(2016), a dark, post-modern science fiction novel by Don DeLillo, uses a sense of disconnection and an aura of oppressive paranoia (as in most DeLillo novels) to interrogate the fundamental fact that human beings are incapable of truly understanding their existence. The story involves a billionaire, his estranged son, Jeffrey, from a first marriage (who is also the narrator), and a mysterious, unnamed organization running an isolated facility where people are frozen and preserved before they die, in the hope of being revived later.Zero K
explores themes of mortality and fear, which DeLillo has explored before (most notably in his novel White Noise
) but inverts them here so that the fear is not of death and the unknown that follows, but of life
and the unknown future.
Jeffrey narrates most of the story. He is a disaffected, aimless man who has worked several meaningless, unsatisfying jobs and engaged in several meaningless and unsatisfying relationships. As the book opens, he is traveling to a mysterious, isolated location to pay his final respects to his stepmother, Artis. Artis is much younger than his father and suffers from multiple sclerosis. Upon arrival at the facility, called The Convergence, Jeffrey meets his father, Ross Lockhardt. Ross, an extremely wealthy businessman, abandoned Jeffrey and his mother, Madeline, when Jeffrey was very young. Ross informs Jeffrey that Artis is to be frozen and preserved until such time as her medical condition can be cured, and she can be restored to life.
Jeffrey has a tendency to name the people and things around him, often using quite fanciful names. He counts and names things constantly, making him seem more of an observer than a participant. He and his father argue about The Convergence after Ross reveals that he cannot bear life without Artis and intends to have himself frozen, despite having no known health issues, using the process called “Zero K.” Jeffrey observes several bizarre aspects of the facility; there are screens that seemingly randomly display disasters and horrific events from around the world; mannequin-like figures scattered about; a man Jeffrey names “The Monk” who wears a monk’s robes and interacts with those preparing for freezing—but who seems to have no faith in the project.
Jeffrey observes a meeting where he learns that the people involved with The Convergence predict a terrible, apocalyptic future will come to pass very soon. They regard being frozen as a way of avoiding the terrible years that are to come, emerging only after the worst has passed.
Jeffrey reveals that his father’s name is not actually “Ross Lockhardt.” His father chose the name for himself after college, believing it matched his role in life as a titan of business and a change-agent. The theme of names affecting fate and personality is revisited several times throughout the novel: Ross cannot or will not remember Jeffrey’s mother’s name, Jeffrey himself (in addition to his compulsive fictional naming of things and people) reflects on being Jeffrey (a name only his mother used) or Jeff.
Meanwhile, continuous delays in Artis’s processing keep Jeffrey in the facility for days, a disorienting experience as all contact with the outside world has been severed and everything from meals to interactions with the staff are strange and lacking in distinct detail. During these days, Ross informs Jeffrey that he has changed his mind and will not be following Artis after all, which irritates Jeffrey all over again.
Artis goes through the process of freezing, which is brutal and violent. The perspective switches briefly to her point-of-view, revealing that people who are “taken down” (as the process is referred to) maintain some level of identity and consciousness. There is an implication of eternity spent floating in nothingness, a fractured identity.
Part 2 of the novel opens with Jeffrey back in the “real” world being interviewed for a job at one of his father’s companies; Ross has been trying to recruit his son into the business for some time. Jeffrey is offered the job but turns it down. We meet Jeffrey’s current girlfriend and her adopted teenage son, Stak, who is obsessed with numbers. Ross contacts Jeffrey to tell him he has decided to go through with the process after all, and Stak goes missing under mysterious circumstances.
Jeffrey agrees to return to the facility with his father. As Ross goes through the process, Jeffrey sees on one of the screens a scene of warfare between terrorist fighters; he sees someone he believes to be Stak shot to death on a battlefield and reflects on the horrifying stories told at the facility of a coming dystopia, a terrible future of war and famine, disease and death.
Jeffrey accepts a job as an ethics specialist and compliance officer at a college, a job he finds unexpectedly soothing. He witnesses the phenomenon of the setting sun aligning with the city’s street grid as a disabled boy howls in delight; he turns away, thinking “I didn’t need heaven’s light. I had the boy’s cries of wonder.”
The ending offers few answers. It is notable that Jeffrey does not name the boy, turning away from “heaven’s light,” which might imply that this is the coming apocalypse of which the facility warned. It could also more simply imply that Jeffrey has finally connected with the world around him in a meaningful way and no longer fears what life might be bringing to him now that he has witnessed the odd limbo of The Convergence, its violence, and its bewildering lack of context.