BY MATTHEW HERBERT
I’ve come to believe that every novel worth the name is about the meaning of life.
Usually, though, the author finds an indirect path to this large theme. Cervantes has Don Quixote charging and bumbling through chapter after chapter of highly diverting, often hilarious adventures. There are hundreds of pages of Quixote sallying forth, disembowling innocents for their own good, wearing a cheese strainer as a helmet, and so on. Then, in the last chapter, the story abruptly changes tone, and Quixote realizes, in one of literature’s most touching deathbed scenes, that he wasted his life on a folly. He had read all the wrong books. The notions of Christian gallantry his books gave him were hollow and–this is what breaks Quixotes’ heart–beneath his dignity all along. All that hijinx hilarity, which strikes the reader as so jocular, really revealed a world laughing mirthlessly at the emptiness of Quixotes’ creed. He reforms, but too late, wishing on his deathbed he had read books that would have been a “light to [his] soul” rather than the devotional claptrap he fell for. There is not enough time now. Quixote dies a tragic figure.
Don Delillo, in his latest novel, Zero K, comes straight to the point. “Everybody wants to own the end of the world,” reads the brochure promoting “Convergence,” a cryonics business that forms the backdrop of the story. The business starts with a philosophy: We come into this life unbidden, suffer its slings and arrows from we know not where, and eventually die as passively as we arrive. Need it be this way?–asks the financier of Convergence and billionaire Ross Lockhart. With science promising to extend our lives beyond old boundaries, need we die as Quixote did, tragically, because there is not enough time to live an illuminated life? Or might we, shouldn’t we, re-engineer the end-of-life experience?
The novel opens in the remote Kazakhstan desert, where Convergence is located. In an underground complex of bunkers and wards, a visionary syndicate of doctors and lawyers, philosophers and theologians, and, of course, wealthy clients, seeks a future in which the sick can be cured after awaking from cryonic freezing. Jeffrey Lockhart, the protagonist, is there to witness his father Ross send off his second wife, who is dying of multiple sclerosis.
Delillo’s depiction of the cryonics complex and everything that goes on there is quietly luminous. His prose, like the voices of all the characters at Covergence, is hushed, respectful of the grave ambition it takes to push back the border of death. It is not quite immortality the clientele seek, we learn, but just more life, a chance to die on their own terms, and not just now. Ross explains the main idea to his son: “Faith-based technology. That’s what it is. Another god. Not so different, it turns out, from some of the earlier ones. Except that it’s real, it’s true, it delivers.” All the believers in Covergence are serious and calm, religiously respectful of one another’s vision.
They are also, Delillo begins to reveal, a little fake. From Jeffrey’s father, who hopes for a healthy new wife, to the project’s main ideologues, who prove over time to be more avant garde performance artists than scientists, to the quietly preoccupied staff of the Convergence complex, everyone with a stake in the project belies more pious, rhetorical hope for its success than knowledge of how it might work. Pressed (but gently) by his son to expand on Convergence’s faith-based technology, Ross offers a New Age benediction, “There’s a meaning in mathematics. There’s a meaning in biology. There’s a meaning in physiology. Let it rest.”
But Jeffrey cannot let it rest. He is not so much bothered by his feeling that his father’s business is a mirage as by a sense of the metaphysical sin it exudes. To grasp so literally for more life strikes Jeff as a betrayal of the thing that makes us human–our mortality. We learn that Ross Lockhart has a fake name, one he made up to boost his power image. He had a first wife, Jeffrey’s mother, whom he betrayed and then did his best to erase from his consciousness (before she finished the job and died). The idea behind Convergence is that all of life, not just its trappings, can be a do-over.
Jeffrey (and, we suspect, Delillo) is much more of Joseph Conrad’s frame of mind: we are gifted with a life that is superb in its uniqueness. We get this one life, and we live it, by God. Jeffrey reflects:
Consider the words alone. Time, fate, chance, immortality. And here is my simpleminded past, my dimpled history, the moments I can’t help summoning because they’re mine, impossible not to see and feel, crawling out of every wall around me.
Jeffrey cannot help but feel that the ability to extend life indefinitely would diffuse one’s identity fatally, stretching oneself over too many moments to possibly call one’s own. If life has meaning, it must have limits.
Ross succumbs to Convergence’s darkest promise, cryonic freezing while still alive and healthy. If a client is willing, he may do this. There is a special facility for it, Zero K, named for its temperature, which approaches zero on the Kelvin scale. This chamber is no mere sci-fi device Delillo throws in to deepen the horror of what is otherwise a quietly macabre plot. It is the philosophical pivot of his novel.
The impulse to discount this world as a vale of tears from which escape is desireable lies at the dark heart of man’s lust for immortality. From established churches to death cults, you can see this attitude on display anywhere there is true faith in life after death. If the real blessed realm is the eternal one, the one set up for our everlasting peace after we slip these surly bonds, then why not just go there directly? Orwell calls this sin the avoidance of the hard work of being human.
Jeffrey slips free of his father, whose desire to abandon the world he cannot understand. He goes back to New York, where “every genotype” the world has ever seen flows past him. He gets a job, loses his girlfriend, eats only one particular kind of bread. He reflects: “All of this matters even if it’s not supposed to matter.” For Delillo, I think, Jeffrey’s life reveals the sacred world of the human individual, one that lacks any grand, meaning-imposing metaphysical scheme, one in which we create and discover meaning ourselves. It is the only world we have, and it is beautiful.
If you enjoyed my review and want to read more, here are some other reviews of Zero K I found online. As a general rule, I avoid reading other reviews before I write mine, so I can keep my thoughts fresh.
Also, here’s a post I wrote last year about Jorge Luis Borges that covers a similar theme. “Everyone wants to live forever. Or do they?”