STARRED REVIEW
May 2016

Putting life on ice

By Don DeLillo
Don DeLillo’s novels are not for the faint of heart. Though not especially complex in style—he writes with a spare, arid lyricism—they have continually challenged readers with a dark worldview tied to the here and now. DeLillo is about to turn 80, so it might not be surprising that his new novel, Zero K, centers on death. Ever the visionary though, he has taken the subject in an unusual direction: the world of Cryonic suspension, where the dying are frozen, to be resurrected in the future when medicine has caught up to their maladies.
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Don DeLillo’s novels are not for the faint of heart. Though not especially complex in style—he writes with a spare, arid lyricism—they have continually challenged readers with a dark worldview tied to the here and now. DeLillo is about to turn 80, so it might not be surprising that his new novel, Zero K, centers on death. Ever the visionary though, he has taken the subject in an unusual direction: the world of Cryonic suspension, where the dying are frozen, to be resurrected in the future when medicine has caught up to their maladies.

The novel is narrated not by one of the dying (except in the sense that we are all dying), but by Jeffrey, the 30-something son of billionaire Ross, whose second wife, Artis, is close to death. The three travel to a remote desert facility in a former Soviet republic where her “Convergence” will take place. Unsurprisingly, the state-of-the-art compound is an odd, futuristic place, isolated and conducive to meditative rumination, inspiring Jeff to all manner of thoughts about life and death (the first half of the novel, perhaps consciously, is reminiscent of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain). As Artis approaches her final hours, Ross decides that he will expedite his own death in order to be with her. His procedure will take place in an area called Zero K, shorthand for absolute zero on the Kelvin scale. 

 Zero K is about death, and the ageless question of whether we should have control over our own mortality, but it is equally about life and the complications that unite to make each of us who we are. Jeff is a highly flawed individual, struggling with OCD and obsessed with words, forever battling feelings of paternal abandonment and the inability to form lasting relationships. When he does enter a tentative romance with a woman, a single mother with a teenage son she adopted as an orphan from Ukraine, the novel seems to go in a new direction. But it circles back to the Convergence in its final pages, striving for a measure of optimism and hope amid a narrative of inevitability and despair. Ever uncompromising in his assessments, DeLillo has written another uneasy dissection of how we live and all we struggle to overcome. Still, one can’t help but notice that if spelled out with a cardinal number, the book’s title becomes “OK.”

 

This article was originally published in the May 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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Zero K

Zero K

By Don DeLillo
Scribner
ISBN 9781501135392

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