Death Sentences

Don De Lillo
Zero K
(Scribner 2016)

Since 1972, land artist Michael Heizer has been constructing a vast complex of clean concrete slabs and burial mounds, or tumuli, in the high desert of Nevada. Monumental, but lacking any obvious purpose, Heizer’s City seems destined to confound generations of observers. When the Department of Energy surveyed the region, they initially mistook the sculpture for a military installation. It’s easy to envision humanoid archaeologists, twenty-thousand years from now, brushing the empty tombs and speculating about City’s meaning, intent to find utility in art. Add the unforeseen, but recurrent threat of nearby Yucca Mountain becoming the country’s nuclear waste repository—thankfully stalled at present—and you have artwork addressing many of the same themes found in Don DeLillo’s fiction: time on a geologic scale, the absence of a Rosetta stone, American audacity, nuclear death, isolation in wide-open landscapes, and volume.

DeLillo’s sixteenth novel, Zero K, opens with Jeffrey Lockhart approaching a similarly inscrutable complex in the Central Asian desert. Traveling over rough roads in an armored car, Jeffrey first sees the Convergence through heat shimmers and observes, “The number of structures was hard to determine from my near vantage. Two, four, seven, nine. Or only one, a central unit with rayed attachments. I imagined it as a city to be discovered at a future time.” Later, a mystic named Ben-Ezra will describe it as a “lunar afterlife.” But for Jeffrey, the Convergence is more baffling than edifying; he sees it as a place “located at the far margins of plausibility […] A literal landmark of implausibility.” Jeffrey treads softly through the halls, almost floating, “all of it in the spirit of a well-disciplined dream.” He tries the handles of endless blue doors. None opens. He thinks there might be nothing behind the doors, that this whole endeavor is “visionary art, involving colors, forms and local materials, art meant to accompany and surround the hardwired initiative, the core work of scientists, counselors, technicians and medical personnel.”  But what are they building in there? Simply put, the “hardwired initiative” of the Convergence project is to extend human life until it approaches the limit of immortality. The hubris of this cabal of transhumanists would seem to invite satire, but Zero K’s foremost concern is the gravity of impending death.  

Jeffrey’s stepmother, Artis, is dying from multiple sclerosis. Given her lack of religious faith, Artis must choose between a natural, unredeemable death, and a chemically-induced death with the promise of reanimation. She has been preparing for cryopreservation alongside Jeffrey’s wealthy father, Ross Lockhart, who has donated his fortune to the cause. Their patronage has made them hospice royalty. Ross occupies an office in one of the windowless geometric slabs; give him a tumbler of whiskey and he’ll wax atheological: “They’re making the future. A new idea of the future. Different from the others […]We fully expect that this site we occupy will eventually become the heart of a new metropolis, maybe an independent state, different from any we’ve known. This is what I mean when I call myself a serious man.”  

At first, Ross seems to echo Eric, the protagonist of DeLillo’s Cosmopolis, in his desire to transcend the limits of the mortal and become posthuman. For Eric, “(t)he idea was to live outside the given limits, in a chip, on a disk, as data, in whirl, in radiant spin, a consciousness saved from void. The technology was imminent or not. It was semimythical. It was the natural next step. It would never happen.” In Zero K, however, the goal is not to escape corporeality and become a string of zeroes and ones. For Ross, Artis, and the rest of the Convergent, the idea is to cryogenically preserve the material body until the institute develops the requisite nanobots and future life-extending miracles to deliver what is essentially eternal life. The distinction between indefinite life extension (Zero K) and uploading one’s consciousness (Cosmopolis) is important for understanding why Zero K is the most compelling of DeLillo’s novels since Underworld: cryopreservation, freezing your body and putting your brain in a vat, requires a leap of faith—participants have to forego whatever remaining life they have and surrender to Science; whereas, consciousness-uploading seems auxiliary, something that might sneak into your iTunes Terms of Service Agreement. 

This is the new corollary to Pascal’s wager: should I put my faith in science to sustain a low-wattage version of my conscious mind in hopes of one day living again as I did in my youth, or should I succumb to the biological constraints on life? At present, cryonics offers very distant hopes of success—chiefly because water expands when it freezes, causing irreparable cell damage. But it is not difficult to envision a future, maybe for those already alive, when science claims to possess the means to reanimate a cryoprotected and vitrified version of you.  

DeLillo pounces on the surprisingly normative tone of the transhumanist movement. The title of Ray Kurzweil’s 2006 book, The Singularity is Near, might appear to be a descriptive statement, a state of the union pronouncing that ‘accelerating growth in artificial intelligence means humans will soon be outpaced by superintelligent machines.’ But Kurzweil, someone whose body is already cryonically fated for the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, exhorts readers to strip death of any romantic notions and patch in whatever forms of biomechanical augmentation they can find. In Zero K, this worldview is given voice by the Stenmark twins, chief ideologues of the Convergence:

The defining element of life is that it ends.

Nature wants to kill us off in order to return to its untouched and uncorrupted form.

Isn’t the sting of our eventual dying what makes us precious to the people in our lives? 

With individual death no longer inevitable, what will happen to the lurking idea of nuclear destruction?

Will all traditional limits begin to disappear?

Will the missiles talk themselves out of the launchers?

Does technology have a death wish?

We want to stretch the boundaries of what it means to be human—stretch and then surpass. We want to do whatever we are capable of doing in order to alter human thought and bend the energies of civilization.

This rhetoric transforms Ross Lockhart. He began by making a bet on Convergent future, and, after internalizing these words, decides to join Artis in atheistic salvation. He opts for a premature death—premature by decades? Who could say? Ross is a true believer who will remain by his wife’s side in limbo and in reanimation, so great is his faith in the Convergence.

Until it isn’t. 

Off-screen, Ross succumbs to mortal doubt. He tells Artis to go ahead, that he’ll catch up with her in the afterlife. In a book that is frequently devastating, this decision is particularly difficult to bear. We are left to imagine Artis’s last thoughts, minutes before she is wheeled to a subzero cooler, when her soulmate suffers a crisis of faith.

Before Part Two opens we hear Artis trapped in an eternal nightmare, her mind flickering in low-wattage consciousness:

Does it keep going on like this.

Where am I. What is a place. I know the feeling of somewhere but I don’t know where it is.

What I understand comes from nowhere. I don’t know what I understand until I say it.

I am trying to become someone.

The involutions, the mind drift.

I almost know some things. I think I am going to know things but then it does not happen.

And on and on for eternity. The final turn of the knife is that neither Artis, nor anyone else in the Convergence will be coming back from this brain-in-a-vat torture to tell future enrollees to run. Science may not be able to create a heaven, DeLillo posits, but you can count on it realizing our direst conceptions of hell. 

The stakes for Part Two could not be higher as we watch Jeffrey return to the quotidian life of taxis, traffic, relationships, and job interviews. “I keep checking the stove after turning off the burners. At night I make sure the door is locked and go back to whatever I was doing but eventually sneak back to the door, inspect the lock, twist the door handle in order to verify, confirm, test the truth before going to bed.” Ostensibly, this is the least animated depiction of New York City in DeLillo’s work. And yet. The screaming horror of what a transhumanist death entails, the eternal torment we’ve just watched Artis sign up for, casts a shadow over all of Jeffrey’s decisions, and his father’s. 

Don DeLillo

But no one’s safe. The familiar horror of the void, rather than the science fiction horror of the Convergence, waits those who choose the other bet in Pascal’s wager. As we follow Artis, and presumably Ross, to their hospice-like station, we glimpse the vortex that every subject in a DeLillo novel has spun around. DeLillo expresses this orientation in Point Omega, “We become ourselves beneath the running thoughts and dim images, wondering idly when we’ll die. This is how we live and think whether we know it or not.” But he connects the dots for readers in Zero K, as Jeffrey stands in a gallery with his girlfriend and her son, Stak, looking at conceptual art:

We were here to see a rock. The object on exhibit was officially designated an interior rock sculpture. It was a large rock, one rock. I told Stak that this is what raised the statement from the far corners of my undergraduate mind.

“God is, but he does not exist.”

What I did not tell him was that these ideas belong to Martin Heidegger.

In Zero K, DeLillo reveals that being-in-the-world means being-towards-death, and to sever the finitude of life would negate authentic being. The transhumanist world of the Convergence appears cold, fragile, and false because Stenmark et al. have disemboweled subjectivity in order to create this hellish eternal semi-consciousness. It might be a small consolation, but being thrown at the certainty of death affords an individual authentic existence. When these thoughts begin condensing for Jeffrey, his life in New York slows down; a novel that has been narrated in the past tense dips into the epiphanic present: “I leave objects as they are. I look and let them be. I study every physical minute.” That phrase, physical minute, encapsulates the inextricability of time and space in DeLillo’s work. And the awareness of Jeffrey’s present tense, contrasts sharply with the dimly lit hell of Artis’s semi-present tense.

After a few years, Jeffrey and Ross return to the Convergence. In a sense this novel demands resolution in the desert, not the city. DeLillo can make a desert’s horizon bend upward. The effect is claustrophobic, like being trapped in an hourglass or an evaporated snow globe. This particular feeling most clearly articulated in The Names: “The space is the desert, the movie screen, the strip of film, however you see it. What are the people doing here? This is their existence. They’re here to work out their existence. This space, this emptiness is what they have to confront.” And that confrontation with emptiness, often promised in DeLillo, but forcefully delivered here, is why Zero K is perhaps the most significant DeLillo novel for understanding his notion of subjectivity.

These abstract thoughts are given body in both plot and language. In speaking about Underworld with Michael Silverblatt, DeLillo said, “The sense of visual correspondences between letter shapes, between letters in a given word, between words in a given sentence…it’s only recently that I’ve become aware of this visual element in my work. It’s almost as if at some level I’m engaged in an appreciation of abstract sculpture.” Viewed as sculpture, then, the letter Z in Zero K can be seen as Jeffrey’s consciousness: first a tranquil glide from left to right, then an abrupt fall into contemplation of finitude and nothingness, and then a resumption of the semi-tranquil glide of routine. The letter K depicts his relationship with his father as approaching a wall and then ricocheting back from where he came, with a gravity that is always pulling him down.

But there is some hope to be found. Jeffrey tells us that experiencing the death of others can affirm the authentic self: “I’d never felt more human than I did when my mother lay in bed, dying. This was not the frailty of a man who is said to be ‘only human,’ subject to a weakness or a vulnerability. This was a wave of sadness and loss that made me understand that I was a man expanded by grief,” And, in DeLillo’s universe, books might save us from nothingness; in Point Omega, “(i)t’s all about time, dimwit time, inferior time, people checking watches and other devices, other reminders. This is time draining out of our lives.…There’s an endless counting down…When you strip away all the surfaces, when you see into it, what’s left is terror. This is the thing that literature was meant to cure.”

Tracing DeLillo’s career through his notions of cure, we see three phases in his fiction. In his first four novels, the cure is building a network of strong linkages, which culminates in the playfulness and exuberance of Ratner’s Star; in the 1980s and 90s, language possessed the magic to open new worlds, as exemplified by the abecedarians in The Names, the supermarket of spells in White Noise, and the expanded sentences of Underworld, where a boy jumping a turnstile is so closely described that time not only slows, but stops, where “everything’s at the same time;” in this century, DeLillo’s novels suggest that to be saved from nothingness, we must be swallowed by nothingness.

Since 1971, Don DeLillo has written fiction that orbits around death—protagonists are radially oriented, pulled around this one thought-gyre. In White Noise he writes, “All plots tend to move deathward.” In Libra, “There is a tendency of plots to move toward death…the idea of death is woven into the nature of every plot.” In this later phase of his career, however, DeLillo is no longer moving things deathward or weaving death into the plot. Instead, he is now weaving plots from death. Underworld ends with miracles and “the drama of a failing body;” in Zero K, there are no miracles, and Artis’s failing body, everyone’s soon-to-be-failing body, is where we begin.

Of his post-Underworld novels, in which characters acknowledge their own mortality and gnash their teeth at finitude, Zero K is the most successful because it is the most confrontational. No longer content to keep death fixed in the periphery, DeLillo begins this novel in the crushing center and asks the reader to deal with the gravity. 


Will Chancellor

WILL CHANCELLOR is the author of the novel A Brave Man Seven Stories Tall. His has written for Bookforum, Buzzfeed, Electric Literature, Interview Magazine, The Rumpus, and The Scofield, among others