Surpassed by history, will the novelist put down his pen?
FOR a writer who has made a career out of understanding the increasing pace of contemporary life, DeLillo has remained steady, putting out a new novel every few years since his hyper-productive 1970s. The six years he took to write Zero K, his most recent novel, is the longest he’s taken since his 1997 masterpiece Underworld, which weighed in at 800-plus pages. It’s hard to write about the cutting edge of geopolitics, art, and ideology at that kind of interval. Zero K ends with the protagonist enraptured by the beauty of Manhattanhenge, a biannual phenomenon when the setting sun aligns with the New York City grid. At some point in the past 50 years, this might have been in a cool factoid for those not in the know and a nice moment of recognition for New Yorkers. But in the age of social media, it feels like an aunt posting a viral BoredPanda video on Facebook two years too late.
To be fair, DeLillo saw this coming. In Mao II his protagonist — a reclusive novelist — gives voice to fear that the medium is going out of fashion:
The novel used to feed our search for meaning…. But our desperation has led us toward something larger and darker. So we turn to the news, which provides an unremitting mood of catastrophe. This is where we find emotional experience not available elsewhere. We don’t need the novel…. We don’t even need catastrophes, necessarily. We only need the reports and predictions and warnings.
And later in the novel:
For some time now I’ve had the feeling that novelists and terrorists are playing a zero-sum game…. What terrorists gain novelists lose…. The danger they represent equals our own failure to be dangerous…. Beckett is the last writer to shape the way we think and see. After him, the major work involves midair explosions and crumbled buildings.
It’s one thing for the composer Karlheinz Stockhausen to call 9/11 a work of art — he apologized — but it’s another for DeLillo to have repeatedly theorized it as a work of art in advance.
As I read through DeLillo’s novels in college, I began to hold him personally responsible for the terrorist attacks of 9/11. (Not solely responsible of course — there’s plenty to go around.) His fixation on terrorism, finance, and the Twin Towers themselves in novels like Mao II, Players, and Underworld, which includes a hazy picture of the twin towers on the cover and a character who contemplates crowds fleeing from towers and terror in the sky, made 9/11 seem inevitable in retrospect. Any prophecy that comes true has to be at least a little self-fulfilling. There is no way to read DeLillo’s novels and not understand that — at least on a subconscious level — he saw it coming. I’m not sure how I could ever recover from something like that, but I’m not Don DeLillo. DeLillo’s 9/11 novel Falling Man — published in 2007 — is not among his better 9/11 novels.
I don’t know if there’s any causation in the correlation, but since 2001, DeLillo’s novels have been formulaic. There are tight patterns across his books since the ‘70s not because he deals in existential human qualities but because he’s been focused on the same process of global transformation the whole time. He spotted early that the flows connecting the world — of information, resources, attention, people, ideas — were increasing. His protagonists tend to be secular mystics who sense monitor those flows: an advertiser, a rock star, a financier, a military strategist, etc. They feel the shifts in the world as it moves, and as projections of the author’s awareness they’ve all seemed prescient. But DeLillo’s four most recent novels are different. The narrative drama that separated the author from his characters — who mostly speak and think on the same deep wavelength, including the children — has evaporated.
Zero K is typical of his late work. Our main character Jeffrey Lockhart is a young 21st century flow-monitor of indeterminate type. He is the once-rejected now-heir — echoes of Steve Jobs’s daughter — to an infinitely rich and powerful financier, Ross. (In 2003’s Cosmopolis these two types were combined into a single young and infinitely rich and powerful financier character.) Ross has been investing in a secret futurist compound in Central Asia, where his dying wife Artis is planning to freeze her body for future experimentation and, if all goes as planned, resurrection by nanobot. Ross is conflicted, caught between living without Artis or jumping into an imagined future with her. Jeffrey doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing.
There’s not a lot of story in Zero K; it’s more of an evocation, a tone poem. As a meditation on why a thoughtful person might want to freeze his or her body in a mountain compound in a country they can’t name, the book is surprisingly good. The idea doesn’t end up sounding reasonable — like Jeffrey, we’re never convinced — but DeLillo puts the urge in historical context. Like the pyramids, someday the long-defrosted fossils will be found, and they will give testament to the fantasies of our own Ozymandias. Or maybe, just maybe, science (infused with lots of money) can construct a walkable bridge to the future. Artis and Ross Lockhart are, strictly speaking, leaving their bodies to science, but his investment also means they’re leaving science to their bodies.
Not much else in the novel is very meaningful except as a mashup of recent DeLillo tropes. There’s the isolated desert of End Zone retread Point Omega, the traffic-locked car of Cosmopolis. There’s the required discourse on a work of real-world contemporary art: In Point Omega it was Douglas Gordon’s stretched video installation 24 Hour Psycho; in Cosmopolis, Spencer Tunick’s piles of naked bodies; in Falling Man, the controversial mock-jumps of Kerry Skarbakka. This time it’s Michael Heizer’s Levitated Mass — a giant rock. These descriptions are interesting, but I find myself wondering first why DeLillo doesn’t just write art reviews, and second how he keeps slipping these ones by his editor.
Besides Ross and Artis, Jeffrey has a relationship with Emma, mostly notable for her 14-year-old son Stak, who she and her maybe-still husband adopted as a toddler in the Ukraine. Stak plays a significant role in the story not because his relationship to Jeffrey is intimate or special but because Stak is the more interesting character. DeLillo’s fixation on precocious kids seems a little goofy when you think about Jerry McGuire, and any fan of the author would be more surprised if Stak didn’t speak Pashto. Stak is another flow-monitor, betting on an online terrorist futures market — an idea once proposed in real life in the early 2000s by former National Security Advisor John Poindexter.
Zero K is listless, as is Jeffrey Lockhart. He seems barely able to summon the energy for his late-onset identity crisis, and I found it hard to believe that by young adulthood, such a smart man had never considered the possibility that “Ross Lockhart” wasn’t his rich jerk of a dad’s given name. When he turns down the keys to his father’s kingdom, Jeffrey has mentally reduced the stakes of the decision so low that the reader doesn’t care either. There’s a good short story here about a certain delusion of grandeur, and DeLillo’s dialogue remains compelling, if increasingly univocal. The problem with this novel of ideas isn’t the ideas; it’s the novel.
I don’t expect DeLillo is going to join a think tank anytime soon, any more than he’s going to join a Ukrainian nationalist militia like Stak ends up doing in Zero K. He’s only interested in people who actively shape the world with their faith, ideas, and understanding, but over the course of his career that has ceased to be part of DeLillo’s job description. And he was one of the first people to realize it.
“When the novelist loses his talent, he dies democratically,” DeLillo writes in Mao II, “there it is for everyone to see, wide open to the world, the shitpile of hopeless prose.” I don’t think DeLillo has lost his talent, and I don’t expect he ever will. Scholars will be unraveling the man’s influence on the American novel for generations. But his window, his historical moment, seems to have closed.
When Artis “wakes up” in her frozen state, she’s trapped in a hell dimension of pure self-consciousness. “I think I am someone. But I am only saying words,” she thinks. “The words never go away…. It is only when I say something that I know that I am here.” It’s a torturous caution against immortality, which is probably a topic on the minds of most great novelists turning 80.
Read in contrast, the closing lines of Zero K sound like they could be a retirement announcement. Jeffrey watches a boy watch the epic sunset:
The full solar disk, bleeding into the streets, lighting up the towers to either side of us, and I told myself that the boy was not seeing the sky collapse upon us but was finding the purest astonishment in the intimate touch of earth and sun.
I went back to my seat and faced forward. I didn’t need heaven’s light. I had the boy’s cries of wonder.
The sky collapsing, the lit towers bleeding into the streets: It’s a reversal of sorts. The boy cries in wonder, not terror. There is harmony for a moment between the city, the sky, and the child. If that’s what the novelist Don DeLillo chooses to leave us with, then I hope he’s as prescient now as he was 15 years ago.