Define “language.” Define “literature.”
Don DeLillo plants many prompts like this, implicitly and explicitly, in his new novel “Zero K.” These prompts invite us to engage deeper in the act of reading while questioning the meaning we make of what we read. Can one do either of these is a satisfactory way? Can we do both simultaneously? Are the truly engaged reader the ones who do…or can?
I expect this novel will inspire innumerable treatises and thesis: what does it mean? How does this work fit in his oeuvre? What seeds will this work plant in the 21st century literary landscape? Is zero K a temperature or point on a timeline? What does it say about how insignificant our individual lives are yet how frightening our impact on the planet is?
I have neither the time nor the training to set to trying to do so. However, I will briefly take on one aspect of the work: the enduring meaning of words and language.
If “Zero K” is about one thing, it’s not the politics and policies related to cryogenic storage, it’s the simultaneous incompleteness and complexity of language. “Zero K” is a novel about names and the act of naming and the power we have as “namers.” We are namers of people, places, things. We change names. Ross Lockhart did. We inherit names and we inhabit them. Whether English or Latin or Spanish or Pashto or “prelinguistic grunts”–all languages spoken and explored in the novel–language is at the same time our highest achievement and our Achilles heel as species. We name things–book, desert, chair, painting–but the names don’ capture the nature of things. At one point DeLillo writes of the Latin names of plants, “the mystery, the paradox, the ruse.” If we can’t even trust the standard, scientific nomenclature of plant species, how are we to trust names to express our own identities? Names of plants and minerals and people are invented, imposed. This represents our nature–in fact our dominance–as a species. Genesis 2:20. Biogenesis. Biology.
Define “son.” Define “father.”
So, in many respect, this novel is an ode to language–power, politics, sound, inheritance, imagination. In fact, it may be our languages that endure, not our monoliths or our modern marvels. It’s no surprise that Artis was an archeologist, one who seeks meaning and understanding in words and works of art. If we are to believe her motives, words endure in a way that wealth does not.
Define “life.” Define “death.”
Creating consciousness and a language to describe this consciousness–this is to be the enduring legacy of the Convergence, right? Does Artis believe in life after Convergence? Does Jeffrey? Does Ross? Can the reader? So much prose is dedicated to the present state of the facility and man’s follies–pride, selfishness, violence–that one finds it hard to imagine that there will be a world worth waking up to.
Define “war.” Define “waking.”
There is a curious twist on language even after the anticipated awakening. The Convergence has created a language of its own–a sort of reverse Tower of Babel moment–where souls from all over the world will speak the same pidgin language. Will life endure for this singular spoken language to take hold? Who knows. No author has treated these topics of language and meaning since Jorge Luis Borges. What DeLillo seems to suggest throughout the novel and specifically in Artis’s lucid language is that this language, this moment are what hold meaning. The last scene of the novel seem to suggest this for both Ross and the reader.
There is an endless war aboveground. Shards of civilization are strewn throughout the landscape: catacombs, mannequins, surreal filmstips that flash back and forward. Inside the Convergence, indeed inside the Lockharts, there is a silent war of nouns and verbs: being, becoming. How do we use these words? When? Why?
I recently had the honor of hearing Deepak Chopra and Rudy Tanzi speak about mindfulness and the very real, very unexplored relationship of mindfulness and wellness…longevity. Sound familiar? Chopra said that there are no nouns, only verbs–lifeforms in motion and pulseless particles with their own life forces. Does DeLillo believe this? Is “Zero K” his way of expressing this? Perhaps he believe the opposite: that there are only nouns. Where do I stand as a breathing being? Where do I stand as a language teacher?
Define “body.” Define “being.”
Like Jeffrey Lockhart, I have tried to name different shades, not shades of color but shades of meaning. Language gives us the power to do this, but it obscures the true nature of things. Calling a “chair” a “chair” gives it meaning, but also limits its identity. Thus, this novel, which I’ll knowingly limit by calling it such, seeks to name and make meaning of the world we find ourself in in 2016: fractured, fragile, fundamentalist, fraudulent, feverish forever in search of the true meaning of our words and our world.