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By Don DeLillo
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer
Since Don DeLillo's one of my favorite authors, I decided I'd do something a little different this month and take on a two-week DeLillo mini-retrospective. Keeping to the retrospective theme, this review will be a little bit longer than I usually do for my non-series reviews.
My main grievance with Don DeLillo at this point is his past several novels have seemed like victory laps after the massive Underworld. His only real break from his own tropes since has been 2003's polarizing Cosmopolis, which might not be one of his best books but is entirely too weird to hate. So when I first heard this was coming out, which must've been last October, I had a weird feeling it would be another slow, ruminative DeLillo novel about death, disaster and the nature of art. Sure enough, it's another slow, ruminative DeLillo novel about death, disaster, and the nature of art. Like Point Omega, like Falling Man, like the Body Artist, really like anything he's done since Mao II. That I still eagerly snatched it up and allowed myself a good, slow reading of it speaks to how much I appreciate what this guy does. He's still a genius on the prose level, still great at turning his intellectualism into story, but it still feels like his career's been stalled for twenty years.
Which is a bit of a shame, because Zero K's premise offered him room to work outside of his usual tropes. It tells the story of a father-son pair with a strained relationship. The father, Ross Lockhart, is a billionaire with a young but terminally ill wife, Artis. He has invested his money in a compound on the border of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan that cryogenically freezes patients until an unspecified future, where they are thawed out, cured of their illnesses, and allowed to live in the future. Naturally, this allows DeLillo ample time to riff on mortality, putting much of his half-funny, half-profound speculations in the mouths of two twins. His son and our narrator, Jeffrey, has his doubts about this compound and a complex relationship with both Ross and Artis; however, he joins both of them there. He has many of the tics I've come to expect from and yet still adore in DeLillo novels; here it's an obsession with giving strangers names he deems "right" and a fascination with the definition of words. So it's inevitable people will talk about this as DeLillo's "death novel," but let's be real - this guy's been mordant from the very beginning.
More importantly, it's the closest to sci-fi he's put out since another divisive novel, 1976's Ratner's Star. Sci-fi DeLillo it's not - while its concept might remind you of Philip K. Dick's excellent Ubik, he spends more time on the philosophy of the cryogenic technology and Jeffrey's internal conflict than the technology's implications. I bring up Ratner's Star because Zero K is in some ways it's that book's spiritual successor. Not only is Ratner's Star set in a scientific compound, and not only does it feature a whole host of eccentrics (although the eccentrics in Ratner's Star are infinitely weirder; one of the scientists spends most of his time in a hole and another likes to show people his nipples), but a teen genius factors into both novels. Granted, the genius in question is the protagonist in Ratner's Star and only a side character here (albeit a fascinating one, one who shares Jeffrey's propensity for inventing whole histories for strangers), but I don't know if DeLillo's ever released two novels so similar. Maybe Players and Falling Man, both of them based on the allure terrorism presents to so-called ordinary people, but even that's a tough call.
Now, let me be clear about something: Ratner's Star is a mess, where Zero K is a tightly plotted novel with nothing out of place, a carefully controlled and chilly but still affecting experience. By any objective standard, Zero K is a much better novel. Yet I have to admit, I miss the shagginess of the early DeLillo. I miss back when I would have no idea if the next page held a chase sequence, a three-page description of a cult that spread their underwear across the nation, or a booklet of rock lyrics. Other than a brilliant segment from Artis' perspective that bisects (trisects?) the novel, one that other reviewers have aptly compared to Beckett, I didn't get anywhere near that feeling of surprise off this novel. So it's skillfully written and all the rest, but I guess I just feel like DeLillo's settled a little more than I wanted him to.
That wraps up week one of the retrospective. Join me next week for a glimpse of the earlier DeLillo, before he'd settled in.
Out of 10: 7.8