"Everybody wants to own the end of the world" {Zero K by Don DeLillo}

"Everybody wants to own the end of the world"

Synopsis of Zero K by Don DeLilloJeffrey Lockhart's father, Ross, is a billionaire in his sixties, with a younger wife, Artis Martineau, whose health is failing. Ross is the primary investor in a remote and secret compound where death is exquisitely controlled and bodies are preserved until a future time when biomedical advances and new technologies can return them to a life of transcendent promise. Jeff joins Ross and Artis at the compound to say "an uncertain farewell" to her as she surrenders her body. "We are born without choosing to be. Should we have to die in the same manner? Isn't it a human glory to refuse to accept a certain fate?" These are the questions that haunt the novel and its memorable characters, and it is Ross Lockhart, most particularly, who feels a deep need to enter another dimension and awake to a new world. For his son, this is indefensible. Jeff, the book's narrator, is committed to living, to experiencing "the mingled astonishments of our time, here, on earth." Don DeLillo's seductive, spectacularly observed and brilliant new novel weighs the darkness of the world-terrorism, floods, fires, famine, plague-against the beauty and humanity of everyday life; love, awe, "the intimate touch of earth and sun."

My two cents

Have you read anything by DeLillo? I've heard anything from "I love him-you should read him" and to the extreme "His-book-almost-killed-me" variety that can you blame me that I'm a little intimidated as a DeLillo newbie?

I really should get a handle on myself: stop listening to what others say. Starting this novel, I got slightly queasy because it is rather creepy with its overwhelming fixation on death ... and actually having a direct say on one's own death, and, even scarier, challenging the world's fatalistic attitude towards death. The beginning "Everybody want to own the end of the world" was a dead giveaway. 

The story revolves around Jeffrey Lockhart, who we chance upon is in the middle of monumental family decision: he has been called by his father to bear witness to his ailing stepmother's "death." But it's not an ordinary "death," it is a decision borne out of the desire to preserve her body until the time that medicine would be able to bring her back, cured and in perfect health. All this happens within a supersecret facility somewhere in Russia, which houses state-of-the-art medical technology amidst an almost cultic movement focused on the future of humanity.

The facility is funded by Jeffrey's billionaire father, Ross. A strong believer in the goal of the facility to play the crucial role of taking death into our own hands, so-to-speak, Ross realizes that there is little left for him to live for with Artis's death. He decides that he should "go with her," in other words, willingly succumb to what the book has called a state of "Zero K" which despite him not having any illness, allows his body to be preserved and to be awoken at the same time as Artis.

It is in Ross's decision where contradictory beliefs of father and son come to fore, and underscore the entire debate of man's control over death.


Overall, I'd characterize this as a chilling, thought provoking speculative fiction piece. I remember the chills I first had when I read Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park books decades ago; how can one not be fascinated with the prospect of bring back the extinct dinosaur to life? This recaptured that feeling but with a more human connection. Everyone becomes more and more aware of their humanity with the passage of time or when time becomes a constraint (such as with an incurable illness). Everyone will at some point ponder what they want to get out of this life and beyond, if one is to believe in life beyond the mortal body. But what if one could extend their physical life indefinitely? What would you do?

"Isn't death a blessing? Doesn't it define the value of our lives, minute to minute, year to year?" (- p. 69, ARC, page may change)

There are many philosophical and even theological questions the book asks the reader to consider, to look beyond our small selves in the context of human history. Consider:
"Do we see ourselves living outside time, outside history?" [..] "Hopes and dreams of the future often fail to account for the complexity of life as it exists on this planet. We understand that. The hungry, the homeless, the besieged, the warring factions and religions and sects and nations. The crushed economies. The wild surges of weather. Can we be impervious to terrorism? Can we ward off threats of cyber-attack? Will we be able to remain truly self-sufficient here?" (p. 65, ARC, page may change)

What makes this book even moreso intense are the images of life, death and transcendence that it so skillfully paints: a solitary, stationary figure in the midst of a ever-moving bustling city, a herd of frenzied, scared people crushing onward to who knows what, anguished faces and tortured bodies of self-immolants.   

While I think there is a lot of big ideas floating about, the book is firmly grounded in the opposing views of the father and son making me feel much more connected to the whole dilemma. Otherwise, I honestly may have gotten lost in the concepts! There are plenty of gems hidden in this one and I suspect depending on what your own inclinations or interests are, you will respond in some way, especially with DeLillo's writing with its simple, descriptive and evocative quality.

I can't claim to fully grasp this book but it is enough for me want to look up more of DeLillo's work.


Life is finite. Humanity wants to and has the power to extend it indefinitely. Despite all these big questions and concepts talked about, the dilemma is real for Jeffrey, Ross and Artis. Read this chilling speculative piece and ponder about your own stand on life and death.

Note: An ARC was provided to me by the publisher for honest review consideration. 

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© guiltless readingMaira Gall