Zero K: A Novel
288 pp., 27.00
Christina Bieber Lake
The Artifice of Eternity
O sages standing in God's holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.
—W. B. Yeats, from "Sailing to Byzantium"
It is for a good reason that these lines are among the most famous in modern literature. The modern self, stuck in a dying body and unable to know what it really is, is sick with a vague desire. So the speaker asks the sages standing in the fire for two things: "Consume my heart away" and "gather me into the artifice of eternity." Take away my restless heart and let me live forever. The poem's response? Here is your immortality—art itself.
Nearly one hundred years later, the contemporary self is still sick with a vague desire, and still knows not what it is. But we late moderns are far less certain that art can hold us, that words can gather us into any kind of eternity. Since we've long abandoned God and his promises, where can we turn?
Technology, of course. This is the premise of Don DeLillo's seventeenth novel, Zero K. DeLillo is a writer known to have his finger firmly placed on the pulse of contemporary American life, and this offering powerfully follows suit. The novel is narrated by Jeffrey Lockhart, son of a wealthy businessman, Ross, whose second wife is dying at a young age. But this woman, aptly named "Artis," is planning to live forever. She has given herself over to the "Convergence," an organization/ideology that promises to gather her mind and memory into eternity by way of cryonic suspension until the technology exists to resurrect her into a new nano-generated body. Her husband will join her in time, and they will live forever in a superior future world.
In the world outside DeLillo's novel, some well-known people, including Ted Williams, have paid a great deal of money for this same hope. Over one hundred bodies are preserved in liquid nitrogen in Arizona. Like Ray Kurzweil and other futurists who are putting their hope in the technology of the "Singularity," the Convergence people claim that their faith is in science and technology, that is, in "another god"—except in this case "it's real, it's true, it delivers." Zero K is a haunting exploration of this hope of ultimate transcendence and what it tells us about how we live today.
The novel begins with Jeffrey's purveyance (at his father's request, to help him say goodbye to Artis) to a hidden underground site in an undisclosed location in Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan is one of only two countries in the world that are doubly landlocked—that is, landlocked by countries that are themselves landlocked. In short, there is no "sailing to Uzbekistan." Like Thomas More's Utopia, the Convergence compound is "no place." When Jeffrey is in this facility, his narrative is dislocated, drifting. He has lost all sense of time. He's restless and completely powerless, turned into a spectator of something he cannot fully understand.
The compound has no markings or windows to speak of and is filled with nondescript, abstract artwork. In the hallways, large screens randomly drop down in front of Jeffrey, showing scenes of people running, or injured in war-torn areas, or lost in similarly chaotic settings. Depiction of mass behavior is a trademark of DeLillo's fiction, but rarely in his work have such scenes been as deliberately artificially rendered as they are in this compound. The images seem to be the main argument for the Convergence's version of transcendence: join us and escape the mass waste of humanity that is headed for apocalypse. Not surprisingly, the organization also promises its resurrected members other superior experiences in the new world into which they will be reborn. There will be a language that is cleaner and more utilitarian in its precision. "We will approximate the logic and beauty of pure mathematics in everyday speech," Convergence promises, "no similes, metaphors, analogies." As disembodied as the promised future, this Platonic new language is shorn of its corrupted referents. Only something so unabashedly abstract is suitable for the artifice of eternity.
Not surprisingly, our guide, Jeffrey, is one of the loneliest and most dislocated narrators I have ever encountered in fiction (except perhaps those of Alain Robbe-Grillet). It's as if he had climbed into a Jackson Pollock painting or, better, into the "Alabaster Chambers" Emily Dickinson envisions for the "meek members of the Resurrection." Time goes by outside this place, not within it. Jeffrey keeps seeing not only the naked bodies of frozen people (often separated from their heads) but also random mannequins arranged around the compound, most of which seem to be doll-like stand-ins for the souls they have gathered.
"What was I seeing in this hole in the ground?" Jeffrey wonders. "Not sculpted marble or a delicate strip of pine-wood hand-carved with a chisel and highlight in gold leaf. These were pieces of plastic, synthetic compounds draped in dead men's hoods and robes, and they brought a faint yearning to the scene, the illusion of humanoid aspiration." Perhaps DeLillo means to suggest that the "artifice of eternity" will inevitably be plastic. Beyond these rows of mannequins, and again unexplained, are mannequins in "a convoluted mass, naked, arms jutting, heads horribly twisted, bare skulls … men and women stripped of identity, faces blank except for one unpigmented figure, albino, staring at me, pink eyes flashing." The image obviously evokes the mass graves of the Holocaust, but how we are supposed to judge it (beyond experiencing its uncanniness) is much less clear.
Like some failed Adam, Jeffrey is so disoriented that he keeps naming people and things he encounters. He tries to hang on to words to ground himself. While eating some nameless meat in an unremarkable room, he reflects: "I was beginning to understand that every act I engaged in had to be articulated at some level, had to be performed with the words intact. I could not chew and swallow without thinking of chew and swallow." It turns out that this is a habit he also has on the outside, where he wanders around naming people he has never met and reminding himself of the words he feels in danger of forgetting. His career and his relationships are clearly transient. Even when the narrative returns him to his own life, he offers reflections like this that capture the spirit of his life and of the novel: "on public elevators I direct a blind gaze precisely nowhere, knowing that I'm in a sealed box alone with others and that none of us is willing to offer a face open to inspection." Thus DeLillo suggests that the placelessness of the Convergence compound is merely our own general placelessness. In this late modern world, we, too, wander around aimlessly, "alone with others," trying to avoid terrorism or other accidents, all only in order to protect lives that contain no ultimate meaning. As one character in the compound puts it: "the thinness of contemporary life. I can poke my finger through it."
This general sense of disorientation gives DeLillo an apt segue into the bizarre and terrifying narrative sequence at the heart of the book. After Artis's death and cryonic preservation, we are given her dislocated thoughts, shifting from first person to third person, with the third person in italics:
The only time I know is what I feel. It is all now. But I don't know what this means.
I hear words that are saying things to me again and again.
Same words all the time going away and coming back.
But am I who I was.
She is trying to understand what has happened to her and where she is and what it means to be who she is.
What is it that I am waiting for.
Am I only here and now. What happened to me that did this.
She is first person and third person both.
This nightmarish sequence is made more terrifying by the fact that the speaker does not seem to even experience her own terror. She is confused about her identity, suspended from time, and unable to locate herself in any space. "Can't I stop being who I am and become no one. She is the residue, all that is left of an identity. I listen to what I hear. I can only hear what is me." Her narrative feels like a bad case of Kierkegaard's sickness unto death, the despair that does not recognize itself as despair. "Are the words themselves all there is. Am I just the words," she asks, framing questions so flat and adrift that they are not even given question marks. Since her inability to ground words in any reality is not all that different from Jeffrey's, we recognize that her situation is just a more pronounced version of our own. The self is lost in utter isolation from other selves.
DeLillo's genius in Zero K is to enact this isolation in narrative terms, as a loss of the third-person point of view. "She is the first person and third person with no way to join them together," the text continues. Transcendence provided by the Convergence can only extend the solipsistic isolation that is our inheritance as moderns. So, too, in an increasingly cyber-niche culture, here and now is a nameless and placeless place; there is no real outside perspective to see and challenge us (consider, for example, how self-selecting Facebook is). Because the third-person perspective has been the stock and trade of the novel (even when the narrative is recorded in the first person, as in Robinson Crusoe), Zero K could be seen as a meditation on this loss in the contemporary novel in general. If so, DeLillo would not be alone (as it were). Nicholas Dames, in "The New Fiction of Solitude" (The Atlantic), argues that the strongest trend in contemporary fiction is what has been called "autofiction": a radically first-person rejection of the more conventional goal of producing empathy for others. Novels like Karl Ove Knausgaard's influential My Struggle "start with the extremely personal (and sometimes deliberately perverse) in order to evoke the cold, impassable space between self and other." David Foster Wallace noticed this trend, too, which he more pointedly called narcissistic.
DeLillo has always been more about noticing current trends than judging or solving them. His novels, having long abandoned the idea of genuine connection between people, seem to be only vaguely on the lookout for some kind of transcendence. This transcendence is usually of the "these fragments I have shored against my ruins" variety. Thus some scholars have argued that DeLillo ultimately provides us only with the meaning of meaninglessness, a transcendence through language itself. A well-known example is in his novel White Noise, when the protagonist hears his daughter murmuring "Toyota Celica" in her sleep and feels that it "was beautiful and mysterious, gold-shot with looming wonder. It was like the name of an ancient power in the sky, tablet-carved in cuneiform. It made me feel that something hovered … . [W]hatever its source, the utterance struck me with the impact of a moment of splendid transcendence." But Zero K feels very different from White Noise. It provides only a scant few such experiences, and they seem even less desirable (if possible!) than that. In short, because language has been even more problematized than in DeLillo's other novels, there is less hope than ever.
So what do we really have in Zero K? Could it be that this novel brings with it a genuine recognition of our contemporary predicament? A revelation that our solipsistic efforts at transcendence have actually left us nearly invisible to one another, and thus less able to love and to be loved? Less able to have a meaningful death? If so, then Zero K could put readers into a position finally to hear a prophetic voice like that of Wendell Berry. In "Standing by Words," Berry links the disintegration of language to our loss of place in the world, a confusion about where we belong and what we are supposed to be doing here. Like many of our great Southern writers, he argues that this confusion comes from "the specialization and abstraction of intellect, separating it from responsibility and humility, magnanimity and devotion, and thus giving it an importance that, in the order of things and in its own nature, it does not and cannot have." For Berry, the assumption that the self is intelligence and that intelligence is reducible to brain patterns—the very assumption that makes the dream of cryogenics possible—is the heart of the problem. When we destroy the outside world by ignoring its importance, including the limits it places on us, we destroy ourselves.
So perhaps DeLillo is doing us a favor in revealing how attenuated we have become, hyperlinked to one another, but not connected or committed. If we can see our particular embodied lives as gifts to give away and not to keep, maybe we can learn instead to love one another with a love that makes language more exact—and exacting.
Christina Bieber Lake is Clyde S. Kilby Professor of English at Wheaton College and author of Prophets of the Posthuman: American Fiction, Biotechnology, and the Ethics of Personhood (Univ. of Notre Dame Press).
Copyright © 2016 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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