Don DeLillo’s Total Art of Memory
When Don DeLillo took the stage at the 2015 National Book Awards, where he accepted the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, he opened with a humorous confession. “Yes,” he said, “I’m here to talk about myself.” Next he did what he always does, what he can’t help but doing: he told a story. “Books,” he began, “This is why we’re here this evening”:
Lately, I’ve been looking at books that stand on two long shelves in a room just down the hall from room where I work. Early books, paperbacks, every one. The first books I ever owned. And they resemble some kind of medieval plunder: old and scarred, weathered covers and sepia pages that might crumble at the touch of a human finger. I’m the human in the story, and when I lift the book from the shelf gently, I understand again the power of memory that a book carries with it. What is there to remember? Who I was, where I was, what these books meant to me when I read them for the first time.
“I’m the human in the story.” Precise, austere, it was, like all of his stories in the wake of the exhausting Underworld. But the story is ascetic because it’s trained on the inexhaustible: the vastness of memory. “I’m here to talk about myself.” Who is Don DeLillo, writer of fictions, among these two long shelves of books? Whatself is viable, maintained against such inexhaustibility?
Zero K is one of the strongest counterstatements that recent American fiction has to offer about the self composed by fictions, and the self that contrives them. And it runs counter not to the whims of technology or the entropic fate of human beings, but the claims on their behalf to ecstatic knowledge. An act of restrained wisdom literature, it puts forward an argument — or an idea — that fiction is one form of storytelling that values human memory, and one that accordingly makes room for selves to thrive. It’s an act of vision against the visionaries, a story of memory aimed at the religious presentists of apocalyptic thinking.
The story Zero K tells is straightforward, facetious, and disconcerting. It opens in Chelyabinsk, the site of a famous meteor crash, where Jeffrey Lockhart has arrived to meet his father, Ross, a calculating, self-made billionaire with familiar eccentricities who has assembled a “network of companies, agencies, funds, trusts, foundations, syndicates, communes and clans” in support of a cultic project called the Convergence. The nature of this project unfolds slowly over the course of the novel, but we soon learn that Ross plans to supply his wife, Artis, Jeffrey’s stepmother, with everlasting life. An archaeologist by training, Artis is dying of complications from multiple sclerosis. Jeffrey, who is not her son, attends her deathbed while Ross makes preparations for her reconstitution as perhaps another being, another self, by way of a curious nanotechnology. Referring perhaps to the molding of humans from clay put forth by various creation myths, Artis thinks of her eventual reconstitution in the “second life” as a form of earth art.
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