Zero K (Don DeLillo)

Posted: April 18, 2018 in fiction
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Once upon a time, The Ex thought I should get some counseling to control my same-sex desires. The priest she sent me to said that he didn’t see being gay as anything bad or requiring counseling, so he talked to me about my parents instead. I feel like that’s what’s going on in my life now – I came back to this house, I’m feeling the anger from when I was divorced, but life keeps handing me books about parent-child relationships. Maybe that’s the real problem: I may actually have dealt with my problems with The Ex, but it’s my parents’ homophobia and lack of support that still enrages me.

This is a book about burying one’s parents. Our first-person narrator Jeff is an unemployed, commitment-phobic child in his mid-thirties. His personality isn’t really strong enough to leave a strong impression, especially not in the high-concept science fiction world he wanders into. It seems odd to me that he should be so young when his parents die, but I suppose some people do still die of disease in their sixties. It’s not as common as it once was, but it could happen. His mother died some time before the beginning of the story, and he was there at her bedside when it happened, so the memory of his mother’s death follows him throughout the book. The novel is divided into two parts, one for his stepmother and one for his father.

Part One is called In the Time of Chelyabinsk, after the town where a giant meteor exploded in the sky. Artis is sick and going to die, so she goes to this cult-like cryogenic freezing place in the middle of nowhere, probably in Russia. I like her name; it reminds me of a cross between Artist and Artemis. Of his two surviving parents, Jeff finds Artis easier to love, but he never responds to her in a filial manner. He calls her by her first name and she is who she is, always herself instead of being identified by her relationship to him. People appear and Jeff gives them names in his head, but they seem to prefer anonymity, being submerged in a group identity. We never learn how they identify themselves, or if they identify themselves as separate individuals.

This part takes place almost wholly within The Convergence, a bunker-like structure designed to preserve the dying wealthy for a time when they can be restored to health. Jeff spends a lot of time wandering around the hallways. It seems designed to remove people from all frames of reference; most of the doors in the halls are decorative instead of leading into rooms, and they tend to be nearly identical. Jeff keeps looking for ways to differentiate, but in my head I only saw the same corridor over and over again. As Jeff wanders the halls, they show video footage of natural disasters, tornados and earthquakes and such, to give the impression that life ‘out there’ is chaotic and frightening, but in here everything is safe and controlled. No nature, no disaster. Science is forestalling death, the ultimate natural event.

And yet, the theory behind the design seems to have been that death is not a part of life, that it removes a person from life even if it’s a relative dying and not herself. Initially the focus is on Jeff’s feelings about Artis dying, which he can only process in this isolation from his daily life, but as he keeps learning about this place the atmosphere gets increasingly conspiracy theory/science cult. The final process feels similar to mummification, with the removal of the organs and sometimes the head. The subjects are promised new, better versions when they’re revived in the technologically advanced future, but it’s still a hospice center in a nuclear bomb shelter. They think they’re living on, but it’s death all the same. Between parts one and two we have a brief interlude of Artis’s thought process after being frozen, and it’s a panicked search for memory of who and where she is, but she can’t find the words for it. Just an endless repetition of searching for a lost identity and place in the world.

In Part Two, Jeff’s father Ross is ready to join Artis. He’s not sick or anything, he just doesn’t want to live without her. Part of this section takes place in the Convergence again, but most of it is in New York as Jeff goes about living his real life. There are some echoes of White Noise here, which helped me feel more comfortable in placing this in the same place in my head as DeLillo’s earlier novels. Jeff is seeing Emma, and she has an adopted son from the Ukraine, Stak. Stak usually lives with his father in Denver, but we meet him on a trip to New York. He’s kind of troubled. While Jeff is dealing with his own daddy issues, he makes an effort to not-quite-parent Stak. It’s not enough, but he does his best. When Stak runs off, Emma slowly disappears from Jeff’s life.

It was easy for me to identify with the characters in White Noise, but it’s harder here in Zero K. One of the things that bothers me about him is the fact that he turns down employment for emotional reasons. I understand that this is part of how Baby Boomers perceive Millennials, but I don’t know anyone who does this. Our fathers aren’t rich and supporting us (as Ross does for Jeff), so we will take any job we can get. ‘It just doesn’t feel right’ is no reason to pass on an opportunity to eat and live in your own place, but the dependence doesn’t seem to bother Jeff. Finally he does find suitable employment as an ethics and compliance officer for a university, but he doesn’t seem as identified with his work as I would expect from his making such a big deal about it.

And then, of course, there’s the relationship with the father, which the book seems to be primarily about. Jeff is one of those adult children of divorced parents who can never forgive his father for being his own person. The only thing that matters to Jeff is relationships, and people only matter to him as their relationship to him. To Jeff, Ross’s only identity is his father, as if his own needs for work and love are unimportant. I see a lot of this in my own family, with my siblings refusing to have a relationship with our dad. I won’t say I’m comfortable with him, but he is my dad, and there are no substitutes for that. Half of my raw materials are from him, so he’s an important influence on my body and personality. I can’t hate him without hating myself, and I choose not to hate myself.

Part Two is In the Time of Konstantinovka, and the Convergence has seen a shift in focus. To me, it seems less religious and more business. The screens no longer show natural disasters – they show footage of the fighting in the Ukraine. Nature is no longer the enemy; other people are. Here in small-town USA we’re pretty far removed from events in the Ukraine, but apparently the fighting hasn’t really ever stopped, since a few years ago when Russia pretty much annexed the Crimea, and the rest of the world just let them. Konstantinovka gets a special mention because it’s the town where a tank ran over a little girl. It seems to me like a civil war, and there are some historical parallels to the way we stole Texas from Mexico, but some people are seeing this as evidence that we’re in a second Cold War. I’m not sufficiently involved in the news to have an opinion on that idea, but I think it’s one that a lot of people in this country would welcome. A Cold War gives us an easy target, a clearly defined enemy nation. We haven’t had that in a while.

As a kid, it seemed like we weren’t against individual Russians so much as against Communism and Conformity, which were pretty much the same thing, a lifestyle more than an economic system. In the last twenty-five years, we’ve become more conformist, I think – instead of Weird putting people outside of society like it did when we were kids, Weird has been adopted as a standard model of American behavior. There are set patterns of being weird that people can accept now, so you have to be weird in the right way.

I wanted to see beauty in these stilled figures, an imposing design not of clockwork bodies but of the simple human structure and its extensions, inward and out, each individual implacably unique in touch, taste and spirit. There they stand, not trying to tell us something but suggesting nonetheless the mingled astonishments of our lives, here, on earth.

Instead I wondered if I was looking at the controlled future, men and women being subordinated, willingly or not, to some form of centralized command. Mannequined lives. Was this a facile idea? I thought about local matters, the disk on my wristband that tells them, in theory, where I am at all times. I thought about my room, small and tight but embodying an odd totalness. Other things here, the halls, the veers, the fabricated garden, the food units, the unidentifiable food, or when does utilitarian become totalitarian.

Was there a hollowness in these notions? Maybe they were nothing more than an indication of my eagerness to get home. Do I remember where I live? Do I still have a job? Can I still bum a cigarette from a girlfriend after a movie?

As with most science fiction, DeLillo is asking questions about who we are, and who we are becoming. If there is a Cold War II, are we the conformists this time? Are we allowing ourselves to become standardized people? Am I myself, or am I WeirdBookNerd33459, a specific variation that loves music, movies, and the fiber arts? And why is it that Microsoft Word underlines my last name as if it were a spelling error, but has no problem with the standardized label in the previous sentence?

Sometimes history is single lives in momentary touch.

Actually, I think that’s all history is. It all boils down to individual people making decisions. Those decisions can have far-reaching consequences, and history is usually composed of more weighty decisions than whether I’m going to eat bacon and eggs for breakfast or not, but still, it’s people choosing. The study of history consists of understanding why people choose the things they do and what the consequences of those choices are.

I do realize that the novel that serves as my reference point for DeLillo was written thirty years ago, and this book is his most recent. That’s plenty of time for growth and change. But there are still technicolor sunsets and fractured, oddly international families. There are people trying to figure out who they are in a world that is increasingly hard on individualists. Perhaps our real life is assuming more of an Arthur C. Clarke/Philip K. Dick vibe, which is why we have such a sci-fi book from an otherwise realistic author. And maybe I’m not ready to deal with my feelings about my parents’ eventual demise, which is why I’ve written nearly two thousand words while avoiding that topic.

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