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The boundaries of forever Zero K'

May 11, 2016
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DeLillo's latest effort a look at the dynamics of immortality

If you were to try and determine who the reigning 'grand old man' of American letters might be, you'd have to think that Don DeLillo is on that very short list.

Since his debut novel 'Americana' hit the scene in 1971, DeLillo has risen to the top of the literary ranks. Over the past four-plus decades, he has produced a stunning body of work; he is primarily known for his 16 novels, but he has also produced numerous short stories and a handful of stage plays.

And even now, as he approaches 80, he's still writing.

His latest novel is 'Zero K' (Scribner, $27), a meditation on the nature of death, man's connection to technology and the meaning of love all shown through a speculative lens.

Jeff Lockhart has arrived at a mysterious compound located somewhere in the vast emptiness of Kazakhstan. He has come to this place at the behest of his father Ross, an ultra-wealthy titan of industry with whom Jeff has long had a strained relationship.

Jeff is also here for Artis Ross's wife, Jeff's stepmother who is dealing with the late stages of a debilitating and terminal illness.

Ross has become a major partner in a concern known only as 'The Convergence' a concern whose goal is life extension through cryogenics. This compound operates at the bleeding edge of technology, of course, but it also seeks to address the more metaphysical questions regarding this kind of immortality. The group a collection of geniuses, philosophers and billionaires is attempting to address the notion of life-beyond-life in a holistic manner.

Jeff struggles with the implications inherent to the notion particularly when his father says that he himself will join Artis in taking the journey, despite being in relatively good health. The relationship (or lack thereof) between Jeff and his father is made all the more complex; Jeff has difficulty reconciling this man who appears to be willing to follow his wife into the unknown with the person who simply walked out on him and his mother years ago.

There's a time jump at the book's halfway point, one that takes us two years into the future. This is where we reconnect with a Jeff who has developed new relationships particularly with his girlfriend Emma and her son Stak. That dynamic is explored for a stretch, but the Convergence continues to have a hold on Jeff's life; a hold that may prove to be simply inescapable.

Thematically, this exploration of relationships is right in step with DeLillo's usual fare. While there are plenty of questions about the ethics of technological advancement, the core of the story is the strained relationship between Jeff and Ross Lockhart. It is that dynamic that serves as the soul of the narrative. Unfortunately, the book's sparse runtime it's less than 300 pages doesn't really allow the depth of character exploration that would allow the reader to fully connect with that central relationship.

Still, said sparseness offers its benefits as well. The first half of 'Zero K' carries that special brand of DeLillo convolution; Jeff's exploration of the Convergence weirdly dystopian video projections, inexplicable mannequins, meetings with monks and mad philosophers is a rich reading experience not least because of the spare quality of the prose.

However, the time jump of the book's second half kills some of that early momentum; at times, it feels almost as if you're reading an altogether different book. Things ramp back up thanks to a well-wrought ending, but Jeff's back-half romantic relationship doesn't have the same impact as what we see in the early going.

(There's also a sort of intermission that offers a glimpse at a sort of inner monologue from one of the Convergence's subjects. It's short, but haunting, with a whiff of mid-century avant-garde to it. It's a compelling departure from the rest of the more-or-less traditional narrative.)

'Zero K' does occasionally feel as though DeLillo was never quite committed to the speculative nature of the story; there's a technophobic vibe throughout that sometimes fails to jibe with the story being told. That said, it's still Don DeLillo we're talking about here; the degree of craft on display here is astonishing. Even with its flaws, this is an intellectually engaging and exquisitely written book.

While this book probably doesn't belong on the list of DeLillo's best work, it's still an example of a brilliant writer putting his prose mastery on display. 'Zero K' might be uneven, but its thoughtfulness and dazzling construction make it a worthy entry into the bibliography of one of our greatest living literary talents.

Last modified on Wednesday, 11 May 2016 15:15

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