I would have bought Don DeLillo’s latest novel, Zero K, just for the exquisite, elegant cover. However, the nostalgia I feel for the author of the book ever since I read his stunning White Noise (1985) at university was its strongest selling point.
The essence of the title, the slick prose, the reduction of plot to bare essentials, the narrative’s minimalist beauty are all reflected in the cover design. You get what you see. The story is seemingly simple: billionaire Ross Lockhart invests in Convergence, a futuristic secret place somewhere in Asia where people are allowed to die on their own terms. They are kept in a state of stasis with the hope of being reawakened at a distant point in time when whatever ailed them can be overcome.
Artis, Lockhart’s second wife, is terminally ill and has decided to undergo the procedure. Ross asks Jeff, his only son from his first marriage to Madeline, to witness the transition. Deeply in love with Artis, in a moment of longing and desperation, Ross chooses to join his spouse, but then other considerations complicate the decision. Artis herself reveals a wish which throws Jeff off balance.
Jeff remembers his mother and her torturous death from cancer after Ross had left the family when the boy was still growing up. The relationship with his father is distant and troubled. Jeff’s entire adult life is a counter reaction to his father’s abandonment and ambitions. Now in his early thirties, Jeff is simultaneously confronted with the past they share and the future his father imagines.
In Convergence their fears and desires collide. The compound’s artistic design is a stark reminder of all that is sublime and evil in the world. The one does not seem to be able to exist without the other. It is a space of contemplation and a certain type of finality which offers the beyond so many dream of. But in what kind of world would we really be prepared to face eternity? Surely not the deteriorating, plagued, violent planet of our own making, the one we currently so carelessly refer to as home. The ancient question persists: “What’s the point of living if we don’t die at the end of it?” Is a surrender in which we gain instead of relinquish control and power worthwhile?
Zero K – the title derives from “a unit of temperature called absolute zero” – is a powerful meditation on life, the current state of global affairs and our uncertain future. The only thing I could fault it for is the weary sterility of the emotions it stirs, but then again: it reflects much of what we have come to accept about our fragile world: “I knew what I was feeling, a sympathy bled white by disappointment.” Only a few of us notice one of those moments “never to be thought of except when it’s in the process of unfolding.” And it will be our novelists and artists who will keep reminding us what is at stake.
by Don DeLillo
First published in the Cape Times, 6 January 2017.