When I heard that there was another book by Don DeLillo, I thought, here we go again, another book that is going to be praised by my peers and betters, another book I’ll find pretentious and hard to get into, another book about which I’ll have to reserve judgment. “Visionary,” said one blurb. “Prophetic,” said another. The reviews also revealed that DeLillo was covering ground I had been writing about for the past year, in its reincarnation in Michel Houellebecq’s novels: terrors of the ailing white male body, a resurrection cult, a clandestine headquarters, a narrator that feels at once pulled and repelled by the idea of preserving his body forever. This sounded so much like Houellebecq’s The Possibility of an Island that I felt compelled to read Zero K to see just how much DeLillo and Houellebecq’s respective obsessions with death and resurrection converged.
On the fourth page of Zero K, the narrator’s father is taking his sick wife to an embalmment and rebirth facility so as to freeze her until a time that her illness might be cured. His son asks, “This is not a new idea. Am I right?” The line is a sly comment on the conception of the book. It is actually almost disconcerting how similar these novels are — two sides of the same coin.
In both books, death becomes yet another experience to be fully curated for the wealthy. Would you like your current body destroyed and and your DNA resurrected in some other human form (The Possibility of an Island), or would you like your organs taken apart and be embalmed in a pod? (Zero K). (You’re probably better off in Houellebecq’s world because he provides us with some news from the future: some of the book is narrated by the clones of the first Daniel to try this technology. We know it has worked.) The narrative switches between the experiences of the first Daniel, and his future clones’ commentary on the life he has lived. He is reincarnated up to the 25th Daniel, when that clone decides to sample the “wilding” way of life — the life of the descendants of people who have continued to breed in the atavistic manner. We are gently warned that your skin color may determine how well you do in Houellebecq’s future: the wild humans who have resisted cloning and look for food just outside the protective fences are “of Spanish or North African origin.”
In these tales of the contemporary malaise of the global north, it is women whose bodies are the first to malfunction — take this verb as broadly as possible — and through them the central male narrators face their own mortality. In both novels, men continue to be desirable much longer than women do, and the female body suffers for the central male(s) in a sort of ersatz Passion, carrying the cross of aging. “Her body, despite the swimming, despite the classical dance was beginning to suffer the first blows of age […] I recognized the look she wore afterwards: it was that humble, sad look of the sick animal that steps away from the pack,” Daniel says of his partner Isabelle, who decides to take her chances with the cloning cult before he does. In the DeLillo-Houellebecq universe, the women do the work of accepting the end of the white body (and hence, of history).
In Zero K, not long after they go to the facility called Convergence, the father (Ross) of the narrator (Jeffrey) decides to join his wife in the freezer; he doesn’t want to live a life without her, and adds he can only be the man he is with her. I.e., an older man who can get the attention of a younger, attractive woman. In his obsession with his younger wife, Ross is very much like the original Daniel in The Possibility of an Island, who feels death’s shadow upon him not because his body is falling apart with hemorrhoids and the like, but because his young girlfriend (Is she the second or third woman he’s been with in the novel? Who’s counting? Definitely the youngest and the supplest.) decides to leave him. It is then that Daniel takes up the offer of the Elohimite cult, who are offering to preserve the DNA of their members, to be cloned for use in a better future.
Right after he is abandoned by the young girlfriend, Daniel takes a plane, not to Central Asia, where DeLillo’s Convergence is headquartered, but to much nearer Lanzarote in the Canary Islands. The headquarters of both these quasi-scientology cults seem to be “off stage,” extra murs, outside the city limits. For Houellebecq, it’s enough that this non-space is outside the Mediterranean. For the American DeLillo, the stakes seem to be higher, and the non-place is somewhere beyond the Caucasus, beyond the habitat of whiteness: word play allows him to insert a definition of “Caucasian” in his explorations of geography. The Convergence is “somewhere” in the steppes of Central Asia, a place the coordinates of which Jeffrey gives by saying, if I may paraphrase, neither Kyrgyzstan nor Kazakhstan. Somewhere not far from where the Soviets tested their nuclear bombs, “beyond the limits of believability and law,” the very realm of the homo sacer.
Both novels are full of screens showing disasters and human ineptitude. Houellebecq’s narrative of teleology is mostly sustained with distaste for what Europeans have done to their culture. They have become too liberal (by allowing women to put careers before service to their husbands) and, oddly, at the same time they have let the occidental way of life be adulterated by the barbarians (letting Islam push Europeans towards “moral austerity”). This is expressed with that very French degout: “It’s sad, the shipwreck of a civilization, it’s sad to see its most beautiful minds sink without a trace — one begins to feel slightly ill at ease in life, and one ends up wanting to establish an Islamic republic,”Daniel says to Isabelle after she has decided to commit suicide and leave her DNA with the Elohimites.
Earlier, talking about his career as a comedian, Daniel explains: “I had built the whole of my career and fortune on the commercial exploitation of bad instincts, of the West’s absurd attraction to cynicism and evil,” and gives an account of his offensive brand of humor that we know well from Charlie Hebdo — bodies washed up on the Mediterranean coast, women reduced to their sex: “Do you know what they call the fat stuff around the vagina? A Woman.” For all this, he says, he was called “a cutting observer of contemporary life,” a term that Houellebecq might well have borrowed from either his own or DeLillo’s dust jackets. “I looked like an Arab, which helps,” he says. “One had to wonder: had my mother always been scrupulously faithful? Or had I been engendered by some Mustapha? Or even — another hypothesis — by a Jew?” Daniel fears that not only the culture, but even his own European body has been adulterated by oriental elements.
DeLillo’s narrative, on the other hand, seems to proceed with a more inward-facing melancholy, and a friendlier, more romantic form of Orientalizing.
Jeffrey’s father’s new beard is heralded as a ritual of entering a new dimension of belief and there are several loaded signifiers that don’t quite add up. By the second page there’s a chador, and a woman’s headscarf is described as “her flag of independence.” In his exoticness scales, Slavic and Turkic languages vie with one another, and the Turkic ones come on top: “In bed I wanted to hear her speak to me in her language, Uzbek, Kazakh, whatever it was, but I understood that this was an intimacy not suited to the occasion.” He feels trapped in his father’s language and looks for a way out. “I wanted a non-Roman alphabet,” he says. Luckily, in the Convergence philologists are designing an advanced language pared down to its mathematical basics. They plan to get rid of metaphor and simile for the future when the bodies in the pods will be resuscitated.
The book is filled with musings on what it means to be a son to a wealthy, famous father who has left him and his mother for a younger woman. Clearly very suggestible, Jeffrey feels absorbed and awed by the Convergence, while Houellebecq’s narrator Daniel maintains his ironic distance and detachment at the Elohimite headquarters for a long time. So whereas Houellebecq’s tone is sarcastic, in many places Zero K is sermonizing (in addition to its many Biblical allusions); it reads like one of those religious pamphlets that passed through my hands as a teenager, a genre I grew to recognize and stay well clear from. The eschatology becomes extremely familiar when Jeffrey wonders what age his father and stepmother will be when they are revived — the number, certain Muslim esotericists (and Jesus) will tell you, is 33.
The book asks too many metaphysical questions we are used to hearing from clerics lusty for new followers: what is the essence of time, is there an afterlife, where does your soul go, when does the person become the body? It’s difficult to tell whether DeLillo is asking these questions in earnest or whether he is trying to mimic the atmosphere of the Convergence in the voice of his narrator.
On his first visit, Jeffrey looks at the naked mannequins lining the corridors of the Convergence: “I imagined placing a hand on a breast. This seemed required, particularly if you are me.” We are not given a reason why particularly he should be expected to molest lifeless bodies, maybe because, as he keeps reminding us, “he is his father’s son.” Jeffrey’s optimism that we will all live to be 100 makes him describe the bodies in the pods as “rendered dead” well before their time — any dead white body is too young to die. As Jeffrey inspects these “patients” one question that comes to his mind is whether these pod peas get erections; he later later imagines his stepmother in “a state of virgin solitude.” In The Possibility of an Island, the 24th clone of Daniel contemplates the bodily degradation of what to him are “primitive” humans and says of the male body: “Subject to aesthetic and functional degradations as much as, if not more than the female, he nevertheless managed to overcome them for as long as the erectile capacities…were maintained.”
In Houellebecq’s Submission, the protagonist obsesses about how the Muslim Brotherhood’s reign has caused women to give up wearing skirts, reducing his opportunities at leering ; in The Possibility of an Island, Daniel likewise seems to experience changes in the weather as a function of how they will affect the length of skirts. In DeLillo, it must be said, there is little leering, but it isn’t absent. Jeff’s last vision of the Convergence is again to do with the female body — an impression of a woman’s skirt “lifting in the breeze, the way the wind tenses the skirt, giving shape to the legs, making the skirt dip between the legs, revealing knees and thighs. Were these my father’s thoughts or mine?”
Having been seasoned by Houellebecq, I expected Jeffrey to give into the temptation and get into a pod on his second visit to the Convergence, but he desists. What does all this worrying about death and what waits for us afterwards amount to? A grotesque form of nostalgia, Jeffrey says. Nostalgia, possibly, for a time when there was more room for the dead and the dying in our worlds, when the business of death didn’t have to be done off stage, in the bowels of a volcanic island or a wasteland of radioactive fallout. The nostalgia for a more enlightened Occident that was full of purpose, that produced great works of art, that was able to keep itself young and relevant without having to, albeit begrudgingly, let in immigrants from the Orient to quicken itself. Like so many nostalgias working their way across the globe today, it is nostalgia for a perceived golden age, the benefits of which extended only to the chosen few.
The rich seem to inhabit an ethereal form of reality in which the day of reckoning can be averted, in which they can transcend both their bodies and histories, whereas other classes seem more tied to their corporeality and finite lives. “In their prime” the men need women to reassure themselves of their libido; in death they need strangers who speak in “different alphabets” to prepare them for the ultimate alienation. Apres moi…not deluge, but — in Houellbecq’s novel — a drying up: just as the white body has shriveled up, so has the earth, and time has come for humans 2.0., sans hunger, sans passion, sans bodily fluids. Houellebecq seems convinced that by the time his own body stops there won’t be any proper human lifestyle left worth living. DeLillo, however, is more optimistic: the last image he leaves us is an alignment of the sunset and the New York City grid, the wonder of which is reflected on the face of a boy. Though the old guard may be paralyzed by a sense of narcissistic impending doom, DeLillo, at least, allows for a future that will still have moments of transcending beauty and meaning, reflected on the face of tomorrow’s man.