Don DeLillo — life, death and dystopia

Zero K. Don DeLillo. Scribner. 288 pages. $27.
Zero K. Don DeLillo. Scribner. 288 pages. $27.

No one writing contemporary fiction deals with gloom, life and death conflict, paranoia and dystopia quite like Don DeLillo, at least no one so acclaimed. His new novel, Zero K, has all those elements, covered with a heavy blanket of enigma.

Like all of DeLillo’s works, this book is elegantly written. The language is clean, crisp and unadorned, yet soaringly eloquent. The plot is another matter. Zero K taxes the reader in ways his other works — Underworld, Mao Two, Libra, White Noise — did not.

Zero K’s central figure and narrator is Jeffrey Lockhart, a bright but drifting young man, son of Ross Lockhart, a billionaire who made his fortune betting for and against natural disasters. Ross’s current passion is his involvement with an enterprise called the Convergence. Its mission: Preserve the bodies of dying people until cures are discovered for their ailments and until the planet’s bleak prospects improve dramatically.

Ross’s wife, Jeffrey’s stepmother, is scheduled to take the plunge into this cryonic suspension and a still-healthy Ross is prepared to go with her, an escapee from a deeply troubled world.

Jeffrey agrees to travel to the remotely located and elaborately built compound to share the final moment with his stepmother and father, for whom he cares little. How little? Jeffrey won’t take a nickel of the estate his father leaves behind. Ross walked out on Jeffrey and his then-wife, Madeline, leaving mother and 13-year-old son to go it alone.

Those are the basics. The meat of the story is found in Jeffrey’s exploration of the compound and his encounters with a half dozen members of the Convergence staff, one more darkly eloquent than the next. Their collective point of view is summed up in one sentence: “Catastrophe is our bedtime story.”

Jeffrey is witness to that bedtime story as he walks the empty halls. Enormous video screens drop from above and show live images of human strife, combat, flood devastation, violent protests, famine, self-immolation, “... whole streets leveled, a school bus on its side, but also people coming this way, in slow motion, nearly out of the screen and into the hall, carrying what they’d salvaged, a troop of men and women, black and white, in solemn march. . . . The camera lingered on the bodies. The detail work of their violent end was hard to watch. But I watched, feeling obligated to something or someone, the victims perhaps, and thinking of myself as lone witness, sworn to the task.”

Jeffrey walks a line between detachment and mild repulsion. After a discussion with his stepmother, Artis, he tells us, “She would die, chemically prompted, in a sub zero vault, in a highly precise medical procedure guided by mass delusion, by superstition and arrogance and self-deception.”

That is as close to his taking a critical position on the Convergence project as Jeffrey will come. For the most part, he lets others speak their minds. Of himself he reveals little, save for descriptions of his often-obsessive compulsive behavior that creep into the narrative.

He unlocks his door so he can re-lock it to ensure that it is locked. He defines words, then defines the words he finds in the definition. One act begets another, like a Russian nesting doll. He obsessively assigns a name to everyone he sees and won’t recognize their existence without one.

No doubt the fixation stems from his father’s name change. He was born Nicholas Satterswaite and, as an adult, became Ross Lockhart. Why? Ross Lockhart sounded stronger. Jeffrey wonders idly if his life would have been different as a Satterswaite.

DeLillo is at his best when his Conversion characters are on stage. Especially entertaining are the Stenmark twins, a pair of Scandinavian-looking men who pop up suddenly and take turns offering two-sentence, stream-of-consciousness pronouncements on the troubled state of the world.

“This is the first split second of the first cosmic year. We are becoming citizens of the universe,” one twin says.

“There are questions, of course,” says the other.

“Isn’t death a blessing? Doesn’t it define the value of our lives, minute to minute, year to year?”

“Half the world is redoing its kitchen, the other half is starving.”

The twins go on in that vein for pages. It makes for fascinating — if puzzling — reading. Who are they? What do they mean to the larger story? Is it just a coincidence that back in the non-fiction real world the Stenmark twins are a pair of male models living in Australia?

Zero K brims with pungent, often wry, always provocative observations. It also has more than a few passages that leave the reader wondering and amused. In one scene, Jeffrey sits at attention as a guide explains the cryonics program.

“Human life is an accidental fusion of tiny particles of organic matter floating in the cosmic dust. Life continuance is less accidental … not so random, not so chancy, but not unnatural.

“Tell me about your scarf,” I said.

“Goat cashmere from Inner Mongolia.”

Mostly Zero K tells a gripping, albeit odd, story. But at times, it is more like code-breaking than reading. If that sort of work excites you, you will be thrilled by Zero K. But either way, this novel is worth the effort.

Doug Clifton is a writer in Fort Lauderdale and the former executive editor of the Miami Herald.