“Zero K”

Zero K


[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

The newest novel by Don DeLillo, published last month. My excellent local library came to the rescue again.

The Plot:

Jeffrey Lockhart travels to a compound to see his dying stepmother before her cryonic preservation (cryonic is low-temperature preservation; cryogenic is the study of). His father wishes to take the same path. Jeffrey is disturbed by the idea of leaving a known life (and death) for an ambiguous stasis and future and he thinks about this, off and on, while thinking about other things. And doing a couple of things. And thinking.

2 out of 5 stars.

I was excited for this. Zero K sounded like a return to the deathfear, consumerism satire of DeLillo’s earlier works (see my Running Dog review for more DeLillo talk). I hoped it might hum like White Noise.

Walk away if you’re expecting the same. Read White Noise again.

Zero K does not a traditional narrative. The plot, as presented, ends up mattering very little. This is a series of thoughts and vignettes, loosely linked. Some stunning prose comes across the page but I felt no emotion, heart, depth, or connection to the characters.

[1] Vocabulary:

They stood behind a set of bollards designed to keep vehicles from entering the immediate area.




noun – a short, thick post on the deck of a ship or on a wharf, to which a ship’s rope may be secured.

(British) a short post used to divert traffic from an area or road.

[2] An early DeLillo touch which kept me optimistic. (I stayed optimistic until around the halfway mark; much longer than I should have.)

I was not Catholic, my parents were not Catholic. I didn’t know what we were. We were Eat and Sleep. We were Take Daddy’s Suit to the Dry Cleaner.



I made it a point not to grin – I had a gravedigger’s grin.


[4] One compliment to Zero K: for the first time in a DeLillo book, I always knew who was speaking. Maybe he used enough attributes, maybe writing in the first person helps. Whatever he did this time, it was appreciated. I really liked this exchange. I wish there had been more interaction between Jeffrey and his father, Ross. Hell, I thought that’s what the book was going to be about.

“Have you ever second-guessed anything?”

“My first marriage,” he said.

I stared into my glass.

“And who was she?”

“Good question. Profound question. We had a son but other than that.”

I didn’t want to look at him.

“But who was she?”

“She was essentially one thing. She was your mother.”

“Say her name.”

“People who are married to each other as we were, in our uncommon way, which is not so uncommon, do they ever say each other’s name?”

“Just once. I need to hear you say it.”

“We had a son. We said his name.”

“Indulge me. Go ahead. Say it.”

“Do you remember what you said a minute ago? You can forget your name in this place. People lose their names in a number of ways.”

“Madeline,” I said. “My mother, Madeline.”

“Now I remember, yes.”

He smiled and settled back in an attitude of fake reminiscence, then changed expression, a well-timed maneuver, addressing me sharply.


[5] In DeLillo’s work, we are all islands. People speak to each other without communicating. People do not grow, they ruminate. It’s all so beautifully written but it lacks the connections I love and seek from my reading.

“What do you do here?”

“I talk to the dying.”

“You reassure them.”

“What do I reassure them of?”

“The continuation. The reawakening.”

“Do you believe that?”

“Don’t you?” I said.

“I don’t think I want to. I just talk about the end. Calmly, quietly.”

“But the idea itself. The reason behind this entire venture. You don’t accept it.”

“I want to die and be finished forever. Don’t you want to die?” he said.

“I don’t know.”

“What’s the point of living if we don’t die at the end of it?”


[6] This reminds me of the amazing first line in Joseph Heller’s Something Happened (“I get the willies when I see closed doors”). I love abrupt, almost haunted statements.

I was afraid of other people’s houses.



How human are you without your sense of time?


[8] All of the reviews and descriptions of Zero K I encountered raved about the humor woven into this deeply profound narrative (on Amazon right now, it’s #57 in Books > Literature & Fiction > United States > Humor. Seriously? Seriously?) This sentence was the only bit I found that spoke of DeLillo’s past cynic-consumerist-humor.

“Half the world is redoing its kitchens, the other half is starving.”



Doesn’t the fact of imminent death encourage the deepest self-delusion?


[10] Vocabulary:

He was seated in a carrel, shiny and very still, positioned almost sculpturelike, contrapposto, head and shoulders twisted one way, hips and legs the other.



noun (sculpture) – an asymmetrical arrangement of the human figure in which the line of the arms and shoulders contrasts while balancing those of the hips and legs.

[11] This was the last point of hope I had for the book. I could almost see Jeffrey as human here; I could relate to his insecurity, he seemed to be flirting with depth. It did not happen again.

“I need a window to look out of. I need to know there’s something out there, beyond these doors and walls.”

“There’s a window in the spare room next to the bedroom.”

I said, “Never mind,” and remained on the bench.

I’d mentioned a window because I assumed there would not be a window. Maybe I wanted one more thing to work against me. Pity the trapped man.


[12] Vocabulary:

This is eschatology, isn’t it?



noun – the part of theology concerned with death, judgment, and the final destiny of the soul and or humankind.

[13] Vocabulary:

A global roundup that ranged from Hungary to South Africa, the forint to the rand.




noun – the basic monetary unit of Hungary.


noun – the basic monetary unit of South Africa.

(Well. That seems obvious now.)


It turned out that my father was not interested in history or technology or hailing a cab. He let his hair grow wild and walked nearly everywhere he cared to go, which was nearly nowhere.



I grabbed her arm and moved her into the doorway of a shuttered storefront and we clutched and pressed and came close to outright screwing.

Then we looked at each other, still without a word, one of those looks that says who the hell are you anyway. This was her look. Women own this look.


[16] This book uses so many “that”s that seem unnecessary. (I told you I’m paranoid about them. I notice them like pebbles in a shoe.) From two pages:

He told me that he was in the process of donating some of his art to institutions.



I told him that I didn’t know how to live here.



I told him that I was touched and suggested that we both think further.



I told him that the room was impressive.


[17] If I cared about the characters, parts like this would be incredibly moving, but the characters cannot be connected with. They glide beautifully from place to place without emotion or depth. It’s all too austere. There’s no passion to anyone. (And, hey, this is also a fancy single-sentence serving of great writing.)

We went back to saying nothing much and I waited for his hands to start shaking but he sat behind his beard and told me a long story about the time he’d explored the upper tiers of the East Room at the Morgan Library, after regular hours, memorizing the titles on the spines of priceless volumes arrayed just beneath the lavishly muraled ceiling, and I decided not to mention the fact that I’d been with him at the time.


Everything in Zero K felt predetermined and oddly inevitable. No tension. Maybe that was the point. But if that was the point, it’s not my type of story. (I became convinced a Twilight Zone twist was going to break through in the last pages: Jeffrey has been in stasis all along, this is what his brain is doing while undergoing the process, etc. But no dice. DeLillo didn’t even throw that bone to justify the nothingness of the story.)

Our narrator circles endlessly around the same thoughts and memories. But unlike books like Heller’s Something Happened or Catcher in the Rye, we see no change in the way our narrator is thinking, we get no tightening of tension or slack in sanity. It’s just hypnotic, calm and measured repetition.

DeLillo’s writing is beautiful – there are some fantastic images – but at no point did I care about any of these characters or where they would end up. I was not engaged.

Not recommended; I don’t know who would enjoy this book. I don’t know who it’s for. I’ll say it again: read White Noise.

Next week: Joyce Carol Oates’ short story collection Haunted.


3 thoughts on ““Zero K”

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