It has long been my observation that the three incubatory professions most overrepresented in the pantheon of great American authors are journalism, law, and advertising. The reason, I suspect, is that each involves a reductive writing process – the art of making the complex simple, be it a news story, a tangled dispute, or a commercial product or service. And so I was not surprised to learn that Don DeLillo – one of America’s most revered novelists, and the author of such modern classics as White Noise, Underworld, and Mao II – last worked as a lowly copy writer at the Ogilve & Mather agency before he began penning his first novel, Americana, in 1964.
Which is not to suggest there’s anything simple, or slick, about DeLillo’s writing. To the contrary, his is among the more challenging prose you’ll find on the bestseller lists. What his background does portend is a compelling story well and succinctly told for those intrepid readers willing to roll up their sleeves and tackle this two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
DeLillo’s latest novel, Zero K, his 16th overall, delivers on this promise. The title refers to zero degrees Kelvin, or minus 459.67 degrees Fahrenheit, better known as Absolute Zero, the theoretical temperature at which all molecular movement ceases. It is an apt prelude to a novel in which cryonics – the low-temperature preservation of human bodies in the hope that future medical advances will return them to life – plays a central role.
Jeffrey Lockhart, our protagonist/ narrator, is a young man adrift in the often dehumanizing bustle of modern-day Manhattan. Ross Lockhart, Jeffrey’s estranged father, is a captain of global finance whose second wife, Artis, is confronting a slow and certain death. In response to her crisis, and in furtherance of his own search for life’s deeper meaning, Ross has helped establish the Convergence, a militarized compound in a remote Central Asia desert at which biologists, social theorists, futurists, geneticists, philosophers, neuroscientists, ethicists, and artists have joined forces in the hope not just of extending biological life but of deconstructing and redefining what it means to be human.
“Everyone wants to own the end of the world,” Ross informs Jeffrey at the novel’s outset, whereupon we travel with father and son to the Convergence where, Ross hopes, they will reconcile their personal grievances at Artis’s deathbed. Then, in the novel’s second act, the two men return to the Convergence some years later for what will prove their final farewell. During and between these visits, the reader is buffeted by questions large and small, borne of the interplay between an older man intent on transcending the limitations of his mortality and a younger man contented simply to experience “the mingled astonishments of our lives, here, on earth.”
Zero K ($26, from Scribner) is a hallucinogenic, through-the-looking-glass reading experience. While much of this is owing to the Convergence itself and to Jeffrey’s explorations of its physical and metaphoric levels, much stems from the Really Big Questions the novel raises. For example, would you trade part of your precious time on earth for a chance at immortality? What does it mean, exactly, to be immortal? What are the societal consequences of never-ending life? And ultimately, is immortality a blessing or is it a curse?
In the hands of a lesser writer, inquiries of this nature might seem trite or overly pompous. DeLillo, however, is no ordinary wordsmith. (Portions of the novel were excerpted into “Sine, Cosine, Tangent,” a short story that ran in the February 22 issue of The New Yorker magazine.) It requires a unique talent to distill the complex and esoteric into the visceral and entertaining, and in Zero K this former Mad Man delivers a novel of both style and substance, and a worthy capstone to an already-extraordinary career.
Chuck Greaves is the award-winning author of five novels, most recently Tom & Lucky (Bloomsbury), a Wall Street Journal “Best Books of 2015” selection. You can visit him at www.chuckgreaves.com.