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James P. McCartinSeptember 15, 2016
Zero Kby Don DeLillo

Scribner. 288p $27

Amid the apocalyptic wreckage of Nazi-occupied Warsaw in 1944, Czesław Miłosz composed “A Song of the End of the World,” a poem that poses the disappointment of “those who expected signs and archangels’ trumps” against the quiet resolve of a wise old man, diligently tying up his tomato plants and calmly repeating: “There will be no other end of the world./ There will be no other end of the world.” In Zero K, which takes place in contemporary Manhattan and in a seemingly timeless, state-of-the-art bunker facility in Kazakhstan, acclaimed novelist Don DeLillo highlights a similar dissonance: on the one hand, a robust embrace of violent cataclysm; on the other, a principled resistance to apocalypticism’s considerable allure. This story of a father and son drawn to the contemplation of natural and manmade conflagration—along with their own bodily degeneration and that of their loved ones—strikes a ruminative mood that contrasts their variant characters and perspectives without drawing distinctions too quickly or too starkly.

Ross Lockhart, the alpha-male father whose calibrated speculation on global disasters made him a billionaire, has invested a fortune, along with his profoundest hopes, in a cryogenics initiative promising to resurrect him and his second wife, Artis, in a distant age when humanity has transcended its violent instincts and science has overcome the effects of aging and disease. Jeffrey Lockhart, the underemployed 30-something son and narrator, grapples to understand his father and stepmother’s eccentric notions, as well as his own attitude toward the apocalyptic mindset and the limitations of human mortality. We meet them in a remote Kazakh destination known as the Convergence, a mysterious secular monastery from which a new, post-apocalyptic humanity is to be raised up. There, a desperately ill Artis prepares to surrender to the cryogenic process, as father and son weigh scenarios of earthly calamity and consider the promise of everlasting life for once-and-future titans whose supercooled remains lie suspended in individualized underground pods.

Whether in the sterile cocoon of the Convergence or along the animated streets of the Lockharts’ native New York, Jeffrey drives the dialogue, which is frequently an interior one. Since childhood, he has been a latter-day Descartes, impelled to a distrustful interrogation of the world around him, persistently applying his own clear and distinct definitions to each separate object he encounters. “Define tennis racquet,” he commands himself. “Define rock.” This habit, along with the practice of secretly renaming the people who enter into his life, has a pathological dimension that parallels Ross’s compulsive determination to control things through his vast wealth. Yet father and son ultimately orient toward different horizons: for Ross, the impulse to exercise power leads into a comically bizarre science-fiction world constructed out of an overwrought fear of catastrophe and death, while Jeffrey’s practice of defining and renaming becomes an unexpected route to his understanding of a mystical, “prelinguistic” sense of wonder.

This is a heady book that smartly confuses categories and distinctions. Despite a life of unsurpassed security and privilege, Ross is terrorized by a sense of insecurity and an overwhelming fear of loss—a word that tellingly rhymes with the name, we learn, he adopted for himself as a young man. At various points, too, distinctions between art and science or representation and reality melt away. When Jeffrey surveys the meticulously shaved human bodies that resemble so many milky-white sculptures, each suspended in its own cryogenic tube, he might as well be strolling through the Greek and Roman galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Despite quirks and shortcomings, Jeffrey Lockhart remains firm against the fear propelling his father’s desire to end his life prematurely in the sure hope of rising up in a body glorified by scientific engineering. More than once, we return to Jeffrey’s memory of himself attending the deathbed of his mother, Madeline, lovingly lingering over the details of the scene as she succumbs to the devastating effects of a stroke. What Jeffrey learned from her, he says, is that “ordinary moments make the life,” not the catastrophe that we humans experience—or imagine we will one day experience.

With its strong attraction to the apocalyptic, our own contemporary cultural moment could benefit from this point of view.

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