Don DeLillo’s latest novel toggles between a remote compound in central Asia and the workaday world of New York City. In the bunker an apocalyptic cult is engaged in the cryogenic preservation of humans, whose brains and bodies are being frozen until the time when diseases have been cured and human consciousness perfected. Meanwhile, in Manhattan, an introspective young man named Jeffrey Lockhart, whose billionaire father is an investor in the cult, is trying to come to grips with his unhappy childhood and uncertain future.
The story is narrated by Jeff, who’s been summoned by his dad to the Convergence to witness the “cryonic suspension” of his stepmother Artis, who suffers from several disabling illnesses. Ross Lockhart adores his wife and wants to join her in the afterlife – and Jeff likes her, too – but he can’t shake the rage he feels toward his father for walking out on him and his mother when he was 13.
Both men are haunted, in different ways, by the specter of death, a theme captured in the book’s sci-fi title, “Zero K,” referring to the low end of the cryogenic temperature range, when molecular motion all but ceases. But while Jeff’s struggle to find meaning in his underachieving existence comes across as poignant and believable, the passages about the cult and Ross’ megalomaniacal quest to achieve immortality can, at times, feel tedious.
DeLillo excels at descriptions of the “ordinary moments (that) make the life” – the shocking “smell of other people’s houses” that frightened Jeff as a child; the “smooth burn of … whiskey going down”; the “radiant moment” when, on a crosstown bus, Jeff sees the “flaring sun … bleeding into the streets” during the semiannual occurrence called Manhattanhenge.
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Although the plot of “Zero K” doesn’t always hang together, DeLillo has written a profound, deeply moral book. His outrage at the mess we’ve made of the planet comes through loud and clear. In the bunker, wall-size screens run continuous video loops of human and ecological disasters, reminders of how violence and suffering persist despite technological advances. To quote one of the cult leaders: “Half the world is redoing its kitchens, the other half is starving.”
By Don DeLillo
Scribner, 274 pages