Gimme Something to Read: Zero K by Don Delillo


Suspense, action, mystery, resolution. This novel has none of those things, yet I can’t help but think that a story like this one has a place with viewers like you. (No spoilers contained within).

Everything I don’t know is right here with me but how do I make myself know it.

If you don’t know Don Delillo, he began publishing in the 70’s and is often mentioned as a key player in the postmodern literary movement. In my efforts to conquer this genre, I have read 6 of his novels so far, including Zero K, published in May of this year. Unlike many of his genre-mates, Delillo typically keeps things short. At just 274 pages, Zero K is a simple but dense novel, where nothing is purposefully obfuscated, and much is left for interpretation.

At the core of the novel, or what you could consider the ‘plot’, is Jeffrey Lockhart, the son of a very wealthy man, who is pulled into his father’s investment, which involves cryopreservation of humans. By no means is this a new concept, and Delillo seems to hint at this early on, but he brings something new to the conversation by not falling into a sci-fi plot, instead using it as a way to discuss the ethics of death. In fact, much of this novel reads more like philosophical musings disguised as fiction. There is a noticeable lack of superfluous description in each delicately crafted sentence.

This is what I did in any new environment. I tried to inject meaning, make the place coherent or at least locate myself within the place, to confirm my uneasy presence.

Can you explain, in detail, what exactly is happening right now?

Can you explain, in detail, what exactly is happening right now?

The contrast between the two settings, the cryogenic facility and New York, is possibly the most important piece of the story. The novel is a first-person account, so you only ever know as much as Jeffery, which at the mysterious facility in middle-of-nowhere Kazakhstan, is very little. Instead of using this position to have characters explain every little detail of the world to you (see Ellen Page’s character in Inception), Delillo uses it to do the opposite of the “world-building” concept that is so popular in modern fiction. There are locked rooms that will never be given purpose, there are weird sightings that will go unexplained, but you will realize early on that the events themselves aren’t the important part, it’s the intended perception of them that have purpose. The meticulously designed building is purposefully alienating and confining, leaving nothing to chance.

The logical step of being in this position (being forced to witness a dramatic step in human history) would lend itself to some deep contemplation on Jeffrey’s part. Does he agree with the practice of freezing humans for later use? Again, Delillo disregards convention, making Jeffrey’s internal monologue hazy and unfocused. He observes and participates in many conversations that are supposed to explain something to him, but instead of asking more questions, he seems to already understand everything and typically has his own unclear agenda. He subverts the most serious topics with his mental games and distractions, like giving people fake names and defining words. All of this makes the interactions in the story very unique, unpredictable, and inhuman.

Here, there were no lives to think about or imagine. This was pure spectacle, a single entity, the bodies regal in the cryonic bearing. It was a form of visionary art, it was body art with broad implications.

So what’s the point? This is the inevitable question upon finishing a book like this, which doesn’t even have a conflict to resolve. The point has to be in the themes, and there are many. Is it ethical to be put in a death-purgatory? What if you are nearing death anyway? What if you are doing it for love? What if you are doing it to skip over the impending doom of the world? Is death a natural state? Where does the self end? Delillo doesn’t even pretend to answer any of these questions. Instead he imbues you with a feeling that these questions are unanswerable and the feeling of hopelessness in watching an event that you have trouble supporting or dissenting. The plight of progress.

By the end, the sometimes-frustrating Jeffrey starts to become familiar. He is not some genius capable of deciphering the philosophical puzzles that you are forced to see through his eyes. Instead, he is mesmerized by people with a clear purpose, while he mainly floats with the current and makes questionable decisions. He never accuses anyone of being absurd in their beliefs, but he never seems to want to subscribe to anything at all. He doesn’t understand himself, and is acutely aware of it. Sounds like someone I know.

I open my eyes. Nothing happens. A boy’s adventures in the void.

TL;DR? It’s good, but I’d still recommend White Noise first. It gets a solid 3.5/5 Literary Toilets ov Hell.


(Images from Here, and Here)

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  • Dubbbz

    Books >>>

    My copy of Slade House should be arriving tomorrow.

    • Joaquin Stick

      Damn, I put that on my list then forgot about it. I am currently reading the Golden Compass books to help me SO with her thesis. She’s doing it on YA Fantasy, so I might need more of a challenge after this.

      • Abradolf Lincler

        YO, tell her she needs to include the new “YA” series Joe Abercrombie is doing. So so very good

        • Joaquin Stick

          It’s like a super focused topic, only spanning 2 or 3 authors, but she does enjoy reading that stuff outside of the horrible work that is a thesis. I’ll mention it for sure.

          • Abradolf Lincler

            one of them is called Half a King, i forget what the other one thats already out is called. Way darker than most YA fantasy. His other books are very top shelf dark fantasy

    • Abradolf Lincler
  • Waynecro

    Thanks for the great review. This sounds like the kind of book the technology analysts I work with spend all week discussing over coffee instead of TURNING IN THEIR FUCKING ASSIGNMENTS!!!

    • Abradolf Lincler

      some of the people i work with can barely read. its awesome. im the most educated, and now the 2nd oldest tech at my job

      • Waynecro

        I suspect many of the people I work with can barely read, which is highly problematic because their job requires them to read and write. I’m the youngest person at my company–at least in the US office.

        • Abradolf Lincler

          thanks, common core

          • Waynecro

            I think these people went to school before Common Core was a thing. Most of them just suck in general.

          • Abradolf Lincler

            fucking people

          • Waynecro


    • Hans Müller

      I look forward to the presidential agenda saying “Stop fucking slacking off”.

      • Waynecro

        Dude, seriously. If my company had let me threaten notorious slackers with physical violence like I suggested, we’d be a lot more profitable by now. The company is literally paying at least three people to sleep at their desks.

        • TrickleDownOvTacoKvltRiff

          May I forward you my resume through Linked In? I like what I’m hearing so far…

  • tigeraid

    Books for the win. Thanks for reading, and sharing. I’ll have to add this one to the giant to-read stack.

  • Abradolf Lincler

    hmm, this seems a bit too cerebral for what I generally read. Cool review though. Maybe I can do an obscure fantasy novel one of these.

  • JWEG

    Although I will add this to my reading list it may take a while before I get to it. I don’t have much reading-for-leisure time, and when I do, the reading I do is mostly certain metal blogs; so there are at least a dozen other books that are priority.

    • Joaquin Stick

      As it should be, I would put like 3 of this author’s books ahead of this one alone for newbies to him.

  • Been looking for a new book to read. Just finishing up Clive Barker’s “The Scarlet Gospels” now. Cools stuffs duders.

    • how are Clive Barker books? this is where i sound like a stupid American and say that i’ve seen several films but not read the source material

    • Abradolf Lincler

      you familiar with these guys Tyree?

  • Guacamole Jim

    Looks fascinating!! This is going on the “to-read” list.

  • frozengoatsheadupanunsarse

    Excellent review man, this sounds most intriguing. Like my cup of tea. Suspect DeLillo in general is my cup of tea, we have some at work but I forget which as I didn’t nab any freebies when they might have been going. Going on the old “to check out list”.

    • Joaquin Stick

      If you or anyone else has any interest of the JFK assassination, his book Libra is an awesome take on it. It mostly follows around Oswald and a few FBI agents. It’s pretty incredible how he melds fiction with historical fact in that one. Probably my second favorite, and way less “academic” than White Noise.

  • Abradolf Lincler

    RIP SCHUBERT [rfi]

  • CT-12

    Unrelated, but here’s a new In the Woods… track, sounds like In the Woods…I’m stoked

  • Paddlin’ Rites ov Beargod

    Read a couple o’ De Lillo’s. Didn’t like them very much, until I had finished them, which is sort of funny, in a way, kinda.
    White Noise, Point Omega and Cosmopolis they were called I think. With the lattermost being the lone I liked before I had completed the last page.

    • Joaquin Stick

      That’s a pretty common feeling for me while reading stuff like this. I always like it a lot more in retrospect for some reason. I guess when you get further away from craving some kind of catharsis, you realize there was a lot of interesting stuff going on that sticks in your head.

  • Óðinn
    • Hans Müller

      Ah, the superfluou’s apostrophe. Magnificent.

      • Abradolf Lincler

        although, it is true

  • …Books?

  • Kyle Reese

    Halfway through this – like the concept, some really cool passages. Not a lot of continuity in the narrative and a style that doesn’t bother me, but one that doesn’t really grab my attention. Obvious, meaningless platitude – the ending will make or break it for me.

    • Joaquin Stick

      Lol, I am not optimistic for you. Looking for a good satisfactory ending in postmodernism is no bueno. It’s really all about the interesting passages, not really where they lead.

      • Kyle Reese

        I started a new “real” job in the middle of this one and so I haven’t picked it up in a few weeks. Concept was also in a WashPo article (cryogenic freezing) and my favorite Black Dahlia song – “I will Return”

        When death so swiftly has coveted
        The client from this plane
        A journey forged in ice has just begun
        A crystal line entombment preservation now awaits
        Proceedings executed hastely deceased to be encased
        Encapsulated ensured the precious cargo safe
        A pending resurrection rebirth
        In the distant future when advancements shall allow
        A being to be made again anew
        The brain to be implanted
        Fused within a growth of cells
        This vessel but a vehicle
        To traverse this mortal realm