This essay originally aired on August 11, 2016.
Here is the guiding question to Don DeLillo’s newest book, Zero K: “We were born without choosing to be. Should we have to die in the same manner?” This futuristic novel is not so much a whirlwind as it is a gradual, reflective sweep of humanity and mortality through metaphysics, bioethics, language and technology.
Ross Lockhart is a man shaped by a moneyed background in global finance. He is also the patron of a subterranean cryopreservation facility called Convergence located in a nameless place near Kyrgyzstan. He invites his son Jeffrey, our thirty-something skeptical narrator, as they both prepare to say goodbye to Ross’s second wife Artis. She suffers from multiple illnesses, the worst being Multiple Sclerosis. Her body will be preserved through cryonic suspension, where the body is frozen and stored in a pod within a mausoleum of sorts. In a more enlightened future, she will be brought back in cyberhuman form with a more sophisticated body and mind. People in this time are not grappling with the regular questions of life and death. Instead, they embrace a future “awakening,” a more permanent version of life.
Supported by networks of companies, trusts, and foundations, Convergence’s subterranean anonymity extends far beyond location. Convergence’s aesthetics are otherworldly. The central feature are the walls on which numbing films showcase the world’s ills: self-immolating monks, wildfires sweeping grasslands, towns swallowed by smoke or floods, war, the earth falling into a wasteland. It indicates that any other world, imagined or otherwise, must be better than this one.
Convergence offers its services to the very few and the very rich. In the past, it was Pharaohs, emperors and kings who could elude extinction or irrelevance. Now, the company targets the billionaire’s myth of immortality, forgoing the idea that it is only in death that we are all equal.
Shocked by what he sees, Jeffrey views Convergence and as a New-Age cult calling for the abandonment of earthly rational thinking. Jeffrey especially gets angry when he hears that Ross wants to give up his body to join Artis via Zero K, a special sub facility where perfectly healthy individuals can enter cryopreservation in order to live forever.
The book’s exposition is disorienting, perhaps intentionally. It winds through abstract locations and conversations. The book misses delving into what could be the interesting relationship between Jeffrey and his estranged father but grounds the lack of human relationship with a look into Jeffrey’s life in New York. There the lust for life is more apparent than in the facility.
However, the book still deals with the inanity of human life, of how we lose ourselves to routine, of how we rehearse the scripts of what to say and when, the human noises we sit around making. In the end, this book raises philosophical and ethical questions for the reader to ponder. In the end, this book raises philosophical and ethical questions about a possible dystopian future where life and death are merely options.
“Zero K” is written by Don DeLillo. It’s published by Simon and Schuster and was released in May.
Reviewer Ruth Canagarajah is a policy analyst from State College.