Don DeLillo’s Total Art of Memory

When Don DeLillo took the stage at the 2015 National Book Awards, where he accepted the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, he opened with a humorous confession. “Yes,” he said, “I’m here to talk about myself.” Next he did what he always does, what he can’t help but doing: he told a story. “Books,” he began, “This is why we’re here this evening”:

Lately, I’ve been looking at books that stand on two long shelves in a room just down the hall from room where I work. Early books, paperbacks, every one. The first books I ever owned. And they resemble some kind of medieval plunder: old and scarred, weathered covers and sepia pages that might crumble at the touch of a human finger. I’m the human in the story, and when I lift the book from the shelf gently, I understand again the power of memory that a book carries with it. What is there to remember? Who I was, where I was, what these books meant to me when I read them for the first time.

“I’m the human in the story.” Precise, austere, it was, like all of his stories in the wake of the exhausting Underworld. But the story is ascetic because it’s trained on the inexhaustible: the vastness of memory. “I’m here to talk about myself.” Who is Don DeLillo, writer of fictions, among these two long shelves of books? What self is viable, maintained against such inexhaustibility?

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.

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The story Zero K tells is straightforward, facetious, and disconcerting. It opens in Chelyabinsk, the site of a famous meteor crash, where Jeffrey Lockhart has arrived to meet his father, Ross, a calculating, self-made billionaire with familiar eccentricities who has assembled a “network of companies, agencies, funds, trusts, foundations, syndicates, communes and clans” in support of a cultic project called the Convergence. The nature of this project unfolds slowly over the course of the novel, but we soon learn that Ross plans to supply his wife, Artis, Jeffrey’s stepmother, with everlasting life. An archaeologist by training, Artis is dying of complications from multiple sclerosis. Jeffrey, who is not her son, attends her deathbed while Ross makes preparations for her reconstitution as perhaps another being, another self, by way of a curious nanotechnology. Referring perhaps to the molding of humans from clay put forth by various creation myths, Artis thinks of her eventual reconstitution in the “second life” as a form of earth art.

The compound where Artis is kept, where Ross the billionaire and Jeffrey the wayward son do ideological battle, is more than once called a “nowhere”; it is a non-place, a utopia of artworks and neo-religious grotesques: there are video screens that run Virilio-damaged montages of natural disaster, social collapse, and military violence; on several occasions, Jeffrey inspects malformed mannequins draped in religious clothing; even the staid circulation of bodies within its walls suggests the compound is a total artwork of anonymous design. And design is the word: the superficiality of his environ is at odds with Jeffrey’s propensity for forming fictions. If the novel hints that Ross has made his untold billions through shrewd, analytic projection — betting on natural disasters, for example — Jeffrey is the son who, against his father, projects in another way: he creates meaning through language and stories. If he doesn’t know the name of a person he meets, he invents one; if a word strikes his mind, he struggles to define it. Names, as the title of one his novels suggests, are important to DeLillo, and in Zero K no name is certain, final.

While he waits for Artis to die, Jeffrey names and renames the figures that he meets in the compound. Eventually he comes across a man he calls The Monk, a withered eschatologist who works as a halfhearted cleric; his job is to usher the dying members of the cult to their Convergence — he talks with them in their final moments, before they are euthanized and placed into pods. Jeffrey also abides the doomsday logic of apparent twins he calls the Stenmarks, who provide the posthumanist, techno-futurist vision that sustains the cult and attracts its funding by susceptible financiers like Ross and Artis. And, in moments that seem minor but aren’t, Jeffrey invents names for minor characters. He calls two members of the Convergence, at different times, Szabo and Hrabal, and these also happen to be the surnames of famous novelists. This much should signal to the reader that Jeffrey is not so much Don DeLillo — reader, composer of fictions, namer and renamer – as a metaphor for him.

“Sometimes in a dark room, I will shut my eyes,” Jeffrey says to Artis before she is taken to her pod — to be frozen and recomposed, somehow, in the future — “Is this a surrender to the dark?” Such moments, alone with Artis in her room — the novel is a story of rooms — are warm heartbeats measured against the coldness of the compound. And here Jeffrey’s speculations and narratives and names meet the limit point of death and dying. He observes and is taught by Artis’ final moments. Or he is named by her:

She spoke a kind of shadow language, pausing, thinking, trying to remember, and when she came back to this moment, this room, she had to place me, re-situate me, Jeffrey, son of, seated across from her. I was Jeff to everyone but Artis. That extra syllable, in her tender voice, made me self-aware, or aware of a second self, more agreeable and dependable, a man who walks with his shoulders squared, pure fiction.

In a moment of revelation, Ross announces his plan to accompany his wife to the uncertain future; he will allow himself to be cryogenically frozen, to become one of the few “heralds” who undergo the Convergence years before their deaths. After he dies, he explains, Jeffrey will be set up with a new job, a rich life of the sort he has always rejected because of Ross’s treatment of his dead mother, Madeline. But at the last moment Ross wavers. Father and son leave the compound — the total artwork of nowhere and nothing — and return to New York.

But not before a simultaneously disturbing and enlightening chapter devoted to Artis’ consciousness as she lies trapped her in her pod, the merits of which will likely be debated for years. For my part, this section rehearses a moment of acute “late style,” one of extreme epistemic limit. It respects and disdains the tradition of anti-metaphysical philosophy, namely of Heidegger and Wittgenstein, that has haunted DeLillo for years. And it’s plainly too weird to evaluate.

Back in New York City, Ross is falling apart without Artis. And Jeffrey has rejected Ross’ job offer; instead, he spends time with Emma, his lover, a woman who teaches disabled children, and Stak, her adopted son — a Ukrainian orphan — from a former marriage.

That Stak recalls Heinrich, the precocious, hypermodern son from White Noise is intentional; so too is Jeffrey’s former role as an “implementation analyst” a nod to DeLillo’s past work in advertising. Zero K, in fact, is laden with references to DeLillo’s past life and work; not only is this a matter of obviousness to faithful readers, it’s also proof that he’s not “retreading” past glories (as one critic has already asserted). It’s hard to imagine a clearer statement of DeLillo’s purpose than Jeffrey’s first scene back in New York, when, during a cab ride, he considers how taxi drivers come from terror-stricken worlds. “How is it that so many end up here,” Jeffrey wonders, “those who flee terror and those who render it, all driving taxis.” Readers of Cosmopolis will remember an almost verbatim rendering of the same idea:

“We can’t seem to find it,” she said. “I’d offer you a ride.”

“I couldn’t. Absolutely. I know you work en route. And I like taxis. I was never good at geography and I learn things by asking the drivers where they come from.”

“They come from horror and despair.”

For those with patience, the return to New York in Zero K will award them with a pointed (and comedic) précis of DeLillo’s famous wanderings and observations of the city; for others, it will seem that an old master has lost his way. But when Ross, after two years, decides to return to Chelyabinsk, to join Artis, to move forward with the Convergence, the matter is settled. In a bravura scene that has one of the Rapture-prone Stenmark twins rhapsodizing over Ross’ shaven, near-dead body, Jeffrey opposes his own faith in narrative against the omniscience of capital and the desuetude of religious finality. It’s one of the most breathtaking scenes in contemporary literature.

Zero K, although it appears to resemble other works in theme, like Michel Houellebecq’s The Possibility of an Island, is not like other books because it is a book of memory. Or it is one writer’s memory of his own books; it is a novel scarred and weathered with Don DeLillo’s own fictions. Strong enough to keep its eyes open against the dark of a peculiar American reverence for apocalyptic thinking, it has come down instead on the side of stories, of fictions, against the visionaries. And though it could crumble against the touch of a human finger, the hand that holds it belongs only to DeLillo. He’s the human in the story.