Don DeLillo – Zero K

Zero K is a tough book to review. On the one hand, it’s beautifully written, psychologically astute, and incredibly emotional to me. On the other hand, it breaks virtually every convention of the modern novel, nothing happens in it, and others have told me that the excerpt in the New Yorker (reviewed here) left them pretty flat.

Structurally, it’s a simple book: Zero K follows thirty-something contemporary New Yorker Jeff Lockhart as he says goodbye to his stepmother, who is having herself placed in cryostasis in some secret facility for the ultra-rich. Primarily, it’s about Jeff’s lifelong conflict and indifference toward his father, an extremely wealthy and influential capitalist, and his father’s abandonment of Jeff and his mother when he was younger. There are small turns of plot, but really, this book isn’t intended to be read for its minimal narrative arc.

Instead of story beats, the reader instead gets talk. Lots of talk. Lots of philosophical talk about the nature of reality, life and death, meaningfulness, etc. Similarly, when it isn’t dialogue, you can expect a load of introspection, about very similar topics.

This leaves us with a dialogue-heavy, introspection-heavy, mainly plotless novel, which is just about the least appealing description of a book that I can imagine. So how, then, can I be left feeling so goddam moved by the whole thing?

There’s the prose, to start. This isn’t DeLillo’s best writing (I’d argue that Underworld is), but even when he’s not at his best, he’s better than virtually everyone else. The language is sharp and rhythmic and mesmerizing, distilled when it needs to get to the point, and expansive when it has an idea to explore. DeLillo has that rarest of abilities to render every single thing meaningful if he wants to; there is no such thing as the mundane when he is writing it (unless he chooses not to focus on it, thus showing another skill: his ability to create meaning by selective attention). This is a beautiful book to read.

Here are just a couple of examples of great writing that I sent to my illustrious colleague, plucked from two consecutive pages (I could have chosen maybe fifty of these):

The long soft life is what I feel I’m settling into and the only question is how deadly it will turn out to be.

I know I’m supposed to resume the smoking habit. Everything that has happened drives me in that direction, theoretically. But I don’t feel reduced by my abstinence, as I did in the past. The craving is gone and maybe this is what reduces me.

Beyond the prose, there’s DeLillo’s sense of control, which is shot through in his beats, his themes, and especially in his characters. Nobody can write an argument like him, and the spar that happens between father and son is incredible in its small psychological details. Nobody knows how to let a thought unspool, diverge, get tangled, and return to reality quite like him. Nobody knows how to take a traditional novel off the rails like him. In other words, when DeLillo breaks the rules, he does it well, consistently, and in a way that doesn’t feel half-baked or overly displeasing.

Ultimately, even though DeLillo is probably my favourite living writer, and even though I absolutely loved this book, I don’t think I could enthusiastically recommend this to every reader. I wonder if you have to already be on board the DeLillo train to fully embrace his approach, or if he only appeals to certain readers to begin with. That said, it’s pretty significant, even in isolation of his exemplary career, that an 80-year-old man managed to write the best case study about my overshadowed, perpetually-forced-into-adolescence generation. DeLillo understands, more than my own parents’ generation, why we thirty-somethings have never embraced the older generation’s lifestyle, career paths, and desires: even if we had wanted to (which we don’t), that option never really existed for us in the first place. Zero K works so well on so many levels that I want to tell you that you’ll love it, but I can’t promise it.

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