Book Review: Zero K

Zero K Extends Career-Long Queries

Maggie Grimason
4 min read
Zero K
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Page 159: “I almost know some things. I think I am going to know things but then it does not happen.” This is a line from Don DeLillo’s new book, Zero K. It also describes how I feel about this book. Page 240: “I thought what.” Exactly. This sentence perfectly summarizes what I was thinking the whole time I read.

This novel, DeLillo’s 17th, is perhaps more cerebral than even his previous works (and those aren’t by any means simple). For that reason, as I moved through the work much of it seemed obscure, intellectually out of reach. This fault could be the author’s, perhaps a flaw in the way he chose to structure the book, but more likely it is my oversight. As I meditated on the material, I feel as though I’ve missed something, like I need to read the book once more to really gain an understanding.

That being said, I will not be reading this book again. While I didn’t hate reading
Zero K, I didn’t love it, either. Here’s the gist of it: Jeff Lockhart’s father is a billionaire and Jeff is a ne’er-do-well. Jeff’s father has invested heavily in a commune-based company that doles out death at a secret compound called The Convergence in the deserts of the Middle East. The understanding is that those who go there to die will be awakened in the future, when biomedical advances are able to return them to life—a better life, most of them presume. The mysterious new age philosophers that wander the compound profess that those who die will “awaken to a new perception of the world … The world as it really is.”

I found the core of the query of
Zero K to be troublingly self-righteous, boiled down to: “We are born without choosing to be. Should we have to die in the same manner?” Of course, the opportunity to approach this idea and its realization is strictly reserved for the wealthy. The characters that grapple with this—Jeff, his father, the psuedo-philosophers who wander the complex—are vapid, inept, so soulless as to render their answers to the question null. Jeff’s father, cold and difficult to love, is closely aligned with the the complex, at worst, making this a work of technophobia, at best, pointing to the complexity of power, death, wealth and the relationship of the individual to the propaganda (i.e., the media) that surrounds them.

What I most appreciated about
Zero K was the overwhelming feeling of world-weariness that pervaded it and the occasional sentence level turn of phrase that radiated. However, the whole of the book was rendered too abstract to resonate, to reach the power that the bare bones of the themes and plot suggest it might. The elements that might make Zero K powerful are classic ones—the beauty of everyday life, even when lived simply. The question of whether impermanence is the foil that makes it so comes into focus in the second half of the novel. Yet throughout, DeLillo never loses scope. Despite Jeff’s privilege, there are a multitude of scenes that beg the question: How beautiful is life for the millions of victims of extreme violence and poverty? For these people, is death worth staving off? DeLillo deeply considers both.

For first time DeLillo readers who are attracted to these concepts, his previous work,
White Noise, for example, is more accessible and more satisfying. For long-time fans, however, Zero K expands nicely upon the themes that have always fascinated the author. Despite the unnecessary opaqueness of Zero K, it is a testament to DeLillo’s literary intellect and one-of-a-kind style.
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