Don DeLillo is one of the most acclaimed contemporary American writers, one of the so-called “Bloom Four” (named after the literary critic Harold Bloom; the others are Philip Roth, Thomas Pynchon, and Cormac McCarthy, all perennial Nobel candidates). But, of this exclusive group, DeLillo’s work is probably the most uneven. He rose to prominence with the publication of four novels–White Noise, Libra, Mao II, Underworld–and his early and later output has veered from quirky cult classic to “what the hell was he thinking?”
Zero K, his latest novel, is similar to his recent works, such as Cosmopolis and Point Omega, but better (and I say that as one of his few fans who loves Point Omega). It is not so much a plot or character driven book as it is an idea-driven one. Death permeates every page, as do theories about it. Abstract talk about violence and meaning also frequently come up, though never so concretely that DeLillo lays out his own thoughts with clarity.
The book opens with Jeffrey Lockhart narrating as he arrives at a strange facility near Kyrgyzstan to see his stepmother die, or, rather, see her final moments before she is cryogenically frozen so she can awake in a future where she might live longer. Jeffrey’s father, a billionaire businessman who walked out of his wife and son some years ago, plans to join her. The strange futuristic area they’re in creates some unease in our narrator. Its sleek interior is simply too sleek. Displays appear showing news clips of violence, usually silently, though out the halls so that violence and death are always with Jeffrey.
As the novel progresses, we return to America to see more of the narrator’s everyday life. Those hoping for a thrilling plot or even well developed or intriguing characters should look elsewhere, but what would be a death sentence to other writers DeLillo pulls off. The book knows it’s a meditation on death and language’s limitations and doesn’t try to be anything else. Gluing this together is DeLillo’s prose, which is, as always, incredible.
As for flaws, it’s not so much the novel is flawless as it just features flaws that are always present in the author’s books. The dialogue is still stilted as characters talk in the same poetic, abstract manner DeLillo writes in. There is a lack of satisfying resolution. Not much happens. Themes are repeated over and over again. But fans have surely come to expect all this.
This is a novel to be thought about. Once I finished it and started examining the plot, structure, thematic devices, and it became a bit clearer what DeLillo was after (or, at least an interpretation of what he is after), the book went up from three or four stats to a low five out of five.
I would not recommend anyone start DeLillo here, but this is definitely one of his better books. Those who liked White Noise or Underworld but were turned off by a few others works are advised to give him another try with this one. It’s not a masterpiece like those two books, but it’s far from being a mess like some of his others.