Zero K, Don DeLillo, Pan MacMillan, 2016.
If I had to sum up what Zero K is about, I’d say that it poses questions about life and death: about how to live and how to die, and about life after death. It’s about consciousness and the sub-conscious; love, loss and grief; relationships and family dysfunction; sadness, bleakness, despair, and about the apocalyptic world we seem to be increasingly living in. Of course, being a DeLillo novel, it’s also about how technology is blighting our lives and making our experiences of the world smaller and weaker and less meaningful, and all this occurs in only the first 100 pages or so!
I enjoyed reading the book, although I found it very chilly and disengaged. I don’t think there was any joy or warmth at all, and what satire there is was of the “ouch’ rather than the “haha” variety. There was, however, a great deal of mirroring: the text itself mirrored the labyrinth underground structure of the Convergence headquarters (this cult-like organisation provides cryogenic services), with its many passages, and many-hued doors that may or may not open into a room/scene, or be a faux door/dead end.
The headquarters itself reflects the way in which the Convergence sect espouses seemingly legitimate ideas about life and death, but are these ideas real or just window-dressing, constructed to hide the real ‘behind the scenes’ agenda? In addition to this conundrum, I think the Convergence headquarters is also perhaps meant to mirror the brain, which I imagine as being constructed of long passages with “doors” leading to memories and thoughts – some of which can be accessed, and others which remain locked tight and inaccessible. Another example of mirroring may be seen in the presence of disturbing videos playing on large screens that descend from the ceiling along the vast headquarters’ passageways. These film clips attract everyone’s attention, which seems to mirror the way in which people, in real life, are attracted, like helpless moths, to screens that show us the terrible events happening in the world. Furthermore, the structure of the book itself, which has long sections of text in the beginning, which dwindle to smaller mind-blip size bits in the later stages of the narrative, seems to resemble the thought processes of a person subjected to the cryogenics procedure: are the long passages meant to represent ‘normal’ thoughts, and are the blips akin to what people might be thinking as they’re subjected to suspended animation? I don’t know. It was all quite complex and a bit weird, but I liked the forensically precise prose, which has no fat or fluff, but just stabs to the heart of the matter, time after time after time. Readers are confronted with a great many ideas and scenarios in this book, but you have to work quite hard to figure out what it all might mean.
One of the characters is a dishevelled monk who interacts with the protagonist. When the monk tells a tale about his intention to undertake a temple circumambulation, prostrating himself with each step, I found myself feeling great empathy for him. Although the circumambulation was intended to be a sincere representation of his faith, when he came to do it, he found that he just couldn’t go through with it. His intentions were good, but he couldn’t subject himself to such physical hardship, or perhaps his faith wasn’t strong enough and he couldn’t humble himself enough. Unlike the local people, who undertook such an arduous feat without any real fuss and considered it a privilege to do so, the monk was unable to place himself in the correct head-space. As a Westerner, he had glamorised circumambulation and perhaps thought it would be a grand achievement and a way to show his dedication, but really, it would just be showing off and be about him, rather than about his faith and humility. After all, there is no glory in crawling for miles on your belly across sharp stones and dirt.
And yet, the monk does something rather wonderful when he sits with dying people and comforts them, but he doesn’t seem to realise the importance of this kindness. The dedication inherent in such an act is not as obvious as prostrating oneself many thousands of times, but these acts may be seen as two sides of the same spiritual coin. I think this part of the novel highlights an interesting clash of cultural expectation and experience and I thought that maybe I detected a reflection of HH the Dalai Lama’s observation that people should practice the religious tradition into which they are born, rather than seeking to take on another culture’s ways. I find that concept interesting, seeing as how I have major problems with white Westerners claiming to have acquired the spiritual knowledge of another cultural tradition. I’m not so sure if it’s quite the same thing when people attempt to adhere to the teachings of a philosophy such as Zen Buddhism, though. Personally, I’ve never thought it possible for a Westerner to “become” anything but a practitioner of a western style of Buddhism, because the other sects and schools have so many cultural overlays that practice and culture are completely intertwined. It’s all a bit complex, really, but it’s something that does keep me awake at night.
If I had to rate the book, I would give it 4 stars. I liked the writing, and many of its concepts were vastly interesting. I’m glad DeLillo is still around and throwing out intellectual challenges for the rest of us to ponder.
“Is it very different at home, or on the street, or waiting at the gate to board a flight? I maintain myself on the puppet drug of personal technology. Every touch of a button brings the neural rush of finding something I never knew and never needed to know until it appears at my anxious fingertips, where it remains for a shaky second before disappearing forever.”
“Half the world is redoing its kitchens, the other half is starving.”
“The thinness of contemporary life. I can poke my finger through it.”
“How do we stand with others when the things that separate us are imposed at birth, when the separation haunts us and follows us day and night?”
“Isolation is not a drawback to those who understand that isolation is the point.”