Sunday, July 17, 2016

Zero at the bone

Here's the basic concept underlying many of Don DeLillo's novels: We're all gonna die, some more horribly than others, but maybe a fleeting moment of transcendence can help us bear the horrors.

Take that concept and twist it into a darkly comic plot full of cultural critique and you've got the delightful and moving White Noise. Add a Dickensian cast of characters and spread them all over the globe and then ramp up the transcendence and you've got the bizarre but wonderful Underworld. Boil the concept down to a moment of national horror that raises questions about the relationship between terror and meaning and you've got Falling Man.

Now we've got Zero K and I don't know what to say about it. 

I really wanted to love this novel. I read an excerpt in the New Yorker that immediately sent me to Amazon to pre-order the novel, and I've carefully cleared other distractions out of the way so that I could read it undisturbed. I have to admit that I'm disappointed.

For one thing, I loved one of the characters in the excerpt I read and I was looking forward to seeing more of him, but alas, there's just not much more to see. The narrator, too, seems determined to remain colorless and bland, much like the setting in which much of the action takes place.

If you can call it action. At its heart, Zero K is a contemplative exercise reminding us that we're all gonna die (some more horribly than others) but offers only the barest hint of transcendence. (Maybe he used it all up in Underworld.)

It's true that Zero K includes some nice sentences and interesting passages. Here, for instance, the narrator (who's so bland I can barely remember his name) recalls a vivid image of his mother, now dead, running a lint roller over her raincoat:
Ordinary moments make the life. This is what she knew to be trustworthy and this is what I learned, eventually, from those years we spent together. No leaps or falls. I inhale the little drizzly details of the past and know who I am.
The novel is full of those "little drizzly details," but later the same character insists that it's not what we remember that forms identity but rather "It's the things we forget about that tell us who we are." So the little details that drizzle right out of our awareness--who can put those into a book?

My chief gripe, however, concerns DeLillo's use of child characters as carriers of special meaning. The children in White Noise carry powerful messages while still remaining convincingly (and lovably) childlike, and the child Esmeralda in Underworld becomes a beacon of (false?) hope in a broken community. In both those works and in Falling Man children carry hidden marks of societal disorders, acting as little canaries in the coal mine warning that we'd better get our act together--or else!

And there's nothing wrong with that as long as it works within the world of the fiction. In Zero K, DeLillo introduces an adolescent who, like many of his child characters, defies parental and societal expectations. Our narrator wonders, "A son or daughter who travels at a wayward angle must seem a penalty the parent must bear--but for what crime?"

The wayward teen in Zero K does incur penalties, and in fact it seems that he enters the plot only to become a bearer of penalties. He's an interesting guy but there's not enough of him, so that he seems to have been ushered in just to provide a sacrificial offering to everything that is wrong with our world.

And maybe that's the point. Maybe DeLillo wants us to think about the way the world we've created cannibalizes its young, but then why would he close the novel on a brief moment of transcendence finding hope in the wonder of a young child? 

If both what we remember and what we forget make us what we are, then I suppose that children can serve as both bringers of hope and omens of despair. But is that a book that I really want to read?  

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