Can the 1% commodify death?

June 19, 2016

Zero K
By Don DeLillo
Simon & Schuster, 2016

Don DeLillo is known as one of America's great authors, standing out for his effortless wisdom. So, now at 81, it is of no surprise that DeLillo tackles death and immortality in his recent novel Zero K.

Having foreshadowed the horror of 9/11 (Underworld), the Great Financial Crisis and Occupy Movement (Cosmopolis) and the anthrax scare (White Noise), Zero K is his literary prophecy of the commodification of the last dignity: death.

“Everybody wants to win the end of the world,” so begins DeLillo in his latest novel, with a brooding introductory statement from a billionaire. A founding partner and shareholder in a technological cult, the billionaire is on the waiting list for “Next Level Death” — cryogenic preservation.

First he must convince his son, whom he previously abandoned, that the path to the enlightened future lies in freezing himself and thereby immobilising time itself.

The narration is voiced from the son's perspective, who is a philosophical, idealistic, immaterial outsider and a protagonist familiar to many DeLillo readers. Always the consummate outsider, DeLillo communicates “outsider thought”, saying “outsiders are in society, working at all levels”.

Zero K is more accessible than DeLillo's previous meta-fictional novels. This is not only because of the tenser and tighter construction, but the “outsider” has become the “everyperson” critic as they increasingly fear the tumultuous tools of the elite: the idiocies of plastic surgery, virtual reality, gene splicing and longevity.

The reader empathises with the protagonist, flummoxed as regulation is pushed aside and the narcissus is reflected; the world changing in an instant. With masterful sentences, DeLillo chillingly etches that “surviving death” is the final dead end of Western history and almost clichéd self-deception of the 21st century.

The billionaire has in no sense lived; nor has he loved, nor lost, nor found happiness. Rather, a non-living disposition has been marked by capital acquisition and market supremacy, the oxymoron symbol of his workaholic lifestyle.

Stark is his family breakdown — refuting his son and both first and second wives. DeLillo's billionaire cannot recapture “the nanoseconds of modern life” so he presses on, rather vainly, for life extension.

Zero K catechises what is postmodern living. Do we live happily within the limits of growth, content with being both present and pleasant to family, community and environment? Will we then die happily? Or do we fall under the spell of the modern age to become self-absorbed, a singular misanthrope heading to loneliness and despair? Then do we not die?

There is little question whom DeLillo critiques in Zero K — Ray Kurzweil, the chief-cult-leader of Google's “Immortality Project”, part of a sudden and little known trans-humanist movement super-powering neoliberal thought.

Kurzweil, as a technocrat for the 1%, spends his time consuming 100 “longevity” pills a day, applying billions of labour hours to evolutionary “game changers” to ensure the “life-span” of humans reach 1000 years. Bio-enhancement, bio-domes, mind upgrades, silicon chips, consciousness uploads, young-blood injections and Marvel-esque superpowers will, of course, prevent overpopulation, pollution and all self-perpetuated crises.

This cause and effect incongruity is always overcome for trans-humans, with what DeLillo refers to as Nietzsche's “Uberman” and Heidegger's “Das Man”. DeLillo paraphrases such philosophy with: “Man alone exists. Rocks are, but they do not exist. Trees are, but they do not exist. Horses are, but they do not exist”.

In tender moments of the novel where everyday life is full and present, DeLillo counters: does not touching a tree give us life and the tree life? Doesn't the tree have feelings?

Most of us are fully aware that “uber” billionaires are not the happiest lot. For DeLillo, the real psychological anguish behind the Zero K Immortality Cult is that the 1% does not get to slow down time; 24-hour capitalism consumes time and life.

In their hyper-accelerated world, they hinder the simple: the walking, talking, helping, being kind; the empathy and compassion that endow the human experience.

DeLillo leaves us with the question: if “judgment” after death is extinguished, (be it reincarnation, Hell, Heaven, tombstones, biographs or simply memories) just what will become of modern morality?

DeLillo is known to carry around a business card entitled “I do not want to talk about it” and the wise writing elder has his narratives fill in the gaps. Nearing the end of his remarkable career, DeLillo's books may well become immortality tomes.

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