Book Review: Zero K by Don DeLillo

The aftermath of reading this novel is a residual impression of the plot, characters, and imagery as a totality.  However, it is a weak impression.

As soon as I heard about Zero K I decided to give it a read.  After all, it’s seldom that a mainstream literary author ventures into the realm of science fiction, and I was curious how DeLillo would handle the material.  Unfortunately, I am at present financially challenged, and I couldn’t afford the new hardcover price, not even with Amazon discounts.  Additionally, the multiple copies in the Seattle Public Library system had long wait lines for holds.  I thought I’d have to wait for the paperback, but then a copy of the book turned up at one of the cute local neighborhood outdoor lending libraries.

I have not read any of DeLillo’s other books, so I have no basis for comparison when discussing Zero K.  I can only take it on its own merits and compare it to what I suppose that a science fiction writer would do with the material.

The story is narrated in first person by the son of a billionaire who has become fascinated by and is heavily donating to an independent organization called Convergence.  It specializes in cryogenic preservation of people who are near death with a view to reviving them and extending their lifetimes in the future.  The narrator’s stepmother is being frozen, and his father wants to do himself in too but ultimately decides to put it off for a time.  Much of the first part of the book describes the cryogenic facility set in a Central Asian wasteland.  The story then takes the narrator and his father back to New York, and finally they return to the cryogenic facility when his father decides to join the narrator’s stepmother in her frozen sleep/death.

The story moves glacially slow.  I couldn’t help contemplating, as I read, what Roger Zelazny or Samuel Delaney, both great science fiction literary stylists, would make of the material.  For one thing, I think they would write it much shorter, in novelette or novella form.  There simply isn’t enough substance to justify the length.  There are too many words, a lot of empty space within the text, and too little is said.  Some of it makes sense within the context of the novel but much of it doesn’t.  The characters, too, are like shadows: vapid, shallow.  They do things that appear random and unmotivated.  They are privileged people, and not people with whom one can empathize.  DeLillo does not make much effort to give them the touches of humanity that would draw a reader into the story.  Even when the narrator describes his past life and the events that precede his present actions, it is all laid out as an abstraction, like the description of the monotonous hallways in the underground complex.

I almost gave up on this book, it was so slow, but I persevered because I was curious how the author would resolve things.  It all came out as I expected, no real surprises, and in the end I had the feeling that the story was okay but it would have been much stronger if at least half the extraneous material had been edited out.  DeLillo is obviously a more than competent craftsman of the English language; he simply took the material that would have been concise and dynamic as short fiction and extended it too long.

As a foot note to this review, after I finished the book, I returned it to the neighborhood library where I had found it.  These libraries are common around the area I live in, and are a relaxed and magnanimous way to share books with other bibliophiles.  I have read comments in online forums by the paranoid that people might take some of the books and sell them on Amazon and other outlets.  I don’t think that happens too often, as I often monitor the contents of the little library boxes around our area while I’m out for walks, and turnover is slow.  But my response to this is: So what?  If someone is so poor that they have to rob neighborhood libraries to earn a couple of bucks by selling books, I say that they’re welcome to them.  There are plenty of books in the world, thank God.

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