In Bookforum, novelist Sam Lipsyte reviews Don DeLillo’s new novel Zero K, which Lipsyte deems a return to the epic, socially engaged sweep of DeLillo’s earlier novels like White Noise. The new novel tells the story of an uber-rich man who pours his fortune into constructing a cryogenic facility so he and his family can overcome death. As Lipsyte notes, “deep-freezing humans has been a staple of science fiction for decades,” but the difference for DeLillo is that he confronts the subject at a time when cryogenics-for-the-rich is no longer the stuff of fiction, but a distinct reality. Here’s an excerpt from the review:
DeLillo has created a mysterious, funny, and profound book out of a cultural gag usually reliant on metal cylinders and dry ice. He already has, of course, written brilliant novels that draw on the gestures of more narrow-cast productions, particularly thrillers and detective novels. Back in the ’70s, he employed MacGuffins (stolen film reels, missing musical tapes) to provide momentum and let his characters wrap their metaphysical banter around loose quests. Even the Airborne Toxic Event of White Noise was in some ways a cousin to more camp menaces like the blob of The Blob fame. Now, with Zero K, he’s given us a quasi-futuristic milieu and, working from a rather limited plot device, composed a work of distinctive feeling and imagination. DeLillo makes his position clear early in the book. “This is not a new idea,” a character says, regarding the concept of cryonics. “It is an idea . . . that is now approaching full realization.”
Many will see this novel as a return to full realization for DeLillo, after years of shorter, meditative books like Point Omega and Cosmopolis. Those novels signaled, to some, a kind of phasing out of the big novels, the longer, meatier work, but their spareness could be deceiving. DeLillo’s more recent mode does not suffer from a lack of richness or nuance. The fluctuations operate on a different, more compressed scale. Others may hope this book will win back readers lost years ago when James Wood dropped into a shooter’s crouch on the grassy knoll of the New Republic, drew a bead on Underworld and DeLillo’s influence on American fiction. Zero K deserves to win old and new readers alike. It’s a marvelous blend of DeLillo’s enormous gifts. His bleak humor and edged insight, the alertness and vitality of his prose, the vast, poetic extrapolations are all evident. So is the visceral quickness and wit in the sentences. People on a bench sit in a “natural scatter.” The narrator of most of the novel grows up in a “garden apartment that had no garden,” and he has never been able to define his family’s religion: “We were Eat and Sleep. We were Take Daddy’s Suit to the Dry Cleaner.”
“I wanted to be bookish and failed,” Jeffrey Lockhart, the nervous, highly attuned, and occasionally cocky son of a billionaire financier announces. “I wanted to steep myself in European literature. There I was in our modest garden apartment, in a nondescript part of Queens, steeping myself in European literature. The word steep was the whole point.” That swerve in the last sentence points to so many DeLillo characters, earnest and awake but also aware of how certain words and phrases pin them down, enfeeble their efforts, make their goals uncertain. Whether Jeffrey managed to “steep” or not has consequences.