Among the writers commonly labeled “postmodern,” the two most immediately mentioned are usually Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo. Since the term was first coined to describe a turn away from the reemergent realism of the post-WWII years, it has been defined and redefined to the point that it has lost any coherent meaning. That it now so reflexively brings to mind the work of these two writers is a telling indication that it has come predominantly to refer to recurrent themes, a “worldview” more than a formal innovation. To write postmodern fiction is to find the form that adequately reflects a postmodern reality, not to extend form beyond its purely functional assignment to reflect reality in the first place.
If the relevant touchstone is the work of John O’Hara or J.D. Salinger, then of course the narratives of Pynchon and DeLillo are far from orthodox or familiar. While by no means does either writer abandon storytelling—their stories in fact can be very dramatic, the action at times extreme—the narrative structure in their novels highlights discontinuity and indeterminacy, creating plots that wobble and loop, ultimately suspending rather than resolving themselves. Readers seeking a conventionally immersive “good read” generally do not find the novels of Pynchon and DeLillo suitable candidates, although the prevailingly comic tone and the extremity of situation and character in them can certainly be provocative and entertaining. These qualities, however, do not substantially distinguish the work of Pynchon and DeLillo from black humor, absurdism, or many other recognizable practices of modernism still influencing adventurous writers after World War II. The formal features of their fiction would not alone prompt us to put it in a separate category designated “postmodern.”
When we do discuss Pynchon and DeLillo as postmodernists, then, we are talking about a certain sensibility that is attuned to a world that is itself postmodern, with the characteristics attributed to it by such theorists as Fredric Jameson and J.F Lyotard—a world without universal or metaphysical grounding, vulnerable to randomness and drift, dominated by forms of technology that both accelerate and mark the loss of presumed coherence. Pynchon and DeLillo depict this world with particular force and insight, paradoxically making their novels, ostensibly challenges to ordinary realism, works of especially compelling realism (metaphysical realism, perhaps), able to represent a suddenly fractious reality more faithfully than existing modes of social realism. If modernist “stream of consciousness” was not really a subversion of realism but an intensification of it, its extension to a deeper level of human perception, so too are the unconventional narrative strategies of Gravity’s Rainbow, White Noise, or Underworld not really an abandonment of realism but its reconfiguration.
Such a description applies to DeLillo’s work even more directly than Pynchon’s, as few if any of DeLillo’s novels really depart much from the protocols of realism (except perhaps Ratner’s Star, which remains his most Pynchonesque novel). Indeed, after the shifts in time and space, the seemingly random occurrences, and trademark set-pieces are accounted for as devices meant to amplify, not undermine, the evocative power of narrative, it could be argued that the fundamental aesthetic assumptions of DeLillo’s fiction are realist, albeit a realism thoroughly informed by the strategies of formal disruption made available to the novelist by modernism. If it seemed to many observers that the events of 9/11 were like excerpts from a DeLillo novel, this is because in his novels he had so accurately portrayed the forces at loose in the world that made something like the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, as well as their immediate aftermath, seem almost inevitable. DeLillo’s new novel, Zero K, about cryonic preservation, could be described as a straightforwardly realist novel, indeed the most linear exercise in realism he has yet produced. The subject of this novel may seem exotic and excessive in its portrayal of unrestrained technology, but once we accept that the sort of death-defying technology the novel invokes has actually been developed (though perhaps not as extravagantly), its narrative is not at all implausible. Many of us might find the behavior depicted all too recognizable.
Perhaps we should say that DeLillo has a postmodern vision, an especially acute perspective on the particular ways the late 20th century (and now early 21st) has simultaneously fostered the dissociation of belief from a central, commonly available source of value and meaning, while also generating counter-movements, some laudable, some desperate, some purely destructive, that attempt to assert a substitute for the lost center. DeLillo’s fiction is a chronicle of such attempts. His first four novels provide a template for the portrayal of this dynamic, introducing the range of responses to the postmodern condition to which DeLillo consistently returns throughout his work. In Americana (1971) and Great Jones Street (1973), the effects of mass media and consumerism are the focus of attention, themes that become even more pronounced in later novels such as White Noise (1985), Mao II (1991), Underworld (1997), and Cosmopolis (2003). End Zone (1972) announces the interest in language that on one level preoccupies much of De Lillo’s fiction, as does the more general consideration of the dominion of science and technology depicted most directly in Ratner’s Star (1976).
The effects of media and the triumph of consumerism are of course in DeLillo’s fiction baneful and corrupting, the product of a misbegotten response to the postmodern loss of moral and epistemological stability whereby representations of reality replace reality and acquisition for its own sake replaces all other values. The cultural ravages of these phenomena are closely linked to the deep dysfunction of the current political order, the dark recesses of which De Lillo began to explore in his late 70’s novels, Players (1977) and Running Dog (1978). Here conspiracies and random violence have more adherents than anything resembling democracy.
If DeLillo’s portrayal of an increasingly globalized capitalist culture that has lost its bearings but attempts to exploit that loss for profit seems to many readers a startlingly familiar rendering of the world they live in, it also lends DeLillo’s fiction some of the characteristics of social satire. While only the first four novels could really be called “humorous” in any conventional sense, the later novels certainly have a critical edge that can be regarded as satirical, even though the implicit absurdity of speech and action they register is related in a deadpan and affectless tone that has become DeLillo’s signature mode of expression. This is the quality of DeLillo’s fiction that most creates the impression his work is postmodern, as the cool and detached narration—often via DeLillo’s trenchant, honed dialogue—only intensifies the disturbing ambience that permeates DeLillo’s created worlds. But the effect of this device is less the impression of a wholly fabricated world than of one just a few degrees of knowing transfiguration away from the world we actually inhabit.
DeLillo’s postmodern vision thus seeks its own kind of representational coherence, but such coherence is challenged by the element in DeLillo’s fiction that has the best claim to be called postmodern, the underlying examination and critique of the signifying function of language first featured prominently in End Zone but identifiable, sometimes more, sometimes less explicitly, in most of DeLillo’s subsequent novels as well. End Zone uses the language of football and warfare (the two being closely associated throughout the novel) in its portrayal of its football-playing protagonist and his philosophically-informed meditations on words and their meaning. (“It was a sinister thing to discover at such an age, that words can escape their meaning,” Gary Harkness muses at one point. “A strange beauty that sign began to express.”) The Names makes DeLillo’s interest in the power of language to both shape and misshape perception most directly the subject of the novel, and is probably his most sustained treatment of the role language plays in creating the conditions that make the postmodern world possible.
The Names alerts us to its dominant theme in its title, which refers to a “language cult” that ritually murders people whose initials correspond to those of the places where they are killed. What seems random to the outside world is for the cult the enforcement of order and pattern, the kind of order produced by words and the meaning they provide. However, the language cult merely exaggerates (to a deadly degree) our habitual orientation to the language we use, which we assume is transparent in its meaning and direct in its authority. DeLillo’s fiction consistently questions these assumptions, never more directly than in The Names, and many of the oblique, discontinuous stylistic features of his novels can be explained as a prolonged response to the critique of language it also works to disclose, offering an alternative practice that acknowledges the instability and uncertainties of human language. The need to cultivate a different, less transcendental relationship with words and their use is explicitly depicted in The Names, whose protagonist comes to appreciate the “cadences” of language, and can accept “the rise and fall of the ironic voice.”
This acquiescence to the inconclusive nature of language is echoed in the formal and narrative structures of the novels as well. Most of them feature characters engaged in a search for meaning or enlightenment, only to have the search frustrated, become hopelessly convoluted. Such a narrative scheme is most visible in Libra (1988), in which the invented character of Nicholas Branch seeks to assemble a CIA secret history of the Kennedy assassination, but can only conclude that the “real” story will never be known, so thoroughly confused, contradictory, and circuitous is all the “evidence” he encounters (a judgment that doesn’t so much gainsay the parallel narratives relating the story of Lee Harvey Oswald and the plot to assassinate the President as it makes all three narrative strands essentially indeterminate, impossible to reconcile). A novel like Libra explodes the human propensity to seek order and pattern by invoking a patterning that is out of control, susceptible to an endless loop of explication and interpretation. It also works to reveal the kind of order and pattern fiction itself offers, which also prompts indefinite explication and interpretation rather than providing fixed meaning. What is most meaningful in a work of fiction is found in the process of reading, not in the resolution of conflicts or mysteries.
The gravest threat to our presumption of meaning and coherence is surely the prospect of our own death. If death is final, oblivion looms, annihilating any meaning we try to force on existence and making belief in immanent order or beauty pointless. Fear of death pervades DeLillo’s fiction, but—at least before Zero K—probably most directly in White Noise, whose main characters are preoccupied with death (including Murray Siskind, who is no doubt the preeminent philosopher of death in DeLillo’s fiction, especially in his notorious lecture on the supermarket as America’s way of deflecting consciousness of death) and the plot of which incorporates the literally free-floating allegorical specter of death, the “airborne toxic event” that sends the novel’s protagonist on his own journey of reckoning with death’s reality. For all of the ways the postmodern condition as depicted in DeLillo’s fiction is characterized by the attempt to fill a void, the ultimate void left by human mortality looms even more ominously, resistant to our efforts to lower its horizon.
Zero K illustrates how determined those efforts can be. Even more concentrated in its focus on a culture haunted by death, this novel continues the trend among DeLillo’s novels after Underworld, his last “big” book and the one that secured his reputation as a major writer, toward a smaller canvas and a more formally condensed scale. Unlike The Body Artist or Cosmopolis, however, which in using the novella form produced enigmatic narratives that exploited the reduced scope to evoke dreamlike and more poetically charged effects, Zero K does little either formally or stylistically to transform its narrative beyond its relatively familiar and rather straightforward premise. On the one hand, it is not surprising that DeLillo would write a novel about obsession with death and the extremes to which human beings might go to defeat it; on the other hand, it is disappointing that the novel he wrote seems predictably the sort of thing Don DeLillo might write in addressing these themes.
The story the novel tells is certainly disturbing, but most of what is provocative about it is implicit in a brief outline of its characters and plot: A young man is invited by his long estranged father to witness the final stages of the process by which his fatally ill stepmother will be frozen in a cryogenics facility, to be revived at a time when, according to the owners of the facility, she will not only be cured of her illness but completely revitalized, brought to life in an “advanced” form. The father, nearly inconsolable at the loss of his wife but a believer in the promise of the reanimating technology, threatens to have himself frozen while still perfectly healthy, but assures his son he will not go through with it. Eventually the son finds himself back at the facility as his father does indeed choose to join his wife in the “cryostorage” section of Zero K.The novel chronicles what is essentially an assisted suicide, although in this case it is assisted not by a Dr. Kevorkian but by technological development itself, capitalism attempting to usurp the remaining role still mostly reserved to God—determining when the end of life should come. Ross Lockhart, a successful businessman and a millionaire several times over, genuinely longs to be reunited with his wife, but he helped to establish Zero K (along with its accompanying philosophy of resurrection, the “Convergence”) because he shares its self-actualizing ethos, which his great wealth allows him to indulge. Clearly the Convergence appeals to his sense of self-importance: death is an especially unwelcome intrusion to someone of such wealth and status, a belief no doubt shared by most of the other “customers” now sealed in their pods awaiting their own rebirth and triumph over death. The fear of death exhibited by people like Ross Lockhart and his wife is magnified by, and closely related to, their delusions of grandeur.
The novel is narrated by Lockhart’s son, Jeffrey. The father left his first wife, Jeffrey’s mother, and their son when Jeffrey was 13, and while the son and the father eventually became closer, Jeffrey tells us he “went nowhere near the businesses he owned.” Jeffrey uses his narrative of his visits to Zero K—located in a desolate part of Central Asia—to reflect on his life with his abandoned mother and his more recent personal successes and failures (more of the latter). Unfortunately, there’s not much about Jeffrey Lockhart’s account that makes the narrator himself a very interesting character. He seems to exist mostly as the recording eye reporting to us on the startling and often bizarre things he sees and hears; indeed, the detached perspective Jeffrey assumes can seem eerily removed from the horrors he witnesses, especially as he observes his father preparing himself for what Jeffrey surely knows is a premature death:
He was naked on a slab, not a hair on his body. It was hard to connect the life and times of my father to this remote semblance. Had I ever thought of the human body and what a spectacle it is, the elemental force of it, my father’s body, stripped of everything that might mark it as an individual life. It was a thing fallen into anonymity, all the normal responses dimming now. I did not turn away. I felt obliged to look. I wanted to be contemplative. And at some far point in my wired mind, I may have known a kind of weak redress, the satisfaction of the wronged boy.
You might expect a son viewing his father “naked on a slab” under such circumstances to express somewhat more concern about the wisdom of what is happening, to find it harder to describe this scene in such clinical terms. That he doesn’t isn’t so much a character flaw causing us to lose sympathy as it is an emptying out of Jeffrey Lockhart as a character beyond his functional role as “the son” and as mouthpiece for the author. This would not be such an obstacle if the language DeLillo put in his mouth was livelier, more transformative, but unfortunately the passage quoted is representative of the style throughout Zero K, mostly expository, unobtrusive, utilitarian in its descriptive language. It is a style that seeks to convey the extraordinary scenes the narrator beholds with a kind of diligence and precision, and in the process the narrator loses definition as a character who has something important at stake in the events he recounts.
The lack of affect exhibited by Jeffrey Lockhart might have produced an effectively chilling evocation of the absurdity inherent in the spectacle before him—human beings willing to die because they perceive it as a way of cheating death—through the contrast between his earnest, matter-of-fact tone and the extremity of the situation. But Jeffrey’s account throughout the novel is finally just earnest and matter-of-fact, amazingly enough helping to make an intrinsically shocking story at times verge on tedium. Perhaps it is just that the circumstances of this novel are so conspicuously, even predictably, those to which DeLillo would be drawn, or perhaps the blankness of the writing finally just represents a blankness in this character, but Zero K is a DeLillo novel in which the scrupulous representation of folly and madness has begun to pall. Even the video images broadcast incessantly on giant screens in the Zero K facility, serving as something between interior decoration and religious iconography and before which Jeffrey Lockhart often stands mutely, as if unable to avert his gaze from their cumulative power, devolve in Jeffrey’s recitation into a simple list of oddly prosaic summaries:
Men in black walking single-file, each with a long sword, sunup, ritual murder, black head to foot, a chill discipline marking their stride.
Soldiers asleep in a bunker, stacks of sandbags.
Exodus: masses of people carrying whatever possessions they can manage, clothing, floor lamps, carpets, dogs. Flames rising across the screen behind them.
Such images could be stolen from previous Don DeLillo novels, or at least a fancied version of a DeLillo novel. When a character in White Noise recites a litany of predictions made by “leading psychics” in a tabloid newspaper (“A Japanese Consortium will buy Air Force One and turn it into a luxury flying condominium with midair refueling privileges and air-to-surface missile capability”), it might superficially resemble a list like this one, but these transcribed television images seem expected, perfunctory, and without the blend of humor and foreboding that make the earlier discursive inventory, and others like it, more rhetorically effective. In Zero K, this particular list seems largely redundant, an empty flourish.
Zero K doesn’t exactly seem like self-parody, however; it is more like DeLillo has come to this DeLillo-like premise and cast of characters belatedly, after a dominant impression of “typical” DeLillo themes and motifs had been established among many readers and critics and before DeLillo himself could treat the premise with any kind of fresh inspiration or create characters that don’t already seem like stereotypes. Murray Siskind seems to have anticipated the novel’s focus when he describes technology as “lust removed from nature,” further characterizing it as “what we invented to conceal the terrible secret of our decaying bodies.” Zero K at times reads like a needlessly extended illustration of Siskind’s point. The book is either the least postmodern novel DeLillo has written or the most: an apparently sincere and authentic effort that manages to read like a simulation, a version of the cultural moment that seems like its own antecedent.