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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 12 November 2018

Book review: Death and mortality in DeLillo’s postmodern world

Don DeLillo's 17th novel, Zero K, is one of his very best, through its poetic exploration of death, mortality and normality.

Some days ago, while watching a film that he probably shouldn’t have been watching – The Dark Knight – my 10-year-old son turned to me and said, “Papa, why are so many superheroes billionaires?”

Now, of course, I’m no expert, but there probably aren’t that many billionaire superheroes. There’s Batman, of course, and Robert Downey Jr in his flying Iron Man suit. But the boy had a point: superheroes never really seem too strapped for cash, especially considering their sci-fi military hardware. For the most part, they exist outside of our economy. They’re employed, if they’re employed, in order to keep up appearances.

In truth, our billionaires more closely resemble supervillains. (Imagine, if you will, aspiring supervillain Donald Trump taking on wannabe superhero Mark Zuckerberg. Zuckerberg, even in an iron suit, wouldn’t stand a chance.)

Don DeLillo has written about billionaires before – his weakest novel, Cosmopolis, for example – but you get the sense that even when his characters have ostensibly normal jobs, they exist more as a means of exploring and often reaching certain idea-rich ends. They’re untethered philosophical superheroes cutting through, exposing and making sense of American history, the past, present and, as in his 17th novel, Zero K, a possible future. They always seem to be looking from the outside in.

His characters tend to speak alike, and share DeLillo’s delicious, utterly idiosyncratic, poetic rhythm of thought: ideas speaking to ideas, DeLillo speaking to DeLillo. This is not a criticism. Take this conversation, between two twins no less, discussing what a post-death reality on Earth will resemble:

“In time a religion of death will emerge in response to our prolonged lives.”

“Bring back death.”

“Bands of death rebels will set out to kill people at random. Men and women slouching through the countryside, using crude weapons to kill those they encounter.”

“Voracious bloodbaths with ceremonial aspects.”

(…)

“Or pray over the bodies, chant over the bodies, eat the edible flesh of the bodies. Burn what remains.”

“In one form or another, people return to their death-haunted roots in order to reaffirm the pattern of extinction.”

“Death is a tough habit to break.”

DeLillo is a living master of American literature and, I’m happy to report, Zero K is not only one his best novels since the epic Underworld (1997), but one of his three or four masterpieces. Those looking for a way in to his body of work, it’s not a bad place to start. And for those who have given up on DeLillo’s 21st-century output, here is your way back.

Zero K has everything one comes to expect from DeLillo – shining shards of detail, philosophy, art and intimations of looming disaster – but with a new urgency and emotional depth befitting his topics. Zero K explores death, eternity, family and, especially, the language that makes us human. Or, it should be said, our current idea of what it means to be human. It is a novel that, in part, tries to imagine what it might mean to break the “habit” of death, and if what remains would be recognisably human.

The novel is narrated by Jeffrey Lockhart, son of Ross Lockhart, another billionaire, “a man shaped by money”. Ross’s wife, Artis, is dying. He has invested his money in something called the Convergence, a partly underground secret centre in a desert near to, or in, either Kyrgyzstan or Kazakhstan. There, mysterious scientists and artists and weirdo religious types are working on a way to exterminate death before death exterminates the human race.

Artis’s end is to be induced prematurely, her body preserved and worked on until such a time that she might be resurrected, but in what form remains to be seen. Jeffrey finds his healthy, semi-estranged father, Ross, ready to join her.

This is a basic science fiction set-up, of course. It’s even old-fashioned in terms of speculative fiction. But it’s how DeLillo uses this theme which is extraordinary: taking us to the farthest reaches of what it means to be human, and then, in the extraordinary second-half of the novel, back to New York City, DeLillo’s native land, and the relatively prosaic, but somehow more pressing and superheroic business of what it means to define not death, but “ordinary” life, love and family.

Tod Wodicka’s second novel The Household Spirit was published last year. He lives in Los Angeles.