I was uncertain as I read these early pages. Had DeLillo created a world of pure abstraction where the reader would be left to float in the zero-gravity chamber of the death fable, everything to think about and nothing to latch on to? But this is only one of several canny feints in the book, which continually shape-shifts and reimagines itself. In the end, it all adds up to one of the most mysterious, emotionally moving and formally rewarding books of DeLillo’s long career.
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...Zero K is filled with wonderful side characters, scientists and philosophers and linguists from across the world, many armed with forceful, funny riffs. This is one of the constant pleasures of a DeLillo novel, the talk, the shop talk, the comic talk, the cosmic talk, the way the characters feel language, its sonics, the moral and emotional pressures.
Draped over this scant armature of plot are swathes of vintage DeLillo—vintage in the sense that he was doing all this stuff 30 years ago. The motifs are the same: cultic organizations, sinister media, big money, hermit artists, guerrillas, teen prodigies and holy children, strange projects in nameless locations, high-tech vehicles, systems jargon, physical sciences, sports metaphors. Likewise the style; I’ve always felt that DeLillo’s dialogue makes more sense if you pretend the characters are conversing over a bad phone line, talking past each other in non sequiturs and repeating themselves...If you’re a longtime DeLillo fan, you could call Zero K a grand summation of his career themes and prose stylings. You could also call it recycling.
It would be easy to read this late work as a dark, oracular warning about 21st-century manipulations of mortality. But what Zero K actually demonstrates is that Mr. DeLillo’s true brilliance has always been as a satirist...Alas, Zero K does eventually become solemn, trading droll humor for portentous invocations of warfare and destruction that have little to do with the Convergence. This shift was also a weakness of White Noise (1985), which begins as a splendid academic satire and turns into an incoherent cautionary tale about nuclear annihilation. The temptations of prophecy—of terrible, beckoning insight—are too great for Mr. DeLillo to entirely resist. Zero K is best when he can’t figure out how to open the doors.
The result of this premise is something that I'm not quite sure DeLillo has ever produced until now, at 79 — a masterpiece...Zero K is excellent in many ways: it's full of DeLillo's amazing inimitable scalpel perceptions; it's fluent in the ideas we'll be talking about 20 years from now; and it reads like a book a millennial could have written. Given that its author is nearly 80, that's dumbfounding. But the book's most satisfying element isn't its high standard of execution, it's the slight feeling of unbending in it, the scope and generosity of its conclusions.
...[T]he book’s putative subject, death, is as real as they come, but the people caught in this Totentanz are strangely colorless. The tone of the book is hushed, earnest and almost completely humorless, but more than that DeLillo withholds, perversely, any detail that would bring the characters in it to life...This is a choice on DeLillo’s part–we know very well that he’s capable of thrillingly vivid fictions–and as such it’s hard to interpret. What can a book with this little life in it tell us about death? (For a better treatment of a similar premise, see Philip K. Dick’s Ubik.) What Zero K does evoke well is the cool digital alienation of the present moment, the sense of dislocation that comes from being awash in torrents of data about the world but at the same time at a distance from it, seeing everything through screens.
When DeLillo tackled it in The Names, his efforts to use language to explore language felt like a surgeon trying to operate on his own hand. Now, he's got a lighter grip, tackling the ideas with wry humor. And maybe losing the signified for the signifier gives the novel its own totemic power. It will be able to be read by not just space aliens, but people who are unfettered by our cultural clutter, many decades hence.
Zero K grapples with the fact our demise is profoundly at odds with this aspect of us that yearns to exceed every limitation. Circling around this irreconcilable dilemma, DeLillo finds a vital dialogue with his great work White Noise. It is this, and not Jeffrey’s milquetoast characterization, nor the forced attempts to shove Middle Eastern terrorism and the Ukrainian revolution into Zero K that makes this book a provocative success. Still, one can sympathize with DeLillo’s efforts to insinuate terrorism and uprisings into a book that seeks to understand the perverse power that death holds over our imagination.
I have to confess, reluctantly, that I found this [first] section (which occupies two thirds of the book) hard to like. The whole notion of this fortified desert compound, with its enlightened but sinister scientists and slightly robotic functionaries (or 'escorts'), seems ill suited to DeLillo’s gifts. For all his prophetic genius he’s a chronicler of reality, not a high-concept fantasist, and his lavish verbal resources seem to me wasted on trying to imbue this glorified meat-safe with consequentiality.
So, the book, and it’s life-affirming conclusion, could be read as a triumph of honest language, the kind of human expression that comes out unfiltered when we’re spurred on by awe, by urgency, by the promise of eventual death...As ever, DeLillo explores the depths of an edgy, timely topic, completely resisting cliché, and emerges with something both fresh and universal.
Until now, Don DeLillo’s fiction has satirized our impulse to purify, to be superhuman, to enter higher states, most notably, in his National Book Award winning White Noise. Zero K may poke fun at life extension, but it gives us the warmest depiction of a DeLillo novel yet at the intimate reason for this perpetual Icarus complex. Yes, there is greed, and there are ways our culture encourages us to pursue our technocratic existence for eternity — in terrorism, in art, in culture, in finance. Social media. But ultimately, the most powerful reason for this desire for transcendence is love, and as Zero K so poignantly reminds, love is one element that does not survive at subfreezing zero kelvin.
Unfortunately, though hardly unexpectedly, DeLillo's latest novel continues this streak of stark, monastically joyless novels...DeLillo, in his late period, has preserved much of his mastery of individual words, but his gift for shaping compelling individual characters (as opposed to loquacious system functionaries) out of those words has diminished greatly since the days of Libra and Underworld: In spite of the maudlin ending tacked to the end of the novel, its language, plot, and lack of character make it clear that the coldness has won out. Lord save us from demanding more from our idols than they can give—still, I can't help but confess that I miss the old DeLillo.
To reconcile the two — the fear of death that informs so many egregious acts, for instance, and the little everyday moments that make up so much of life — is the problem DeLillo takes up again and again, and the impossibility of it is what makes his work so powerful, so comical, so frustrating and so fine.
This novel does not possess — or aspire toward — the symphonic sweep of Underworld; it’s more like a chamber music piece. But once the novel shakes off its labored start, Zero K reminds us of Mr. DeLillo’s almost Day-Glo powers as a writer and his understanding of the strange, contorted shapes that eternal human concerns (with mortality and time) can take in the new millennium.
DeLillo is near the top of his game in Zero K, which comes about as close to science fiction as he gets. His primary obsessions are well represented, including the machinery of death, our efforts to forestall inevitable mortality and the fickle relationship between language and meaning. At times Zero K reads like literary theory in the form of fiction, with one major caveat: DeLillo substitutes the obtuse jargon of theory with bracingly crisp prose that leaps off the page...That exquisite command of language is what we’ve come to expect over DeLillo’s 45 years of writing novels.
Zero K brims with pungent, often wry, always provocative observations. It also has more than a few passages that leave the reader wondering and amused...Mostly Zero K tells a gripping, albeit odd, story. But at times, it is more like code-breaking than reading. If that sort of work excites you, you will be thrilled by Zero K. But either way, this novel is worth the effort.
DeLillo’s gaze on contemporary culture retains its unsettling intimacy, even as his writing has become more detached in affect. Reading him, the impression is of viewing the world from a great distance through an extremely powerful lens: Everything is remote but revealed with uncanny clarity. You know where you are with DeLillo. You know where you are, because you’ve been told.
Zero K is one of the strongest counterstatements that recent American fiction has to offer about the self composed by fictions, and the self that contrives them. And it runs counter not to the whims of technology or the entropic fate of human beings, but the claims on their behalf to ecstatic knowledge. An act of restrained wisdom literature, it puts forward an argument — or an idea — that fiction is one form of storytelling that values human memory, and one that accordingly makes room for selves to thrive. It’s an act of vision against the visionaries, a story of memory aimed at the religious presentists of apocalyptic thinking.
Critics have called Zero K chilly and bloodless. A. O. Scott memorably ended his review with the line 'The book is as cold as its title.' Such judgements run the risk of mistaking cold for calm. There are deep, slicing currents running through Zero K, despite its almost ascetic surfaces, and there are unforgettable little moments scattered everywhere in these pages, as when, late in the story, Jeff notices the deterioration of his once-formidable father...
Almost six decades into publishing fiction, this author has put up a fresh career landmark...In this it also illuminates the change that's come over DeLillo since his last longer work, Underworld (1997). Symphonic density like that no longer interests him. He seeks instead a few resonant notes - a fable. He has brought off something simple but disturbing, revealing both the perils of faith and the power of Gospel.
Zero K is an interesting thematic companion to Mr. Delillo’s earlier masterpiece White Noise, though much more somber. White Noise asked, 'What if death is nothing but sound?' a horrific, dull and eternal background noise. Zero-K seems to give us an answer to that question in the book’s middle-section containing the inner thoughts of a frozen body: Death isn’t senseless noise, but an eternal babble of thought, 'the nightmare of self drawn so tight that she is trapped forever.'
Zero K is unlikely to survive as one of DeLillo’s significant literary achievements; its prose, much like its characters, could best be described as lifelike. Yet as I began reading it in January, with the presidential primary buzzing in the background, there seemed something oddly revealing about the novel’s tone and themes. It is not only in DeLillo’s recent fiction that one can discern the worry that America, incapable any longer of bearing the weight of its manifest destiny, is becoming a land of the living dead.
Zero K is DeLillo’s most determined effort yet to deflect attention away from story, or below story, to the questions that lie beneath our lives and the life of our culture as it marches implacably toward its Omega Point...'Death,' writes DeLillo, 'is a tough habit to break.' But art retains its powers of consolation and transcendence, and its skepticism about both. Like any living thing, it continues to evolve. Of this Zero K is both a reminder and a bracing example.
...a return to top form after a few misfires in recent years. Like many of its predecessors, this compact tale has more ideas, argument and speculation stuffed onto nearly every page than you might find in an entire shelf of sci-fi novels ... Zero K is anchored in emotions as old and primal as humanity itself: the fear of death, the passionate love of a man for his wife, the conflicted love of a son for his father. These rich veins of feeling flow like an underground river through the novel’s eerie, futuristic terrain.
...a novel of ideas that’s deeply emotional....a meditation on love and death by someone who’s standing at the crossroads at dusk, knowing what’s behind him and wondering what’s ahead ... It’s elliptical and maddening and profound, all the deep thoughts and deeper meanings, stones dropped into a pond that send ever-wider rings toward the shore.
Zero K has all of the hallmarks of a typical DeLillo novel: The emotionally bruised, utterly detached characters, the steely, oddly poetic descriptions of both architecture and his character’s interpersonal relationships. What sets Zero K apart is that it’s plot driven and will probably be the closest DeLillo will ever come to writing genre fiction. It’s a true return to form. Zero K is thematically epic in the same way as White Noise, Mao II, and Underworld, and like those essential tomes in the DeLillo Oeuvre, Zero K will most definitely be held up as one of his finest novels.
Sadness might seem too sincere an emotion to ascribe to a novel written by a postmodernist, but Zero K pushes its readers to feel. It is almost impossible to not. With its confluence of screens, strange artwork, empty rooms, long hallways, and shaved hands of those soon to be frozen, Zero K creates an experiment, and we, its subjects, feel pulled to interact.