“Everybody wants to own the end of the world.”
His readings from new novel Zero K made it apparent that American writer Don DeLillo is now, in choosing as his latest subject the uncertain science of cryonics (the freezing of human bodies for eventual revival and with a view to possible immortality), being more explicit than ever in his ongoing fixation on the facts and mysteries of death.
The Royal Festival Hall on London’s Southbank silenced appreciatively in anticipation of DeLillo’s distinctive drawl. Pointed and magnetic, he nevertheless speaks – despite his self-proclaimed profession as “a maker of sentences” – as if he is continually in the process of translating the auditory signals that have crackled, hissed and hummed throughout his scenes of human drama from White Noise (1984) and Underworld (1997) to Falling Man (2007).
He is careful and considerate in answering the questions posed to him throughout the evening and knowingly taps a humorous vein by approaching each line of enquiry with a sense of suspicious diplomacy. More than once he encourages the biggest laughs from the audience by insisting that he cannot remember such rudimentary details as character names from his previous works. Clearly keen on moving ever forward, he seems, or at least affects the appearance of seeming, wary of critics and scholars poring through his fiction for continuities and patterns.
Perhaps he knows to be guarded as Zero K seems to bring his decades-long enquiries into how we live with death to an apocalyptic end-point. His deliberate delivery of the above epigram, “Everybody wants to own the end of the world”, is intended not to evoke widespread destruction but instead the transgressive move towards controlling how and when life can end, if ever.
Who can decide to live forever? Who can fundamentally change the parameters of what it even means to be alive? If as a species we can beat death, or cheat death, then are we not cheating ourselves out of the one undeniable fact that gives all lived experience and human connection its value? He is only half-joking when he invokes cliché to ask, “What will poets write about?”
DeLillo stresses that continual developments in nanotechnology and stem cell research mean that “there is no fiction in the sense that this is happening” – but drily qualifies that it could all still be rendered a fiction if the anticipated scientific methods required to resurrect the frozen undead never develops or properly works.
He may later shift in his chair, and somewhat deflect, when an audience member asks him about recurring critiques of rampant financialisation in his fiction, but his concern is evident in his earlier comment that, with expensive death-defying technologies creating a species gap measured in material wealth, “Half the world is re-doing their kitchen; the other half is starving.”
In Zero K the shady proprietors of the cryonic facility are known as The Convergence and they are based at a vast complex inhabiting what DeLillo terms a desert “shithole”. The gaudy tastelessness of its colour-coded walls and huge jewel-embellished skull monument suggest that these people – not scientists, or social historians, or similarly qualified thinkers but instead what DeLillo calls “adventurers of a kind” – are so invested in their superficial displays of power and control that they are blinded to the ramifications of their project. They are also, crucially, suffering from a severe lack of imagination by dismissing the value that death gives life and art.
Elaborating on the means by which life will be extended and augmented, DeLillo speculates on nanotechnology that implants the treasures of human artistic endeavour directly into the brain. He characteristically taps the erotic implications of such immediate access, remarking how the implanted individual can now make love whilst listening to Bach or Billie Holiday. He gives this example to suggest that with immortality and unlimited access will come the consolidation of convention and consensus – again, a distinctly hubristic lack of imagination.
Of course he still types on a rowdy old Olympia purchased in 1975. He asserts that his use of a typewriter reminds him daily that he writes “in sentences” and “makes noise” whilst doing so. He insists on never using “a screen”, but perhaps the tactile quality he values is not necessarily embodied by the typewriter but by the paper, the by-product that will eventually become waste.
This idea of waste helps us to understand what it is that DeLillo simultaneously fears and respects about death and specifically the finite life-span. When asked about his opus Underworld, he talks affectionately about how what he initially intended as a novella became, during the process of its writing, his longest book by far. He emphasizes his fascination with the torn paper programmes thrown by fans of the losing team in a classic baseball game of the early 1950s and how writing of this event as Underworld’s inciting incident sparked a compulsion to explore the by-products of lives and events to create a sprawling narrative that explores the workings of cultural memory and the mystics of nuclear waste.
Like a true mystic, which he concedes at one point in the evening to being, DeLillo seems to believe less in a slavish adherence to preserving the past and more in accepting what is already scattered, buried, or blown away as being the traces of people moving inexorably forward through life and through history. Perhaps waste is not valueless as its definition partially attests but is instead an honest reflection of a reality defined by limits that should not be transgressed. It exists for a time but will soon be forgotten or decontextualised beyond relevance and comprehension.
DeLillo, refusing to live in his literary past, regards his body of work as simply an ever-lengthening paper trail bearing his name. On the subject of his own death, he says simply to his audience, “I honestly want to disappear.” Ω