occurs in the three days following September 11, ending where it begins; Cosmopolis (2003) is a single crosstown limousine ride. Point Omega is set over the course of a week “somewhere south of nowhere in the Sonoran Desert or maybe it was the Mojave Desert or another desert altogether”—an American analogue of Zero K’s Central Asian nowhere. The Iraq War strategist Richard Elster has retreated there to be alone with the horizon and the passage of time. Point Omega is named after Teilhard de Chardin’s notion that human thought is rapidly approaching a point of maximum complexity, which will terminate in an exhaustion of consciousness. “Back now to inorganic matter,” says Elster. “This is what we want. We want to be stones in a field.”

Stones in a field. A rock in an art gallery. A bloodless body sealed in a gleaming underground pod. Zero K is DeLillo’s most determined effort yet to deflect attention away from story, or below story, to the questions that lie beneath our lives and the life of our culture as it marches implacably toward its Omega Point. The point of maximum complexity—of sensory overload—has been a subject of DeLillo’s since the beginning. But modern technology has finally caught up to his most paranoid visions. What is the oracle of American fiction to write about after he has lived long enough to witness his prophecies realized? He inches, ever so slightly, into the future. It is only surprising that he hasn’t done so sooner.

Sonoya Mizuno and Alicia Vikander in Alex Garland’s film Ex Machina, 2015
A24
Sonoya Mizuno and Alicia Vikander in Alex Garland’s film Ex Machina, 2015

Zero K’s science fiction premise, one gradually realizes, is something of a red herring. None of the most obvious questions posed by the scenario is answered, let alone addressed. We never learn how the cryogenic process works, who exactly is behind it, or how it came to be developed. Most crucial of all, there is very little discussion of how regeneration might work or when it might be expected to take place—in decades? Millennia? And what exactly will happen then?

Instead, DeLillo pursues more ethereal questions. The Convergence conveniently is staffed by priestly men and women who hold forth on technology, societal collapse, and fear of death. The world, one of them intones, “is being lost to the systems. To the transparent networks that slowly occlude the flow of all those aspects of nature and character that distinguish humans from elevator buttons and doorbells.” DeLillo is hardly the first novelist to explore the depersonalizing effects of personal technology—the “touch-screen storm” that makes one “an involuntary man.” But few novelists have scrutinized more closely the nexus where technology, identity, and mortality meet. This is a sticky web and requires some delicate untangling.

The Convergence is in one aspect a shrine to technology. Its cryogenic pods offer a refuge from mortality. But the compound is also, for its inhabitants, a refuge from technology. There is no Wi-Fi. There is no LTE. There are, however, a surfeit of chambers designed—exactly by whom we don’t know—for quietude and contemplation. Besides the art installations there are empty rooms and walled gardens, landscaped in the English manner, with benches that resemble church pews. Jeffrey encounters in one of these gardens a monkish figure wearing a silver skullcap. The man explains that he likes to sit on the bench and imagine returning to the garden in the distant future after his rebirth, where he will think about how he used to sit on this garden bench, imagining that very moment. “People who spend time here find out eventually who they are,” he tells Jeffrey. “Not through consultation with others but through self-examination, self-revelation.”

There is a closed-loop madness to this image but the monk is on to something. Sustained self-examination is increasingly elusive in our era of maximum technological stimulation—an era DeLillo refers to at one point as the “scatterlife.” But are we so scattered? And if so why? Is it simply the availability of the technology? Its narcotic pull? DeLillo suggests there is more to it than that. “All the voice commands and hyper-connections” do not just provide cheap distraction. They offer a sense of security. In the same way that the prospect of a cryogenic afterlife assuages the fear of death by protecting one’s body tissue from decomposition, immersion in the virtual life of electronic communications makes the body vanish altogether. In the ether of constant technological engagement, we can free ourselves from “the widespread belief that the future, everybody’s, will be worse than the past.”

We can tune out, embrace the comforts of total distraction, and all we lose is our souls. In Zero K there is a running joke in the old DeLilloan style involving ATMs. When Jeffrey examines his withdrawal receipts (“the flimsy slips of toxic paper”), he discovers a series of persistent errors. The numbers don’t add up. Small amounts are missing. The convenience of the touch-screen life has hidden costs. The costs seem minor at first, but they accrue daily. They add up.

Yet the enclosed tomb of the Convergence, with its “stunted monoliths of once-living flesh,” is not a particularly cheering alternative. Cryogenic suspension offers total escape from history, society, culture. “We are pledged to an inwardness, a deep probing focus on who and where we are,” says one priestess. “You are about to become, each of you, a single life in touch only with yourself.” But there is such a thing as too much self-reflection. The most unsettling scene in a novel filled with them is an interlude set within Artis Martineau’s consciousness in the frozen pod. Artis is not alive but not dead either. She has no memory and can receive no sensory stimulus. She is pure, unadulterated self. The interlude takes the form of an inner monologue that alternates between the first and third person:

I only hear what is me. I am made of words.

Does it keep going on like this.

Where am I. What is a place. I know the feeling of somewhere but I don’t know where it is.

What I understand comes from nowhere. I don’t know what I understand until I say it….

Can’t I stop being who I am and become no one.

She is the residue, all that is left of an identity.

I listen to what I hear. I can only hear what is me….

Is this the nightmare of self drawn so tight that she is trapped forever.

Hell is the absence of other people.

As a scientific experiment, the Convergence seems doomed to fail. The ambiguity and even incuriosity about the promised second life of its inhabitants suggests as much. But the facility is successful in other ways. It encourages its visitors to reflect, to ask big questions. It gives hope. “This place was designed by serious people,” says Ross. “The earth is the guiding principle…. Return to the earth, emerge from the earth.” Ross may not realize how right he is. The Convergence not only offers the promise of biological immortality; it offers a kind of artistic immortality. Artis, in one of her final moments of lucidity, acknowledges as much:

This place, all of it, seems transitional to me. Filled with people coming and going…. The only thing that’s not ephemeral is the art. It’s not made for an audience. It’s made simply to be here. It’s here, it’s fixed, it’s part of the foundation, set in stone.

Artis is speaking of the art within the structure: the video installations, the wall paintings, the sculptures. But DeLillo also insists that the Convergence, taken as a whole, is to be considered a work of visionary art, a modern-day pyramid or megalith, a new Wonder of the World. The idea is that, like the fourteenth-century Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi in the nearby city of Turkestan, the compound may grant a kind of immortality to those entombed inside of it.

It is this notion of artistic immortality that DeLillo emphasizes, while largely ignoring the more conventional narrative riddles posed by his sci-fi premise. None of the facility’s deep thinkers seems particularly interested, after all, in discussing the future into which they would be reborn. One comes to wonder whether they even believe, with any sincerity, that they will be reborn. The closest anyone comes to having an actual vision of the future is Artis, who imagines awaking in “a deeper and truer reality. Lines of brilliant light, every material thing in its fullness, a holy object.” But this does not sound like the future. It sounds like heaven. This is the same “brilliant light” that we find throughout historical accounts of the afterlife. We find it in Beowulf (“the brilliant light shone…as bright as Heaven’s own candle”) and the Book of Revelation, where the light of New Jerusalem is as brilliant as “a stone most precious.” As DeLillo puts it, describing Artis’s vision of the future: “This was transcendence, the promise of a lyric intensity outside the measure of normal experience.”

The Convergence, a work of performance art, reconstitutes religious faith for a coldly technological age. What, after all, is the difference between death and indefinite cryogenic suspension? The Convergence’s acolytes are trying, in Saul Bellow’s phrase, to make “sober decent terms” with oblivion. They are relying on ancient coping strategies. The gleaming pods are their sacraments. The long hushed hallways, airlock doors, and scant roomscapes form the architecture of their cathedral.

After two years in New York spent mourning his not-exactly-dead wife, Ross Lockhart reverses himself again. He decides to return to the Convergence and join Artis in suspended animation. Jeffrey reverses himself too. This time he does not object to his father’s decision. He does not try to argue that Ross is too young to die. He accepts that his father has lost all desire to live. Jeffrey accompanies Ross back to the facility, as one might accompany a loved one to a hospice. In their final encounter, Ross undergoes last rites before being sealed within his capsule. He lies naked on a slab, in a semi-conscious state, “hovering at some level of anesthetic calm.” He is at peace. His last words are an indecipherable fragment that might have been taken from a descriptive label at an art museum: “Gesso on linen.”

After he parts with his father, Jeffrey is allowed for the first time to tour the facility’s cryostorage section. He walks on a catwalk among columns filled with hundreds of pods. He learns that his father wanted him to see this crypt. The walls are covered with paintings like cave drawings. Jeffrey admires “the bodies regal in their cryonic bearing.” He is reminded of prehistoric artifacts, of Busby Berkeley dance routines. The chamber has the air of the innermost sanctum of a pharaonic tomb. Beyond it lies a small stone room in which two casings are suspended. One awaits Ross, the other contains Artis. Jeffrey responds with awe: “Her body seemed lit from within…. It was a beautiful sight. It was the human body as a model of creation. I believed this.” This bizarre art project—this tomb buried beneath the Kazhak steppe—has reconciled him to the unthinkable.

Biological immortality may remain elusive but the hard facts of life and death are eternal. “Death,” writes DeLillo, “is a tough habit to break.” But art retains its powers of consolation and transcendence, and its skepticism about both. Like any living thing, it continues to evolve. Of this Zero K is both a reminder and a bracing example.

  1. *

    DeLillo’s nomenclature sends readers grasping for higher meaning. One notices that “art” recurs in the names of the novel’s principal figures, and that Artis shares her unusual surname with the roguish, sinister Scott Martineau, amanuensis to the novelist Bill Gray in Mao II (1991). A Web search reveals that a real-life Scott Martineau is the senior vice president of product strategy at Infusionsoft, an e-mail marketing company in Chandler, Arizona—just the type of position Jeffrey Lockhart might hold. The real Martineau is the coauthor of a book titled Conquer the Chaos