Ob­ser­va­tions from on high

The Herald - Arts - - BOOKS/MUSIC - Don DeLillo Pi­cador, £12.99 Re­viewed by Stephen Phe­lan

DON DeLillo has been called a prophet so of­ten, for so long, that he is now be­ing sold as such. The pub­lic­ity ma­te­ri­als for his lat­est novel draw heav­ily on quotes and blurbs from peers and crit­ics awed by DeLillo’s pre­science – his spooky re­cep­tiv­ity to cur­rents and por­tents in the cul­ture, his nov­el­is­tic gift for read­ing runes in news and sports and weather re­ports, then telling us how we’re go­ing to die.

If that makes him sound a bit sci-fi, this book brings him as close as he’s ever come to the do­main of William Gibson, or even Michael Crich­ton. But there’s not much in the way of genre plea­sure here, nor the sat­is­fac­tions we tend to ex­pect of lit­er­ary fic­tion. His 21st cen­tury works have re­moved DeLillo ever fur­ther from the form of the 19th-cen­tury novel – his plots be­com­ing more el­lip­ti­cal, his char­ac­ters more rhetor­i­cal, his art purely con­cep­tual.

Zero K might be a con­sum­ma­tion, and its pro­tag­o­nist, Jef­frey, ini­tially seems a nigh-on par­ody of the au­thor’s lat­ter-day nar­ra­tors. He’s an aim­less, root­less vec­tor of moder­nity, drift­ing be­tween short-term cor­po­rate con­tracts as a “cross-stream pric­ing con­sul­tant” and “im­ple­men­ta­tion an­a­lyst”. His semies­tranged fa­ther Ross Lock­hart is a bil­lion­aire in­vestor in The Con­ver­gence, a se­cret fa­cil­ity in the cen­tral Asian desert, where the rich, sick and patho­log­i­cally for­ward-think­ing are cryo­geni­cally frozen and sus­tained in a kind of nano-sleep un­til med­i­cal ad­vances and tech up­dates can awaken them in the world to come. His step­mother Ar­tis is ter­mi­nally ill, and Jef­frey is in­vited to wit­ness her be­ing prepped for her “pod”.

“You will have a phan­tom life in the brain­case,” says a guide. “Float­ing thought. A pas­sive sort of men­tal grasp. Ping ping ping. Like a new­born ma­chine.” Later, we will even get a brief trans­mis­sion from Ar­tis in­side her cy­ber­sar­coph­a­gus, a soul in limbo or a con­scious­ness on standby mode.

“I only hear what is me. I am made of words.” There is creepy poetry in this, and be­neath it a bold in­ti­ma­tion of lan­guage at the sub-atomic core of be­ing. The Con­ver­gence it­self is pre­sented as “a lit­eral land­mark of im­plau­si­bil­ity”. As Jef­frey wan­ders the in­te­rior it be­comes a mythic space, a labyrinth of blank cor­ri­dors and gnomic en­coun­ters.

At the same time, it’s a real and phys­i­cal lo­ca­tion, a con­crete bunker for the prac­tice of the hard­est sci­ence. Jef­frey him­self is liv­ing proof of the the­ory of some am­biva­lent fu­tur­ists that our species is be­ing “vir­tu­alised” and “un­fleshed”. He ar­gues, on re­flex, that it is un­nat­u­ral to pro­long hu­man life this way, while be­liev­ers like his fa­ther in­sist that hu­mans will in­evitably do what­ever is in their ca­pac­ity to do – tend­ing on one hand to­ward self-an­ni­hi­la­tion, on the other to self-preser­va­tion.

In the end, per­haps de­fy­ing death by biomedical en­gi­neer­ing is no more or less un­nat­u­ral, or im­moral, than de­fy­ing grav­ity in car­bon com­pos­ite air­craft. The novel’s con­ver­sa­tions run along th­ese lines, the di­a­logue a rhyth­mic ex­change of ideas. Ev­ery­body in it seems to speak DeLillo’s lan­guage, which rarely sounds much like quo­tid­ian speech.

As with most of the au­thor’s re­cent out­put it can some­times read as spare border­ing on aus­tere, cere­bral to the point of steril­ity. But there is still blood flow­ing through it, a steady pulse au­di­ble be­neath the hum of cog­i­ta­tion, rooted in Jef­frey’s mem­o­ries of his real mother’s death but ev­i­dent too in his most in­nocu­ous, ev­ery­day ac­tiv­i­ties – sit­ting in traf­fic, with­draw­ing cash from an ATM, rid­ing an el­e­vated train through New York City with the af­ter­noon sun flar­ing off the of­fice tow­ers. DeLillo ap­plies both mi­cro­scope and tele­scope, pro­duc­ing im­ages that reg­is­ter as ex­pres­sions of cos­mic as­ton­ish­ment.

Now 79, DeLillo has be­come an old man in this rel­a­tively new cen­tury, and per­haps ad­vanc­ing age has given him an edge over younger writ­ers.

Once a nov­el­ist who seemed to be re­port­ing from in­side the crowds, there’s a sense here of his as­cend­ing above street level for a god­like, or ghost­like over­head view of the pat­terns and cir­cuits that con­nect our in­ner lives to the world out­side. Your in­tel­lec­tual re­ac­tion to Zero K – pos­i­tive or neg­a­tive – might be stronger than any emo­tional re­sponse. But at some point in the fu­ture, as tech­nol­ogy keeps im­prov­ing and the weather keeps get­ting worse, it’s easy to imag­ine that we’ll read this and weep.

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