:: Article

The Obsessions of the Lonely: On death and life and Zero K

By Tristan Foster.

Zero K inverted

I think about death

I think about death all the time. Every day. I have a muscle ache or an indistinct pain and I think I’m dying. If, on a run, my heart flutters from the effort, I imagine collapsing on the spot and estimate how long it’d be before somebody found me. If I find myself in a discussion about livers or lungs or sickness and disease, I leave the room. If it’s a television show, I turn it off. If it’s online or in a book, I skip ahead to a safe paragraph. I know why. I fear death because my father had a sore throat and spent the next five years watching death’s slow but steady approach.

This is relevant. Jeffrey, the protagonist of Zero K by Don DeLillo, meditates on his relationship with his father while his stepmother is prepared for a non-death. Father and son were estranged for a time, while Jeffrey was raised by his mother and his father started again with this other woman. This is what fathers do. Jeffrey’s father, a billionaire, is named Ross Lockhardt, but that is not his name. I think fathers and maybe all men think this is their god-given right, to up and leave, to rename and refashion their lives. Men: different people for different moments.

“Ordinary moments make the life.” This is written on page 109 of Zero K. But it’s the abnormal moments that make up DeLillo’s fiction. A death facility in a Central Asian desert, a death facility that will become a life facility in the future, once the means and technology are available — this is the setting of Zero K. DeLillo’s fiction is an assemblage of moments that could be plucked from underground newspaper columns or whispered to you by a nervous, bedraggled man on an unfamiliar street or taken from those compartments of the internet that require a login to a private network. They are often subjects that deal, ultimately, with death, but which give it a side-long glance – which deal in life to deal in death.

Zero K is an evaluation of life and death: death in all its medieval pomp weighed against life in our technology-rich twenty-first century. People with the money and inclination are frozen in a facility deep under the ground, hopeful of, with time, reanimation. The main characters in Zero K are in the death facility because Artis, Ross’s wife, is going to die, or nearly die, and be interred until a time when resurrection is possible. Jeffrey was asked to be there by his father. He learns that Ross, too, wants to die in order to be resurrected. What do you give the billionaire who has it all? Immortality is the only gift left. DeLillo makes it clear that a possible conclusion of such an experiment is not more life but a non-death, a disappearance not from existence but into a limbo of words. The Christian limbo reinstated, but here, on earth, in a vacuum of pure language. To disappear into pure words until another time — it’s a nice idea.

I draft this on the train

I draft this on the train, in a grey notebook with a blue ink pen. The words on the page are messy, scribbled, made even less legible by the jolting of the carriage. A man behind me discusses property, keys, commission, numbers of bathrooms. Two university students sit on the stairs talking about London junkies. The woman beside me coughs drily into her hand. It strikes me that I have written on DeLillo before. I can’t recall where, quite possibly nowhere public, maybe as part of an assessment for a long forgotten class. The reading and the writing feels comfortable. So much so that I wonder if this is any good, and if the text in question is any good — I feel ill-equipped to be able to tell. But writing on it feels urgent and important; I write in a hurry. This writing makes me write; I’m sorry.

Do we still search for ourselves in literature and art? Or has technology given us the power to define who we are? To define ourselves to a satisfying degree, thus allowing us to stop looking? “I saw myself in these words.” This is written on page 107. Next to it, in the margin, I see now I wrote: “Obsessions of the lonely.” Jeffrey demands a definition of words, a character’s tick. “Define human, define animal.” I’m sure there is another DeLillo character who meditates on words, another definer of terms — maybe more than one. I think of “Hammer and Sickle”, the short story from the collection The Angel Esmeralda, the DeLillo that precedes this one. The protagonist, Jerold, in a white-collar jail for a white-collar crime, watches his daughters, Kate and Laurie, on the television. They deliver a demented stock market report for children. DeLillo doesn’t call it demented, I do. The girls repeat market terms and phrases, like mantras, like drumming Hare Krishnas jumping in the streets:

“The word is Dubai.”
“Say it.”
“Dubai,” Kate said.

Isn’t The Names all about language? Isn’t there a scene in Cosmopolis in which the main character stands in the shower and thinks about surfaces? An attempt to define, or to think about defining. A preposterous scene. Maybe I am adding the shower.

I realise it is Jerold that I’m thinking of. Jerold, with his odd spelling of Gerald. At home, I go into the study to find the book and verify this. On a shelf nowhere near the DeLillos is a note. Almost without thinking, I pick it up and unfold it and read:

— Logic?
— No responsibility
— Not good enough
— Done – error
— Sick of talking to you

Instructions or notes or a summary; the writing is mine. I turn the scrap of paper over, searching for more information, then fold it up and leave the room to throw it away.

The language of the technician

The language of the technician — this is the dialogue in Zero K:

“I’ve made provisions for you.”
“Do you understand how this reduces me?”
“The future will be secure. Your choice to accept or reject. You’ll leave here tomorrow knowing this. A car will pick you up at noon. The flight arrangements are made.”
“I’m shamed by this, totally diminished.”

That is from page 113. DeLillo’s dialogue has been shifting this way for a time and was maybe always this way. His characters, at one point, started to make only an approximation of sense.

“We’ll take him to the doctor,” I said. “Then I’ll drop you at the church.”
“Would the doctor see a crying child? Besides, his doctor doesn’t have hours now.”
“What about your doctor?”
“I think he does. But a crying child, Jack. What can I say to the man? ‘My child is crying.’”
“Is there a condition more basic?”

That is from page 75 of White Noise. The pleasures of thumbing through old books, searching for who you were at the time you read the story.

“One day we started to talk and it never stopped, this conversation.”
“Even at the end of things.”
“Even when we no longer found agreeable things to say or anything at all to say. The conversation never ended.”
“I believe you.”
“From the first day.”
“In Italy,” she said.
“Yes, this is true.”
“And the second day. In front of a church,” she said. “The two of you. And someone took your picture.”

That is from page 194 of Falling Man. This is not the conversation of the regular woman or man. It’s the abnormal conversations that make DeLillo’s fiction. The abnormal but probable. The abnormal but likely, something that you might see in your news feed a few weeks from now, while you’re alone and unprepared, a special update on the airborne toxic event of White Noise or an investigative piece on the tanker of waste from Underworld, on an endless and pointless search for somewhere to dock.

There is a work of art called the Cloaca

There is a work of art called the Cloaca Professional by Wim Delvoye in the permanent collection at the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart. Delvoye believes everything is pointless and creates a machine which is also pointless as a way of demonstrating this. It strikes me that DeLillo wouldn’t like this idea, of the artwork’s foundational philosophy being one of pointlessness. The work mimics the human body’s digestive system; in its own room carved into the sandstone cliff by the Derwent, it is fed twice a day and performs a mid-afternoon bowel movement. It needs tending to, needs feeding, needs care. It is served meals prepared in the cafe several levels above. Its organs hang from the ceiling. The room is crypt-like and smells earthy and organic, the combination of the enzymes in the artwork’s bellies processing the food, the food itself and a lingering scent of its shit. Maybe this is the smell that meets doctors when they open us up like pigs under operating theatre lights. This is what is called to mind by the death facility that is not a death facility in Zero K, this being kept in stasis by technicians.

DeLillo - Lisbon and Estoril Film Festival

DeLillo at the 2013 Lisbon and Estoril Film Festival (via)

It strikes me that DeLillo wouldn’t like the Cloaca. This Cloaca is not the only Cloaca — Delvoye has constructed several. I suspect DeLillo wouldn’t like this either. DeLillo prefers the visual and the gripping, scenes of horror and calamity. Point Omega‘s narrative is bookended by the protagonist’s viewing of Douglas Gordon’s art installation 24 Hour Psycho. In Zero K, Jeff walks the subterranean halls of the facility, the Convergence, looking for things or not looking but finding things or not finding things. Televisions in the facility show scenes of stampedes and monks self-immolating. This is the art that speaks to DeLillo — or, rather, to DeLillo’s inventions. Or maybe he would like the Cloaca. Maybe he would see we are all cloacae, eating and stinking, bovine, and having shit to show for it.

The title of part one of Zero K is “In the Time of Chelyabinsk”, named for a Russian town that appeared in news feeds when a meteorite entered the atmosphere with the light of a solar explosion. The event was captured incidentally, on dashboard cameras and public CCTV. The event was captured only because dashcams are a thing. Watch this now, compilation videos, ten minutes of dashcams and CCTV camera footage. Chelyabinsk — say it. Type it. You can watch this on your smart phone right now. Add this to a queue, behind a snippet of a glossy American cable show, behind a strobe-lit Japanese hip hop music video, behind the trembling footage of a migrant boat capsizing in the Mediterranean. Behind a video of a clumsy beheading. DeLillo’s fiction is made of the abnormal.

We cherish these distractions

“We cherish these distractions. Without them, death, dying, waiting for the finish would be far more severe — especially if you had refused the fables and easements guaranteed by belief.” Gordon Lish says this in an interview with The Paris Review. This is relevant. For one, Lish and DeLillo are friends, the former overseeing the publication of the latter’s early work, Ratner’s Star and The Players and The Names. But the distractions Lish means are television, the internet. It is also, arguably, reading, writing, creating something to leave behind when gone. On page 65 of Zero K: “I assumed … that this discussion was intended primarily for the archives.” This, the writing of this, the writing on the writing, seems to me a way of creating a legacy, or staring down death, in the hope of avoiding it. It’s futile, but the human being worships the futile. She builds kitchen corner shrines to it and builds vast, immovable temples to it. These distractions are distracting from pointlessness.

“Those of us who are here don’t belong anywhere else.” This, on page 129, is a statement on the story’s characters in a particular moment, but could just as easily be a meta-commentary on its readers. The characters are thinkers, they enjoy the sound of their own thoughts, turning them over like stones in their minds, not to pin down but to analyse — for themselves. This turning over is the fabric of this text. I worked for a time in a museum and came to learn that there are people who touch to inform their understanding. This was essentially my job, to stop the touchers from touching. It was clear there wasn’t any thought to this, that the act was primal, requisite for their knowing. There were those who would have broken apart the items on display if they had been allowed. DeLillo’s characters perform the intellectual equivalent of this touching, the narrative being a sort of interior monologue that mixes the internal with the external (the function, too, I realise, of the Cloaca). It is at these articulations that the private and the global meet — for the characters and, therefore, for us, the readers. These are the dichotomies that DeLillo’s writing pivots on, the hip joints or rotator cuffs. I google these terms to make sure the analogy works; the results dredge up broken bones and torn muscles. I close the tab.

Zero K is a program for those who have decided to be taken early, to be placed in crypto-preservation with those who were taken near their end. A way of joining the bank of bodies — DeLillo’s term — waiting for the day of withdrawal. Is this death? Is this life? What do those words, death and life, actually mean? Words are crucial to the text. Dare I say why? Am I revealing too much of DeLillo’s artifice? To DeLillo, in his version of cryogenics, the frozen men and women become words. “She knows these words,” he writes of the non-dead Artis. “She is all words … She is first person and third person both.” These are words that comprise thought, self, identity, but words nonetheless.

Ink smudges on the heel of my palm.

“He wasn’t done with fathers and sons.” This is written on page 125. “When does a man become his father?” This is written on page 202, my blue ink asterisk next to it. I’m not done; and, yes, when? I know nobody who knows their father well, nobody who really knows what they did at work, no-one who knows their father’s thoughts in their hours alone, and still the challenge is to not become your father. Do you become your father by trying to not become him — or by not trying? There were occasions when my father and I tried to connect, formally, at least two. We drove down the coast together in his white delivery van, just us, and stayed in a motel off the highway, not far from the water but also not close. He had some work to do — we visited some people in their homes, spoke to them, and that was the work done. We watched eighties action films taken from the selection of videos in the lobby. The next time, I was a university student, older, and I stayed with him for a few nights: I could keep up with his drinking, the clothes of another life dried in the sun on a line in his backyard. Other times, we tried to connect over sport, cycling or Sunday footy or pay-TV boxing in a suburban pub. The problem was we already knew each other. Of course we did. Maybe beyond the impulses, obsessions and superstitions, there isn’t much to learn about a person. “What is it we want here? Only life.” This is written on page 253. As my father sunk into himself, as his knees became knocked and his feet grew swollen, he wore a peculiar expression. Bitterness and terror and plain anger added to its texture, and the chemotherapy and radiotherapy etched it in, but at its root was this simple want — more life.

I know of the danger

I know of the danger in mapping a narrative and the ideas contained within it onto its author. I’m sure it’s an error, a near fatal one. A writer like Gerald Murnane would rap me over the knuckles for it, literally, if he could, with a ruler (the living author and the “author” of the text — another binary). The writer’s text is, in this case, not memoir or public commentary or confession. This is made up — at best, these are quarter truths or one-day myths or outright lies with the quality of a daydream. OK. But. The energy of Zero K’s second part wobbles, diminished, the narrative wilting. So maybe we are not talking about an individual here, as such, but a writer’s poise and powers of imagination and expressive skill — a writer’s force as encapsulated by the name on the book’s covers and everything in between. How many more times will DeLillo conjure anew?

Obsessions of the lonely - Zero K

In The Names, there are characters named Stock, Stahl, Tap. Tap, a boy, writes novels. Fathers appear, or are discussed. James, the protagonist, Tap’s father, discusses becoming one’s father: “You step into an elevator, suddenly you’re him. The door closes, the feeling’s gone. But now you know who he was.” This is on page 93. Out of the haze of the second half of Zero K, a character named Stak appears. Stock, Stahl, Stak — these are the names DeLillos gives to his peripheral characters. Stak is a precocious boy of fourteen, hates school, practices jujitsu and uses his iPhone to learn foreign languages. Like Tap in The Names, he is a storyteller, turning, for instance, “a stranger’s scant life into lavish fiction”, but for no other reason than to satisfy his own fleeting boredom. The boy is a captive of the present, as if chained to the now by a stake. Yet he is also a spirit of that enslavement, going so far as to embrace it. In other words, he is not creating an archive. OK, Stak isn’t a portrait of a young DeLillo. He isn’t an aged DeLillo’s inverse, even. But he is the opposite of an old Ross Lockhardt, the visionary and billionaire who has become disillusioned with this point in world history and, so, seeks an alternative in a distant, uncertain future.

Zero K is an imagining of the point at which life and death might meet and blur. The point at which they converge. The text, too, the physical novel, is the point where the author and I, the reader, converge. Where I have a near mystical experience as I enter this dream-world conjured by another and give it life. The text creates for the reader a frozen state between life and death. It is a supplement for faith, an escape from this life, and an antidote for death. It is all of these things, yet this can only last as long as the book does. Can’t it? I wonder if DeLillo hints at an answer with his novel’s title — zero kelvin, absolute zero, a temperature that is only hypothetical. A nice idea. We remain death-bound, this is our only trajectory. That clichéd but critical binary: life and death. The only binary, maybe. Or the only one that matters, because I want to live, I don’t want to die, I want to go on writing this.


Tristan Foster is a writer from Sydney, Australia. He is an editor at 3:AM Magazine.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, July 14th, 2016.