Death and Life with Don DeLillo

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I first became acquainted with Don DeLillo in 1972, the year he published End Zone, his novel about football and nuclear war. I was twenty-eight and he was thirty-six. We shared an interest in death. I’d just completed a Ph.D. dissertation entitled “Final Words” on death and comedy in American fiction. I reviewed two of his novels, we began corresponding, and in 1979 I traveled from Cincinnati to Athens, where he was then living, to do the first extended interview with him. Two years later I was a Fulbright professor at the University of Athens and lived in an apartment with a view of his back balcony. In the afternoons, he’d sit out there to read, and I could see only his legs. That partial view could be a metaphor.

DeLillo showed me around Athens, many of the places described in The Names, which he was working on at the time. In 1982 he returned to the States and started his fear-of-death novel White Noise. I wrote a book, In the Loop, about his fiction, and some years later published my own novel about dying, Passing On. While working on Underworld, DeLillo said this to an interviewer: “If writing is a concentrated form of thinking, then the most concentrated writing probably ends in some kind of reflection on dying.” Now, at seventy-nine, DeLillo is concentrating on death again in Zero K, set largely in a cryonics facility in a remote desert, the landscape to which he has often returned in both his fiction and life since the Texas of End Zone. A mutual friend guided him around the desert in Borrego, California, the setting of his previous novel, Point Omega.

This is not a review, to paraphrase Magritte on his pipe. DeLillo was once sent a “threatening” letter, composed of words cut from newspapers, from a fan desperate for an advance copy of one of his novels. Zero K won’t be published until May, so this preliminary description of it and reflection on how DeLillo’s fictions are diced and spliced into this new novel on old themes are meant for readers who have been counting the six whole years since his last novel.

This is also not a profile. When I showed up for our interview in Athens, DeLillo handed me a card: “I Don’t Want to Talk About It.” It was a joke, but he has always resisted saying much about his life and speaking directly about his novels, especially whatever he is working on. When one interviewer asked why DeLillo wouldn’t identify his political orientation, he said, “Well, in the Bronx where I grew up we’d have put it this way: Because it’s none of your fucking business.” Back when I was writing In the Loop, he did make an exception and revealed to me the secret mathematical structure of Ratner’s Star. Since I moved to New York in 2008, DeLillo and I have had lunch every few months, lately in a Greek restaurant. I think he worries I will write his life, his biography, so I don’t press for any personal revelations. We talk families, sports, and others’ books. I’ve never even asked him why he doesn’t want a biography written about him. But he did once say, maybe jokingly, “I just want to disappear,” a desire shared by many of his protagonists, including the novelist Bill Gray in Mao II.

DeLillo once called himself a “failed ascetic,” but much of his life has been spent alone in a room with an old manual typewriter. Although DeLillo doesn’t exactly live to write or write to live, the primal existential conflict of his work in book after book is language versus death. This is more explicit than ever in Zero K. Although many of his novels are about keepers of secrets, I don’t believe DeLillo has secrets that he fears a biographer would discover. No, I think his resistance to biography is linguistic, stylistic: he doesn’t want another person’s language representing his life after his death. As he has a character say in the first words of Chapter One in Point Omega, “The true life is not reducible to words spoken or written, not by anyone, ever.” DeLillo doesn’t even want his own words about his life made public. Although he sold his archive, which included his correspondence, to the University of Texas, he has said he now regrets not placing limitations on public access to the trove. So do I, for friends of mine who have done research in the archive have been reading my correspondence about my sliver of life with DeLillo. Correspond with the famous, and this is what happens. I should have learned from my friend to be more reticent, the master of secrets. Of course, it’s possible that my letters to him will be read long after my own novels are forgotten, a parasitical “life after death” I’m willing to refuse.

DeLillo and I were raised as Catholics and educated by Jesuits. For people like us, death is the largest secret. Zero K quotes the preeminent philosopher of death, Martin Heidegger, but probably the handiest (and more readable) gloss on this eschatological novel is Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death, which DeLillo once told me was an influence on White Noise. Becker’s book is about the different modes of “symbolic immortality” that allow people to live with the horrifying fact of their mortality. Not that DeLillo needs book knowledge of this fact. He has said that when he starts a novel, whether long or short, he thinks of the writing as a race against death. So far, he has won sixteen times. This may be a reason to keep writing.

Then there’s the world outside his room. When he wrote End Zone, nuclear technology threatened apocalypse. In Zero K, film technology at the facility presents a series of natural and human catastrophes. For those wealthy enough to seal themselves off from war and terror, cryonic technology holds out the promise of immortality or, at least, extended life in a future when cures for killing diseases may be found. This is resurrection when the Christian God is absent.

As in Ratner’s Star, his gabby science fiction novel set in a remote research facility, the abstract setting of Zero K exists primarily to give DeLillo a chance to introduce “crackpot sages” who articulate positions and counter positions on the human desire for immortality. The billionaire Ross Lockhart funds the cryonic facility to freeze his younger, second wife and himself. His thirty-four-year-old son, Jeffrey, visits the facility twice, listens to the “sages,” voices his opposition, and lives a desultory life in Manhattan that appears to be an intended alternative to the ambitious overreaching of cryonics. “Ordinary moments make the life,” Jeffrey says he learned from his mother. Those at the facility want to leave “behind all the shaky complications of body, mind and personal circumstance.”

The existential conflict between father and son is complicated by a mother-son relation central to DeLillo’s first novel, Americana, a relation that surfaces in Ratner’s Star, Libra, and Underworld. A child of divorce, Jeffrey lived with his mother as a youth and admits to taking some satisfaction in his father’s “death,” if that is what actually happens in cryonics. Like most DeLillo protagonists, excepting Jack Gladney in White Noise, who finds some solace from his fear of death in his wife and children, Jeffrey is a childless loner whose only described love affair ends because of his lover’s peculiar teenager. At the time of his narration, Jeffrey has a job that doesn’t engage him. If not a “race against death,” his narration seems his only defense against the mortality so excessively displayed at the cryonics facility. Like James Axton, narrator of The Names, Jeffrey is obsessed with naming, gaining power over people and experiences by finding the exact word for them. When he attempts to imagine his stepmother’s consciousness, he seems to speak for himself: “But all I am is what I am saying and this is nearly nothing.”

Like many DeLillo novels, Zero K is formally balanced: ten chapters in part one, then a brief interlude followed by ten chapters in part two. Ratner’s Star was halved like the brain that is one of its subjects. Mao II had a rigorous four-part structure. Part One and much of Part Two of Zero K are set in the cryonics facility. Actions occur in the facility, mostly thinking in Manhattan. The structure of the facility is artfully disorienting, the streets of Manhattan familiar. Jeffrey, if not DeLillo, would like to present his New York life as a natural reply to the unnatural facility, but there is a quantitative and qualitative imbalance in the novel that diminishes the power of that reply.

In Beckett’s Endgame, Hamm and Clov agree about the world: “All is zer-[o].” DeLillo’s title refers to Kelvin and absolute zero, a far different temperature than zero degrees — or what Roland Barthes called “writing degree zero.” As I said, this is not a review. It’s an early notice to those reviewers and other readers who may be tempted to approach Zero K as an end game or death watch, DeLillo’s final words, something like William Gaddis’s Agapē Agape that was finished on his deathbed. Fortunately, life and art are separate. I’m happy to report that DeLillo at seventy-nine is as nimble on Manhattan streets as he was in Athens traffic thirty-five years ago, as quick to laugh and to make a joke as he’s ever been, a little hard of hearing, like this interlocutor, but still attentive to the lives of others, still going to movies and sneaking into galleries in the afternoons. In Mao II, “The future belongs to crowds.” DeLillo moves among them, a man in a baseball cap who wants to be invisible, who cares nothing for public recognition and the trappings of fame. I’m not telling everything I know about my friend, but I will reveal one specific detail: he almost always orders spanakopita and tzatziki for lunch.

Though I haven’t asked him, I’m quite sure he was making notes, assembling lists, and writing pages while waiting for Zero K to be published. DeLillo has continually surprised — with the international novel The Names after the thriller Running Dog, with the nonfiction qualities of Libra, with the history of Underworld after the metafiction Mao II. In two or three more years, we may well get a work as politically engaged as Falling Man or as inventively satirical as Cosmopolis. I doubt very much that Zero K is the end any more than Hamm’s last words in Endgame are the end. He will say them again in the play’s next performance. I’m already looking forward to DeLillo’s. You will have to wait until May.