Simon & Schuster, 288 pages, $27
Would it be indelicate to suggest that the 79-year-old Don DeLillo is contemplating issues of mortality and morality because of his age? If so, I should add that “Zero K” is a masterpiece that deals with what mortality and morality encompass. “Zero K” is also a horror story in disguise. It had me frequently shuddering.
The protagonist of “Zero K” has a name but it really doesn’t matter. He has a father and that does matter. Our Lost Man is adrift in his world. No commitment to a romantic relationship, no steady job, no passion. But he has a growing number of tics. And issues with his father who abandoned him and his mom early on.
Over the years, the father has made a great deal of money and married a smart and kind woman. Lost Man watched his mother die painfully. Perhaps it is that experience that leads to a mental block about how his stepmother and father have chosen to die. Or it could be that he has a good sense of what’s crazy and wants to stay away from it.
Stepmother has some physical disorders and she is days away from dying when Lost Man is flown by a mysterious and confusing route to a secret installation somewhere in a country that used to be part of the USSR. In that retreat/laboratory/hospice, the stepmother is being prepared — being prepared — to die. She will be preserved cryogenically and repaired with nanotechnology, someday to awaken into a world that, having destroyed itself ecologically and politically, will need to be rebuilt by the elite.
Lost Man enters into a semi-hypnotic state, triggered by the provocation of the alien, specially designed and decorated environment of the facility. He is beset by people and forms that initiate an introspective dialogue about the nature of death and physical presence. He mulls the meaning and restriction of words in English and other languages. He investigates the morality of dying before there is actually a reason to die. He ponders the otherness of people whose actions are unpredictable. And always, there are images he sees about the deprivations, conflagrations, and hostilities that are going on in the outside world.
This is the perfect existential novel, if you are not too strict with the definition. But, of course, it is more than what the novel is, what it’s meant to convey. DeLillo has won major awards and given us books that should stand the test of time because he can exquisitely put words together. He surely must spend a lot of time tasting, teasing, and turning over the meaning of words, how best to use them, how to stretch them, how to provoke a feeling in his readers. The Lost Man is his stand-in for that obsession.
And is the father also a stand-in and, if so, for what? The father struggles with living, then he struggles with dying. He appears not to be good with either, caught by imperfect expectations of himself. I don’t know Mr. DeLillo, but perhaps he has created an anti-DeLillo in the father.