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When does the person become the body? A Review of Don DeLillo’s Zero K

By Christopher Schaberg

Don DeLillo, Zero K (Scribner, 2016)

A few years ago one of my students wrote a senior thesis on Don DeLillo, covering the themes, contexts, and philosophical issues that run through the contemporary author’s novels across several decades. This spring I received a letter in my campus mailbox from my student, with a newspaper clipping about DeLillo’s new novel Zero K as well as a handwritten note that said, “Looking forward to this. Probably the last one we can expect from him?” I flinched, and thought to myself well that puts it rather morbidly.

But now that I’ve read Zero K, and been washed over—more, baptized—by the publicity campaign surrounding the novel, my former student’s assessment doesn’t seem quite so dark. The novel is itself a meditation on death and something like its obverse, the fetishization of eternal life. Gushing lines of praise for the novel seem to almost eulogize DeLillo, as if this novel is to serve as a small cenotaph, hundreds of thousands of little paper gravestones in bookstores and on bookshelves. Martin Amis lauds the book accordingly: “The gods have equipped DeLillo with the antennae of a visionary.” ELLE summons the author’s entire oeuvre to claim, “Reading DeLillo’s books bolsters our belief in the art of fiction….” The Houston Chronicle posits that DeLillo “understands the capacity of words to elevate us above the mundane….”

Gods, belief, elevation—this is nothing short of a religious encounter, forced upon the reader before the cover is even cracked. I have a friend who ordered Zero K but felt so set upon by the overwhelming acclaim that he is now unable to read the book, and he is considering returning it to Amazon; he says he wants the book out of his house. Only an object endowed with mystical qualities might have such an effect.

Sadly—or thankfully, depending on your perspective—reading the actual book doesn’t deliver such an experience. In fact, what DeLillo has always been good at is puncturing these sorts of overtures, often uttered by his characters only to be deflated precisely by the mundane. And Zero K, too, revels in the mundane—at least, it does some of the time. We find ourselves in the pockets of one character, to consider the careful placement of a handkerchief in relation to keys, the bulk of a wallet and the repetitive feel of its presence as gauged by the minor tap of the palm. We linger on an ATM machine, with its curious admixture of social and private rituals. A monk is seen to be wearing black and white sneakers beneath the hem of his robe.

Unfortunately, these material details of the everyday are subordinated to the heavier topics of the novel: in short, a near-future sort of looming apocalypticism and the corollary behaviors of humans who entertain and are entertained by death, at turns. This is all fine and good, and not entirely out of line with other DeLillo novels such as The Names and Point Omega, among others. But in Zero K the storylines are either too fragmentary or too tunneled into minutiae—they never quite come together in the way they could. A great novelist does not necessarily make a great novel. But, to adapt one of DeLillo’s own questions in Zero K, “when does the person become the body [of work]?” When an anticipated novel warrants a sidebar ad in the New Yorker magazine, riding on previous successes and wagered against a new (possibly last, potentially not as good) work of fiction, readers beware. It is no small irony that a novel allegedly exploring the culmination of a successful life and its inevitable ruin should then resurrect an uncannily similar dynamic around the novel’s author, and the novel as an art object.

It is as if the book’s publisher wants Zero K to be the new bedrock that firms up, once and for all, DeLillo’s reputation (and marketability) as a novelist (with a robust backlist). Meanwhile, Zero K weighs the differences and similarities between life and death, a person and a rock, art and medium, fabulous wealth and bare asceticism. The book is at least hinting at—if not outright advocating—a certain arbitrariness that exists between these various, seemingly clear-cut terms. Has the publisher not read the book? Or have they simply decided to go whole hog into the very realm of postmodern irony that DeLillo himself has for so long written about with astonishing insight and sophisticated awareness? I understand that DeLillo is just a person, too, with bills to pay. Of course it was time for him to publish a new book. But I have to wonder, is the author at all bothered by the manic reproduction of some of the very things that Zero K (and other novels of his) are trying to slow down and think about, dare I say critique? Of course this line of questioning gets uncomfortable quickly: I want my publisher to market my books as best they can, too; who am I to judge? Let’s get back to the proper business of book reviewing.

As I finished the novel I felt like it either should have been edited down to short story length (which it was, in a sense, when it appeared in The New Yorker earlier this year as “Sine Cosine Tangent”), or it could have been fleshed out into a maximalist novel—developing the characters, following some of the threads further—and thereby potentially granting it status alongside DeLillo’s great novel of the mid-90s, Underworld. Incidentally, the publisher’s bold print on the back cover of my advance reader’s copy of Zero K asserts that it is his “finest novel since Underworld.” This seems utterly bizarre to me, since both Cosmopolis and Falling Man are forceful, extremely shrewd novels chronicling turn-of-the-century tensions and terrors. And Point Omega, in many ways, covers similar material as does Zero K, but in much tighter form. So for the publisher to brush over these three novels and equate Zero K with Underworld seems reckless—and not particularly generous to the author, either.

There are some delightful passages in Zero K, and the concepts are compelling, if not altogether original at times. The TV screens that play looped images of horrific scenes seem pulled right out of David Foster Wallace’s story “The Suffering Channel.” DeLillo recycles the phrase “dead time” from his earlier novel The Names—but outside the context of an airport, it doesn’t cut quite as sharply. There is in fact a nice paragraph about airport routines in Zero K, but it seems to rehearse what Valparaiso got at much more playfully, if also more darkly. One of my favorite lines in the book occurs when the main character contemplates the fate of his stepmother, who has been cryogenically preserved for future rebirth: “Does she know she’s waiting? Is she wait-listed?” Here is DeLillo at his finest, piercing an existential quandary with the everyday jargon of commercial air travel. (This is also a nice example of what I’m calling “airportness” in my next book: the cluster of sensations, narratives, and protocols that define modern flight, and how single objects, images, or phrases can conjure the entire menagerie of air travel.)

In the end, Zero K left me with a sense of vague dissatisfaction, but I think this has much more to do with the hysteria around the novel-as-event, and less to do with the book per se. The novel is a journey, and if it is frustrating, that’s actually okay because the story is about contemporary frustrations with the (mis)adventure of human progress. It’s almost like the final, fractured piece in a trilogy that would include Cosmopolis and Point Omega, gathering a few new characters and their trajectories into the mix. But the ancillary text—the genuflecting around DeLillo, the very making of the Author into a body, a statue not unlike the haunting visage on the novel’s cover—this is what is ultimately disappointing, as if we’ve learned nothing from DeLillo over all these years, from all his wonderful, critical fiction.


Christopher Schaberg is associate professor of English and Environment at Loyola University New Orleans. His new book, The End of Airports, is out now.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, July 22nd, 2016.