May 2016


‘Zero K’ by Don DeLillo

By Stephanie Bishop
Picador; $29.99

Don DeLillo has long been recognised as a writer with his finger on the paranoid pulse of contemporary life. Terror, contamination, conspiracy and apocalypse recur throughout DeLillo’s work, appearing most prominently in White Noise (1985), Libra (1988), Mao II (1991) and Underworld (1997). These concerns are often a way of addressing a deeper fear of death itself, and the desire to, as the protagonist of White Noise, Jack Gladney, says, “outlive it”.

Picture this then: Jeffrey Lockhart, son of a billionaire, is delivered to a secret compound where a cryonic chamber has been built deep inside the earth. Dozens of naked bodies lie in transparent capsules. All their hair has been removed; their arms are folded across their chests. Their consciousness continues but in an altered state: “Floating thought. A passive sort of metal grasp. Ping ping ping.”

One need fear death no longer in the strange and haunting world of DeLillo’s 17th novel. Jeffrey’s father, Ross, has helped fund this venture, where people who are facing terminal illness can pay to have their bodies preserved through vitrification and cryopreservation. They then wait for the time when nanotechnology will be able to cure them, at which point they’ll re-emerge into the world.

Ross has brought Jeffrey to the compound in order to witness the preservation of Ross’ young wife, Artis, who’s been diagnosed with a terminal illness. The novel is narrated from Jeffrey’s perspective and he’s wary of what he sees: the set-up is saturated in evangelical motifs, and has the atmosphere of a cult.

Jeffrey’s feeling of unease increases when he realises that the compound also caters to those who are not terminally ill but who nevertheless have chosen to suspend their lives. Through this technology, the human will become “ever renewable” and “ahistorical”, with the chance, so the sales pitch goes, to achieve self-realisation by opting out of a contemporary world destined to self-destruct, a world where authentic experience has become almost impossible.

If the first half of the novel is a gripping ride through a weird kind of dystopia, the pace slows once Artis enters her capsule and we follow Jeffrey through his hapless life as he grapples with the consequences of what he’s seen. His own responses to the world verge on the austere, his consciousness oddly removed from the torment he observes. Moral questions take the lead as he struggles with how best to live in a time where human experience is dominated by a troubling paradox: we suffer because what we take to be real is in effect simulated, yet we find solace in exactly the same thing – a belief in the promise of an engineered future. The result is a terrifying and prescient depiction of our fraught relationship with technology’s potential.

Stephanie Bishop

Stephanie Bishop is a lecturer in creative writing at the University of New South Wales. Her new novel is Man Out of Time.

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Jonathan Franzen

Canon fodder

An interview with Jonathan Franzen

Conscious Sleep by Chiharu Shiota

Artistic immunity

The 20th Biennale of Sydney

Batman v. Superman

Everyone’s a critic

‘Batman v. Superman’ v. the internet


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