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Editor’s Choice: Don DeLillo’s “Zero K”

Zero K, by Don DeLillo, Scribner, 274 Pages, $27. The “Zero K” of Don DeLillo’s newest book title refers to “absolute zero” in the Kelvin Scale of temperature measurement, where nothing colder is theoretically possible. The first American writer to so prominently use an esoteric scientific term in a title – in this case a thermodynamic one – was Thomas Pynchon in a short story called “Entropy” dating from the late ’50s. Pynchon’s first novel, including some of the story’s characters, was “V” published in 1963. Since we are talking about metaphor here, “Entropy” can best be defined metaphorically as a “measure of a system in disorder,” i.e. the degree to which things are falling apart.

DeLillo was born in 1936, Pynchon five months later in 1937. DeLillo didn’t begin his first book “Americana,” though, until 1963, the year Pynchon published his still-amazing first novel “V.” “Americana” didn’t actually appear until 1971, eight years after “V.”

There has nevertheless been a crucial DNA relationship between Pynchon and DeLillo since the latter’s beginning. In one of his more concise contributions to literary genealogy, critic Harold Bloom has traced this genetic skein thusly talking about DeLillo’s masterwork “Underworld”: “by the time the vast book concludes, DeLillo’s relation to Pynchon is like Pynchon’s relation to ‘The Recognitions’ of William Gaddis or to Borges.”

DeLillo, as he approaches 80 (on Nov. 20) is revisiting a Pynchonesque trope more than 50 years after inception. That tells you something. The basic premise of the novel is initially familiar if not quite yet “old hat.” It’s about cryogenics – freezing the dying before the final life moment so they can be defrosted and cured later (and, in this book, mentally reconstituted.)

For a writer so furiously prophetic and/or up-to-date in his work (“White Noise,” “Libra,” “Mao II,” “The Names”), “Zero K” seems an oddly post-facto product from one of our greatest writers, i.e. minor DeLillo, like “Falling Man.” But then, in American literature of 2016, minor DeLillo is still a major American novel – especially since his skills long before the book’s close have heated up enormously. The novel’s brilliance escalates sharply as it proceeds. By the end, it is absolute. – Jeff Simon