So I’ve just finished Zero K by Don Delillo and am quite relieved to put it down. Although the novel is only 270ish pages long, it felt a hell of a lot longer. Over the few days I was reading it, it seemed to hang over me like a fog – a weighty idea-laden fog that wouldn’t let up. By the end of the novel, I was left questioning why I read it in the first place. Because, this novel was clearly not for me. The trouble is, apart from fusty award bodies and people who drink cognac in bathtubs, I have no idea who it actually is for.
In Zero K, we follow Jeffrey Lockhart, a man who has a billionaire for a father. Ross Lockhart is the primary investor of a secret scientific compound, where various doctors and physicians are looking into the possibility of placing bodies in cryostasis until cures for their diseases are found. Ross’ wife, and Jeffrey’s step-mother, Artis is dying and she is ready to undergo the treatment herself. Ross and Jeffrey meet at the compound to see her off, and Jeffrey is exposed to many questions about his, and everyone else’s, humanity.
The word ‘literary’ cannot begin to describe Zero K. If you were at all intrigued by the science fiction-esque plot, there’s no way you won’t be disappointed. The plot exists solely as a springboard for the ideas that Delillo wants to discuss. And you gosh-darn bet he wants to discuss them in detail. As such, not much really happens. It’s a shame, because in the little moments where Zero K does decide to concern itself with what is actually happening, it becomes really interesting. But these moments are incredibly few.
Zero K suffers from being flat, with a painful pace. There’s never an escalation, a turn, a rhythm. It’s all just slow and meditative, with characters talking their musings and musing their talkings out loud. The actual setting of the compound seems fascinating, and little details were interesting. Early on, it, along with subject matter, reminded me of the (bloody awesome) film Ex Machina, as Jeffrey is issued a key card that only allows him into certain rooms. However where Ex Machina explored its idea through characterisation and skillful plot, Zero K merely presents Delillo’s ideas plainly and directly.
Characters are all the same. Jeffrey is the same as Ross is the same as Artis is the same as a randomer Jeffrey meets in a walled garden. Every character is a philosopher, waxing lyrical about the meaning of life, talking only in metaphor-laden soliloquy, sometimes with another character if they happen to meet each other. None of these characters seem to actually have conversations. They merely talk at the same time. Characterisation is a foreign concept here. It seems to have been discarded, something Delillo decided not to include. Not of his concern.
It’s just all droll, one-note. Concepts come and go before your eyes. There’s nothing to ground them, make them relatable. We are offered up bizarre and confusing imagery and then expected to contextualise it in the proper way. And most of the time, this is mixed in to a scene – so it’s hard to work out what is actually going on, as opposed to what is happening in someone’s head. Zero K has the literary staple – ‘A Novel’ – just to remind the reader. This is actually needed here, as Zero K reads more like Delillo’s personal dream journal.
Zero K had me intrigued when I read the blurb, but I can’t help feeling it was a rather serious case of false advertising. The threadbare plot sags under the weight of so many themes and images. It’s hard to find your way around inside its pages. Never have I read a book where the ideas presented seem so baffling, but also incredibly laboured at the same time.
Zero K is a rather impenetrable look at the science fiction concept of cryostasis, dealing with life, death and the bit inbetween. Where the novel could have introduced many of the concepts it tackles through the plot, Delillo seems largely unconcerned with such a device. Some good ideas and imagery cannot combat dry, unrealistic characters and a plodding tone. All this adds up to make Zero K a rather dull affair indeed.
ZERO K by DON DELILLO