Ageing and death have long obsessed Don DeLillo © Jean-Christian Bourcart/Getty Images)

A cryogenics cult: Don DeLillo's "Zero K"

Don DeLillo's satire on a futuristic "faith-based technology" is rigorously intellectual and moving
March 24, 2016

Early in Don DeLillo’s new novel Zero K, a young American named Jeff Lockhart eats breakfast in the “food unit” of a remote and mysterious facility. “What is this we are eating?” he asks a man nearby wearing a “monk’s cloak” of purple embellished with gold. “It’s called morning plov,” the man replies. I looked up “plov” and discovered that it is a popular Uzbek casserole of pilaf and mutton, the comfort food of Russia.

Still, plov sounds drab and Orwellian to English-speaking ears, somewhere between the vile breakfast food “Filboid Studge” of the Saki short story and the poisoned Kool-Aid drunk by followers of cult leader Jim Jones. The detail is ominous, and when Jeff explores the labyrinthine corridors of the facility, he encounters long halls of screens which show horrifyingly realistic scenes of violence and catastrophe: floods, fires, tornadoes, self-immolation, mass migrations and plagues.

The nameless and secret facility is located in the desert near Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. Jeff has been summoned to it by Ross Lockhart, his billionaire father. Lockhart is a “man shaped by money” and a lifelong seeker after “self-realisation”; indeed, he “realised” himself in an earlier phase by leaving his first wife and abandoning Jeff at the age of 13. He made his fortune by “analysing the profit motives of natural disasters,” and now owns an international network of “companies, agencies, funds, trusts, foundations, syndicates, communes, and clans.”

He was in his sixties when his second wife Artis became seriously disabled with multiple sclerosis and other illnesses, and since then invested heavily in the Zero K of the novel’s title, a method of cryogenic suspension that freezes the body, stores it in a combination warehouse and museum, and will bring it back to life in “cyberhuman form” in a more secure and enlightened future era. They have chosen to build the facility near Bishkek, Lockhart tells his son, because of its “durable energy sources,” “structural redundancy,” “security patrols” and “elaborate cyberdefence.”

Zero K is much more than a medical and scientific technique. It is a “faith-based technology” of controlled immortality called the Convergence. The wealthy convergents, or converts, who come to the site believe that when they are resuscitated, they will be more completely evolved, will speak an advanced language, and be able to “express things we can’t express now, to see things we can’t.” Artis has chosen to undergo the Convergence, and Lockhart wants Jeff to be there with him for her passage.

This science fiction premise is strange, but it’s also strange that Jeff would agree to fly around the world to be with a father with whom he has a distant, minimal and hostile relationship, and a stepmother he hardly knows. So the novel is both a philosophical discussion of the dread of ageing and death, a topic which has long obsessed DeLillo, and a story about Jeff’s quest for reconciliation with his past. Making these two themes converge is the problem DeLillo has set himself, in a novel both rigorously intellectual and very moving.

Zero K has two parts, bridged by a lyrical meditation on consciousness by the dying Artis. As in many of his earlier books, where he has written about modern cataclysmic events such as the assassination of John F Kennedy and the attacks of 11th September 2001, DeLillo suggests a connection to natural disaster by calling Part I “In the Time of Chelyabinsk.” On 15th February 2013, a huge meteor exploded without warning above Chelyabinsk in Russia, injuring 1,500 people, and triggering fears of nuclear war or alien invasion. The monk in the purple cloak who Jeff met at the food unit presents himself as a member of a millennial sect that had prayed for “the year, the day, the moment” of termination, and was overjoyed by the meteor. In the facility, he is a hospice worker, whose job, he explains to Jeff, is to talk to the dying about the end and reassure them of “the continuing, the awakening.”

Surrounded by images of terror, the doctors and staffers of the Convergence have a religious and philosophical mission to make a new future. Artis is a believer: “I will be reborn into a deeper and truer reality. Lines of brilliant light, every material thing in its fullness, a holy object.” Various monks and officials of the institution also have grandiose visions: “We want to stretch the boundaries of what it means to be human—stretch and then surpass. We want to do whatever we are capable of doing in order to alter human thought and bend the energies of civilisation.” A holy man in a silver skullcap, who preaches “a radical level of self-renewal” through cryogenics, is named “Ben-Ezra,” an ironic allusion to Robert Browning’s dramatic monologue of a rabbi whose sermon is “Grow old along with me!/ The best is yet to be.” When there is Zero K, ageing is not the best option.

Jeff, however, resists these messages of death. He is repelled by the dehumanised spaces of the facility, and misses the mindless yet meaningful routines of days in New York: “Things people do, forgettably… the soporifics of normalcy.” He keeps up a mental debate with the philosophical self-promotion by attacking its clichés. The devotees of Zero K, he thinks, would not find a deeper reality, but “would die, chemically prompted, in a subzero vault, in a highly precise medical procedure guided by mass delusion, by superstition and arrogance and self-deception.” He does not see “peace, comfort and dignity” in cryogenic suspension, but only “a person under the authority of others.” “Is it outright murder?” he wonders. “Is it a form of assisted suicide that’s horribly premature? Or is it a metaphysical crime that needs to be analysed by philosophers?” As he finally says to his father, “I think you’ve been brainwashed. You are a victim of the surroundings. You’re a member of a cult.”

Indeed, the Convergence seems more like a cult than a philosophical vision or religion, and DeLillo vacillates between explaining and satirising it. When Jeff goes to see the “veer,” the place where the bodies are stored, it is a kind of eerie museum, “long columns of men and women in frozen suspension,” naked hairless mannequins who resemble the House of Faces in Game of Thrones. In their embrace of an escape into death, Ross and Artis sound like Little Father Time in Jude the Obscure, a herald of the “coming universal wish not to live.”

"The Convergence seems more like a cult than a profound philosophical vision or religion, and DeLillo vacillates between explaining it and satirising it"
Scattered piecemeal throughout this narrative, there is also a story about what happened to Jeff after Ross Lockhart left him and his mother. Indeed, in a February issue of the New Yorker, this story has been excavated and reassembled under the title “Sine, Cosine, Tangent,” a reference to the trigonometry Jeff is doing when his father leaves, but also a classic DeLillo word-triad here suggesting father, mother and son. It’s a lovely and poignant story of Jeff’s painful adjustment to his father’s absence, and his near-autistic obsession with naming, words and definitions. Jeff has been taught by his mother that “ordinary moments make the life,” and he claims his memories, moments and experiences as the source of his humanity.

Unfortunately, the narrative is more effective as a short story than in the novel, where the connection between Jeff’s relationship with his father and the theme of Zero K is obscure. Moreover, Jeff is hardly an inspiring spokesman for the joys of life. He has chosen a random and meaningless job; he’s emotionally unattached and politically uninvolved.

Still, part one is both longer and more accessible than part two, where DeLillo attempts to have the two stories converge. It is titled “In the Times of Konstantinovka,” referring to a city in Ukraine where there was heavy street fighting. In the second part, Jeff returns to the compound where Artis has finally submitted to Zero K, and Ross is thinking of joining her, although he is still in good health. On the screen in the long hall, Jeff watches troops and tanks attack an “abandoned urban district” in Ukraine, killing a young freedom fighter, a boy he recognises as the adopted Ukrainian son of his former girlfriend in the United States.

The last two chapters of the book take Jeff back to New York, where he is trying to process his experience. He is having nightmares; he is more observant and aware of the presence of a man kneeling on the pavement, “bowing toward Mecca,” and a beggar. He tries to deal with his nightmares, his regrets and his losses. But he is still an isolated man in an anonymous office, and his self-questioning is undramatic.

Yet Zero K ends with a magnificent image that recalls DeLillo’s earlier visions of “a kind of radiance in dailiness,” sometimes frightening, but sometimes “holy or sacred.” (He said this in an interview with Rolling Stone in 1988). Jeff is on a New York bus, when a child sees the sun blazing between the rows of buildings. It is the phenomenon known as “Manhattanhenge,” one of the two days a year when the “sun’s rays align with the local street grid.” Jeff takes that convergence as a sign and revelation, the antithesis of a religion of doom: “I went back to my seat and faced forward. I didn’t need heaven’s light. I had the boy’s cries of wonder.”

DeLillo does not quite convince us of wonder or cure our scepticism and fear. But his optimism is a welcome gift in this intense and deeply considered book.