Death and mor­tal­ity in a post­mod­ern world

Don DeLillo’s 17th novel is one of his very best, through its po­etic ex­plo­ration of death, mor­tal­ity and nor­mal­ity, writes Tod Wod­icka

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Some days ago, while watch­ing a film that he prob­a­bly shouldn’t have been watch­ing – The Dark Knight – my 10-yearold son turned to me and said, “Papa, why are so many su­per­heroes billionaires?”

Now, of course, I’m no ex­pert, but there prob­a­bly aren’t that many bil­lion­aire su­per­heroes. There’s Bat­man, of course, and Robert Downey Jr in his fly­ing Iron Man suit. But the boy had a point: su­per­heroes never re­ally seem too strapped for cash, es­pe­cially con­sid­er­ing their sci-fi mil­i­tary hard­ware. For the most part, they ex­ist out­side of our econ­omy. They’re em­ployed, if they’re em­ployed, in or­der to keep up ap­pear­ances.

In truth, our billionaires more closely re­sem­ble su­pervil­lains. (Imag­ine, if you will, as­pir­ing su­pervil­lain Don­ald Trump tak­ing on wannabe su­per­hero Mark Zucker­berg. Zucker­berg, even in an iron suit, wouldn’t stand a chance.)

Don DeLillo has writ­ten about billionaires be­fore – his weak­est novel, Cos­mopo­lis, for ex­am­ple – but you get the sense that even when his char­ac­ters have os­ten­si­bly nor­mal jobs, they ex­ist more as a means of ex­plor­ing and of­ten reach­ing cer­tain idea-rich ends. They’re un­teth­ered philo­soph­i­cal su­per­heroes cut­ting through, ex­pos­ing and mak­ing sense of Amer­i­can his­tory, the past, present and, as in his 17th novel, Zero K, a pos­si­ble fu­ture. They al­ways seem to be look­ing from the out­side in.

His char­ac­ters tend to speak alike, and share DeLillo’s de­li­cious, ut­terly idio­syn­cratic, po­etic rhythm of thought: ideas speak­ing to ideas, DeLillo speak­ing to DeLillo. This is not a crit­i­cism. Take this con­ver­sa­tion, be­tween two twins no less, dis­cussing what a post-death re­al­ity on Earth will re­sem­ble:

“In time a re­li­gion of death will emerge in re­sponse to our pro­longed lives.” “Bring back death.” “Bands of death rebels will set out to kill peo­ple at ran­dom. Men and women slouch­ing through the coun­try­side, us­ing crude weapons to kill those they en­counter.” “Vo­ra­cious blood­baths with cer­e­mo­nial as­pects.” (…) “Or pray over the bod­ies, chant over the bod­ies, eat the ed­i­ble flesh of the bod­ies. Burn what re­mains.” “In one form or an­other, peo­ple re­turn to their death-haunted roots in or­der to reaf­firm the pat­tern of ex­tinc­tion.” “Death is a tough habit to break.” DeLillo is a liv­ing mas­ter of Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture and, I’m happy to re­port, Zero K is not only one his best nov­els since the epic Un­der­world (1997), but one of his three or four mas­ter­pieces. Those look­ing for a way in to his body of work, it’s not a bad place to start. And for those who have given up on DeLillo’s 21st-cen­tury out­put, here is your way back. Zero K has ev­ery­thing one comes to ex­pect from DeLillo – shin­ing shards of de­tail, phi­los­o­phy, art and in­ti­ma­tions of loom­ing disas­ter – but with a new ur­gency and emo­tional depth be­fit­ting his top­ics. Zero K ex­plores death, eter­nity, fam­ily and, es­pe­cially, the lan­guage that makes us hu­man. Or, it should be said, our cur­rent idea of what it means to be hu­man. It is a novel that, in part, tries to imag­ine what it might mean to break the “habit” of death, and if what re­mains would be recog­nis­ably hu­man.

The novel is nar­rated by Jef­frey Lock­hart, son of Ross Lock­hart, an­other bil­lion­aire, “a man shaped by money”. Ross’s wife, Ar­tis, is dy­ing. He has in­vested his money in some­thing called the Con­ver­gence, a partly un­der­ground se­cret cen­tre in a desert near to, or in, ei­ther Kyr­gyzs­tan or Kaza­khstan. There, mys­te­ri­ous sci­en­tists and artists and weirdo re­li­gious types are work­ing on a way to ex­ter­mi­nate death be­fore death ex­ter­mi­nates the hu­man race.

Ar­tis’s end is to be in­duced pre­ma­turely, her body pre­served and worked on un­til such a time that she might be res­ur­rected, but in what form re­mains to be seen. Jef­frey finds his healthy, semi-es­tranged fa­ther, Ross, ready to join her.

This is a ba­sic sci­ence fic­tion set-up, of course. It’s even old-fash­ioned in terms of spec­u­la­tive fic­tion. But it’s how DeLillo uses this theme which is ex­tra­or­di­nary: tak­ing us to the far­thest reaches of what it means to be hu­man, and then, in the ex­tra­or­di­nary se­cond-half of the novel, back to New York City, DeLillo’s na­tive land, and the rel­a­tively pro­saic, but some­how more press­ing and su­per­heroic busi­ness of what it means to de­fine not death, but “or­di­nary” life, love and fam­ily.

Tod Wod­icka’s se­cond novel The House­hold Spirit was pub­lished last year. He lives in Los An­ge­les.

AGF srl / REX / Shutterstock

Don DeLillo’s new novel Zero K ques­tions the very essence of ex­is­tence.

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