The main character in Don DeLillo’s Zero K is difficult to evaluate. We don’t learn his name—Jeffrey Lockhart--until the closing pages of the novel. In his relationship with his father Ross, he’s the epitome of a passive-aggressive son. Resentful of his father for abandoning him at a young age, for letting his mother die alone, he also seems to love his father. Yet their way of interacting reminds me of what it is like to sit at the keyboard of a computer. You type in certain combinations of words and commands, You receive certain responses.
He seems disaffected—from himself. He’s committed to nothing—other than to not taking any job that his father might have recommended or arranged for him. He’s apparently not averse to taking money from his father, a billionaire, since he has no discernible source of income. He’s numb, passive, cold and disconnected.
He reminds me of the protagonists in Cosmopolis and Point Omega and The Body Artist. Does DeLillo find such characters fascinating, or is this the best he can do?
I wanted to like this novel. DeLillo is a fine writer, one of the best writers of the last fifty years. He’s nearing the age of 80, and one hopes for something like a return to form—a form last represented for me in his 1996 great work Underworld.
One of the prime subjects of Zero K is the intersection of death and technology. How does this intersection influence our attitudes towards death, towards life? What if through developments in cryoscience and medical science it becomes possible to prolong our lives indefinitely? How does that prospect change our conceptions of who we are, not merely as individuals but as members of a species? Annihilation, apocalypse, seem always on the margins of this novel, yet they never come, except for the characters who choose to be frozen. DeLillo himself seems obsessed with death, and his awareness of it dominates this novel, not always to good effect.
I have to admit to my own obsession with the same subject, and perhaps as a result I should read this novel again to make sure I haven’t misjudged it.