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Don DeLillo: Zero K

Jeffrey Lockhart is thirty-four. His childhood was disrupted, not least because his very successful father, Ross, walked out on his mother. (He later learns that Ross Lockhart is not his father’s real name. He changed his name. His mother gives some complicated reasons for the name change: The indistinctness of it, she said. The forgettability. The variations in spelling and maybe even pronunciation. From an isolated American viewpoint, the name comes from nowhere and goes nowhere. And then, in contrast, the Anglo-Saxon ancestry of the name. The responsibility this implies.) Jeffrey remained very close to his mother till her death but did not have too much contact with his father. His mother was inevitably critical of Ross. He liked to talk to me about money. My mother said, What about sex, that’s what he needs to know. Indeed, he saw him on TV and on the cover of Newsweek, a successful entrepreneur (private wealth management, dynasty trusts, emerging markets) and inventor. Perhaps, because of this, Jeffrey has been something of a drifter since then, drifting not only from job to job but from relationship to relationship with various girlfriends. Ross had remarried. His wife, Artis, was an archaeologist. She was now dying.

At the beginning of the novel Jeffrey is taken by a complex route (he and we only discover both the route and destination later in the novel) to a remote facility, where Ross and Artis are. The facility appears to be in Kazakhstan, though the nearest town of any size is Bishkek, the capital of neighbouring Kyrgyzstan. With a very DeLilloesque statement (which opens the book), Ross tells Jeffrey Everybody wants to own the end of the world. Jeffrey is taken to a facility called the Convergence. It has no windows and you are not allowed outside. Strange sculptures which look almost human are found here and there. All rooms have closed doors and you have a special device which only allows you access to the rooms to which you are authorised to enter. (Jeffrey later goes around knocking on the various doors. When someone eventually answers, he tells the man that he has the wrong door. They’re all the wrong door, the man tells him.)

What goes on in the Convergence is not immediately clear, except for one thing. People are brought here to die and be cryogenically preserved. However, to properly preserve them, they have to start the process while still alive. In other words, they are put to sleep and then preserved. Artis, who is dying, is here for that purpose and her death will take place the next day (though, in fact, it gets delayed). As she says I will be reborn into a deeper and truer reality. However, other things are going on. There are philologists designing an advanced language unique to the Convergence. They seem to be planning to build a new city and maybe even a new independent state. It seems also to be related to the Chelyabinsk meteor. In short, it seems apparent that they are planning a new world of some sort and these cryogenically preserved people will be its forebears, its representatives. Indeed, the people that wake up at some unspecified time in the future will, presumably, not be the same as the ones who were put to sleep.

While Jeffrey is staying at the Convergence, he discovers more strange things. In addition to the strange and unsettling humanoid sculptures and the doors, screens seem to pop up and show unpleasant films: monks burning themselves, natural disasters, wars and so on. He meets some strange people as well. In particular, he meets a man he calls the Monk, who acts as a sort of counsellor to those about to die. He gives names to many of the people he meets. Indeed, this book recalls DeLillo’s earlier The Names as Jeffrey, like the narrator of The Names, struggles with language. He hears strange languages, some he recognises, some he does not and some he is not even sure are languages. By naming people, and also his attempts to establish normality while in the Convergence, or thinking of the ordinary things he is missing – ATMs, traffic lights and so on – he is trying to maintain his grip on reality or, at least, his reality.

We do learn more about the Convergence when Jeffrey meets Ben-Ezra. He realises that Ben-Ezra is a pseudonym and is unable to trace his accent. Ben-Ezra speaks about the hundreds of millions of people into the future billions who are struggling to find something to eat not once or twice a day but all day every day. He spoke in detail about food systems, weather systems, the loss of forests, the spread of drought, the massive die-offs of birds and ocean life, the levels of carbon dioxide, the lack of drinking water, the waves of virus that envelop broad geographies. He adds Those of us who are here don’t belong anywhere else. We’ve fallen out of history. He also talks about the World Hum.

But then things change as Ross announces that he is to join Artis in death. He cannot imagine life without her. Then it is time to go. We get a brief section on Artis in her dying – Same words all the time going away and coming back. But am I who I was – and Jeffrey is back in the real world. The real world includes Emma, his latest girlfriend, divorced/separated, mother of an adoptive son, Stak, Ukrainian, fourteen-years old, learning Pashto so that he can speak to Afghani taxi drivers, a young man almost completely divorced from reality. The real world also includes a job offer from one of his father’s companies. But Jeffrey cannot really adapt to the real world, to a girlfriend to a job.

This is another first-class work by DeLillo. He is certainly not to everyone’s taste but those of us who do enjoy his work recognise that he is showing something about the human condition, both as it is and as it might be, that is is distinctive and original. The Convergence may well be bizarre and not how the world is going but it certainly shows a reaction to war and disaster and to ecological mayhem that could possibly occur. Both Jeffrey and Ross are DeLillo heroes, men of their time but out of their time, fallen out of history as Ben-Ezra puts it. I can only imagine that the people who change the world in the future will almost certianly be those who have fallen out of history.

Publishing history

First published 2016 by Scribner