Zero K by Don DeLillo
“Do you ever feel unfleshed?” A character asks towards the end of Don DeLillo’s horrifyingly timely new novel, Zero K.
All the coded impulses you depend on to guide you. All the sensors in the room that are watching you, listening to you, tracking your habits, measuring your capabilities. All this linked data designed to incorporate you into the megadata. Is there something that makes you uneasy? Do you think about the technovirus, all systems down, global implosion? Or is it more personal? Do you feel steeped in some horrific digital panic that’s everywhere and nowhere?
This would all be foreboding if it weren’t already too late. Zero K is a devastating vision of our present, positioned on the precipice of digital singularity: we’ve moved dangerously close to a world where creative freedom and individuality have been rendered obsolete and replaced by information’s flow. The technology at hand in Zero K is familiar and inescapable: twenty-four hour news, satellite feeds and streaming video, step-counters and the digitizing of modern medicine all herald an advanced world worth tuning into, but at what cost? Zero K is a masterpiece capable of breaking apart our modern hearts: DeLillo shows not what this world’s coming to but the empty wasteland where some of us have already unintentionally settled.
Jeffrey Lockhart, son of billionaire investor Ross Lockhart, has been brought to his father’s Eastern European cryogenics facility to witness his stepmother Artis’s transition into the future. She’s to be frozen and her ailing body recoded into a new existence once the science allows it, transitioned eventually into a template of health and beauty. Artis is ready to embrace the lonely future in the name of her husband’s technology, and it’s frightening to see how ready she (and all us contemporary humans) are for a life detached from traditional human interaction. A nurse, in one of the novel’s many unsettling monologues expounds on this solitude:
Think of being alone and frozen in the crypt, the capsule. Will new technologies allow the brain to function at the level of identity? This is what you may have to confront. The conscious mind. Solitude in extremis. Alone. Think of the word itself. Middle English. All one. You cast off the person. The person is the mask, the created character in the medley of dramas that constitute your life. The mask drops away and the person becomes you in its truest meaning. All one. The self.
The staff at Lockhart’s facility refer to this phase of life after death as “The Convergence”. This name grows increasingly resonant as the novel progresses, as DeLillo thematically builds tension between this vision of the future and Jeff’s more traditional interactions with the people around him. Perhaps in counterpoint to technology’s hum, much of Zero K is devoted to Jeff’s privately-projected stories that he attributes to the characters he encounters. When he meets two proselytizing twins in one of the many sleek, sterile rooms of the medical facility, he’s compelled to give them names and histories. They’re the Stenmarks: Nils and Sven, or maybe Jan and Lars.
I decided that they were street anarchists of an earlier era, quietly dedicated to plotting local outrages or larger insurrections, all shaped by their artistic skills, and then I found myself wondering if they were married. Yes, to sisters. I saw them walking in a wooded area, all four…
Elsewhere a man with a “bulging body” becomes “Miklos Szabo”. A woman in a headscarf “would not be real until I gave her a name,” Jeff thinks. “Here I was, in a sealed compartment, inventing names, noting accents, improvising histories and nationalities. These were shallow responses to an environment that required abandonment of such distinctions.”
The thematic implications of Jeff’s actions are harrowing when investigated further. How much of humanity, or life as we once knew it, from before this digital revolution, relied on our stories, our pasts, and our inherent human interest in learning more about someone? What’s a friendship, or a relationship, but the merging and unveiling of these stories? What Jeff’s doing in Zero K is clinging to that unknown and seeking the narrative that is a person’s personality, their soul. The aptly named Convergence exists at a point where the need for a narrative intersects with the possibility that narrative, as a necessity of existence, may no longer be required. That sounds cataclysmic and bleak but it’s not so distant: in a world where something as beautiful and complicated as love can be reduced to a binary yes-or-no checkbox declaring whether or not a person is “in a relationship”, it becomes surprisingly easy to see DeLillo’s world, free of individuality, as something like our own.
The second section of Zero K sees Jeff back in New York (if only for a few chapters), which allows DeLillo a new realm to wrestle with “the thinness of contemporary life.” New York is just a few advancements behind Ross Lockhart’s Chelyabinsk lab, and although still dangerously close to “convergence” Jeff can see “that what was gathering could well be a kind of psychological pandemic.” But there’s hope: his girlfriend and her son provide Jeff a vision of more a traditional world, of history “as single lives in momentary touch.” Instead of projecting stories, he’s living them, creating them with the people around him.
“Cherish the language,” he thinks. “Let the language reflect the search for ever more obscure methods, down into subatomic levels.” In Zero K, the search for science’s great beyond has overwhelmed the potential glory of words, of story and history, and has led to an astonishing and empty future. Late in the novel Jeff visits his girlfriend’s classroom and marvels at her young students’ innocence and naivete (traits our society now so quickly drains):
Will some of these children be able to venture into adulthood, become grown-ups in outlook and attitude, able to buy a hat, cross a street. I looked at the girl who could not take a step without sensing some predetermined danger. She was not a metaphor. Light brown hair, sunlit now, a natural blush on her face, an intent look, tiny hands, six years old, I thought, Annie, I thought, or maybe Katie…
“Play a game, make a list, draw a dog, tell a story, take a step,” DeLillo writes with breathtaking reduction. If we’re to resist Zero K’s vision of the future, and heed DeLillo’s warnings, perhaps this is all we can do.