‘Drifting as Dissent: a Review of Don DeLillo’s “Zero K”’, by Justin Wolfers


I think of money as something to count. It’s something I put in my wallet and take out of my wallet. Money is numbers. You say that you need to leave clear instructions. Clear instructions sound intimidating. I like to drift into things.

— Don DeLillo, Zero K

Throughout his seventeen-novel career, Don DeLillo has often written from the perspective of watchers, thinkers, voyeurs: attentive minor players with the intellectual distance to analyse and meditate upon the troubling events they witness. I’ve long been in awe of his masterful prose, but also sceptical about this removed authorial position, not quite sure how his often artful and ironic ruminations—on the Cold War’s impact on the American psyche, for example, or terrorism, airborne toxic events, assassinations and language cults—constitute a political position. Isn’t he more of literary shaman with a fervour for words, I’d think, taking the political into the personal sphere to make sense of things for himself? Do his books really match up with the bold anti-establishment stance he’s taken in interviews?

[W]e need the writer in opposition, the novelist who writes against power, who writes against the corporation or the state or the whole apparatus of assimilation. We’re all one beat away from becoming elevator music.

This is the first of his novels I’ve read upon its release, the other ten or so were all playing catch up. I wonder if that’s been the key difference in how I’ve related to his work until now, if my perspective has been limited by a lack of immediate context. In any case, Zero K has totally done away with my concerns about the relation between stylistic distancing and political dissent. It’s a captivating, funny, and moving novel that uses the drifting quality of the narration to enact an extremely astute critique of neo-liberal power and influence.

Zero K is about a man in his thirties, Jeff, who accompanies his father to a secret compound somewhere in the furthest outskirts of former Soviet territory. His father is a finance-world billionaire who, in becoming self-made, changed his name from Nicholas Satterswaite to Ross Lockhart, a name that tells you everything you need to know about him. Ross helps fund a pseudo-philosophical scientific organisation housed in this nowhere-place, whose project is to delay and ultimately defeat death, specifically by cryogenically freezing people—those terminally ill and, controversially, those still healthy—until the opportune moment “decades away, or sooner, or later”, where they’ll be brought back, organs and whatever else replaced. Rather than relying on a sci-fi setup to make this possible, the setting is explicitly the present day, following one of DeLillo’s posits from Cosmopolis: the future is now, if you have enough money and influence. Jeff and Ross are there because Artis, Jeff’s stepmother, Ross’ second wife, is herself terminally ill, and about to undergo the procedure of total hair removal and deep-freeze.

Why does this place have such a mission, and such support? Well, in response to the insurmountable natural and human disasters of the world of course. As Jeff wanders the halls of the compound, he walks in on group meetings, seminars discussing the Anthropocene reality and how it might be transcended, as well as an element of classic DeLillo cinema-time, recalling Point Omega, screens that appear and play documentary footage, seemingly for Jeff only:

I stood before the screen in the long hallway. Nothing but sky at first, then an intimation of threat, treetops leaning, unnatural light. Soon, in seconds, a rotating column on wind, dirt and debris. It began to fill the frame, a staggered funnel, dark and bent, soundless, and then another down left, in the far distance, rising from the horizon line … Here was our climate enfolding us … the rubbled storm path, the aftermath, houses in a shattered line, roofs blown off, siding in collapse.

The world is collapsing, monks burning themselves, ravaged cities, guerrilla war, but this Mecca reduces the outside world to a concept: something to be screened, pondered, pitied in a distant way, but not directly experienced – there aren’t even seasons here, or a notable difference between day and night. And it’s no coincidence that our sceptical narrator is the son of a self-made billionaire, born of the tropes of the neo-liberal American Dream: he is unfamiliar with poverty and tragedy on this scale, and watches the footage in quiet horror, not knowing how to assimilate it in the context of this bizarre and anti-human place. He thinks of his mother’s death, whom he loved dearly, comparing the pain of her decline to Artis, who is dying right now/may never die. He wanders the halls, meeting monks and doctors who reside there, trying to guess their names and origins, trying to name the ‘food units’ he eats, or to parse the new language being spoken here. Mostly, things here are irreducible; he struggles even to even describe objects:

The room was small and featureless. It was generic to the point of being a thing with walls. The ceiling was low, the bed was bedlike, the chair was a chair. There were no windows.

In addition to the alienation the compound induces, Jeff spends a lot of time trying to refuse the things his father offers him—amazing job opportunities, apartments, art collections—the security and legacy that he has been raised to want. His defence is simple: “I like to drift into things.”

Upon return to his home in New York, Jeff tries to abstain from the order and capital that is offered to him: he wants to only use cash, is transfixed by figures meditating at subway stations, looks at huge rocks in art galleries, and tries to get a job that will occupy his time without consuming him. He explores mild responses to the buzz and hum of the city, subtle ways of distancing himself. What DeLillo offers, in contrast to the totalising, sophisticated, and frightening spectacle of the compound, where everything neo-liberal capitalism could have dreamed up is possible, including never seeing the world-as-we’ve-made-it again, is a way for Jeff to refuse to be assimilated into this project on his own terms, without the weight of having to make the conditions of his refusal ideological. Instead, he breaks things into parts, making the metropolis personal by looking at it closely—define lint, define hanger—and reducing the super-corporate into lists of numbers you can count. Instead of burning down the compound, or staging a yelling match with the tyrannical father, Jeff takes a quieter path: a part-time role as a Compliance and Ethics Officer in Connecticut.

In the set piece that ends the novel, recalling the funny but unnerving final scene in White Noise where the toddler rides his tricycle across the highway, Jeff rides a city bus in New York, and watches as a mother and son take in the gorgeous, deep sunset, the child wailing in awe. In White Noise, the narrator observes that sunsets are becoming more beautiful as the toxicity in the air increases, a deeply ironic contract, but in Zero K, it’s a carefully framed and optimistic human moment, and DeLillo, at age 79, is deeply concentrated on capturing this everyday beauty.

Zero K sees DeLillo at his most intimate, his most committed to challenging the politics of the contemporary moment – the unstoppable weight of money and influence; its estrangement of the personal. He enacts his critique in the form of a narrator who drifts against the times, dissenting every time he listens, looks, touches, walks, or wonders what a word means. “To live a life, I said again, examining the phrase.”

Justin Wolfers is a Sydney-based writer and researcher. He’s written for The Australian, Kill Your Darlings, Fireflies, Seizure, Cordite, and the UTS Writers’ Anthology. He’s a PhD candidate in contemporary fiction at Western Sydney University.