Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Review: Break In

Break In Break In by Dick Francis
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

My father loved Dick Francis, and I can still see him in a beach chair at Spring Valley Pool reading or rereading one while my brother and I played around him. A Francis novel combined two things Dad loved: well-written work and horse racing. I hadn’t read one in at least 20 years, but it was Father’s Day and this was in the pile, so I figured it would be a way to reminisce a little.

The start of this shows what Dad loved about these novels. We get a riveting description of our protagonist Kit Fielding as he serves as jockey during a nail-biter of a steeplechase run, and we get a deep background provided with clear efficiency. Francis gives us everything we need to know in just a handful of pages, and he does so without “info-dump,” without breaking the narrative he grabs us with at the start.

We get, as well, a great example of the “cozy,” the old-fashioned Agatha Christie style mystery where, beyond the crime in question, we’re led to see the fundamental decency of the world. That’s in contrast to the hardboiled or noir, mysteries that suggest the opposite: that the world is a dark place where decent people are at a perpetual disadvantage.

And Kit is decent. Francis more or less bullies us into liking him. He’s such a good guy that we have no choice. His brother-in-law comes from a rival racing family, the result of a marriage his sister undertook as a kind of real-life Juliet Capulet move. He still helps Bobby out when Bobby is suddenly the victim of a sudden series of tabloid attacks. He loans them money, puts on his amateur detective hat, and even forgives Bobby after a tantrum-style unprovoked attack on him.

Later, he forgives several others who wrong him. It’s a kind of turn-the-other-cheek response that ultimately wins in the novel but that, in this age of Trump, seems quaint and impossible.

And, just to show how very British this all is, he pursues an eligible young woman patiently and chastely, waiting to be certain that all concerned are interested and have no objections. We get an eventual “sex scene,” but it’s almost comically discrete.

While I am impressed with the opening here, I’m afraid my disappointment grows as it goes. Kit is able, far too often, to ask the right tangential character the right question to get the response he needs. He gradually learns the real reason behind the campaign against his brother-in-law [SPOILER: It’s to get at the brother-in-law’s father] and, he is able to put together a documentary detailing the old man’s financial crimes.

[CONTINUED SPOILER] The further we go, the more we’re asked to assume Kit can simply accomplish things others cannot. Why, for instance, is he able to ask three people for their experiences, stick a video camera in their faces, and get a report so damning that it undoes Allardeck’s chances at a knighthood? I mean, there are two major newspapers out to get Allardeck as well; not one of them has a reporter with the capacity to follow up on the very basic leads Kit pursues?

All of that goes along with the strangely nonviolent quality of the novel. Kit gets beat up once or twice – and he’s subjected to a stun gun at one point – but the only gun in the novel comes at the very end, and then no one fires it. There are large sums of money in play and ruthless men out to get it, but no one ever ventures to real hurt.

I’m glad I read this since it did make me feel as if I were in conversation with my father. Short of that, though – with a nod to the clear skill of its early narrative – I don’t feel called back to this. It’s no slight on Dad to acknowledge that the genre has grown since he read these. Francis has some better ones as I recall, but this shows he could also lose sight of wrapping up his own creations.


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Saturday, June 16, 2018

Review: Arcadia

Arcadia Arcadia by Iain Pears
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This novel is the literary equivalent of the Escher drawing where two hands draw each other into existence. There are two central threads to most of this, one based in Tolkienesque fantasy and the other in late-1960s time travel sci-fi, and each constructs the other.

On the one “hand,” we have Henry Lytten, a tweedy British professor with a background in World War II espionage. He’s friends with Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and the other Inklings, but he’s less ambitious. He wants to sketch a mild little fantasy world where, absent other structures of power and authority, Storytellers have deep temporal powers.

On the other, in a dystopian future where corporate chiefs have become the equivalent of fascist dictators, a rogue scientist named Angela Meerson has discovered a device that makes time travel possible. Her bosses don’t quite understand it – they think they are opening up windows to a parallel universe and don’t realize the decisions they make can affect their own timeline – but they’re planning to seize it anyway. She needs time to escape, so she ventures into the past. She lands in the 1930s, meets a young Lytten during the war, and slowly perfects her machine. To test it, she needs a template, an imaginary space she can open up without affecting other elements of time. She tries Tolkien’s Middle Earth, but there are logical inconsistencies – it depends upon the gods for its creation and maintenance, but the gods are not explained within it – so it collapses. She settles for Lytten’s smaller cosmos.

The result is that Lytten’s world becomes real.

In other words, we have a fantastic world that depends for its reality on the science of a later future, but that future depends for its self-understanding on the story-telling fantasy.

The overall concept is exceedingly clever. I nearly gave up on this after 30 or 40 pages because it was so full of familiar tropes. It felt almost cliched to see the old professor and the brilliant beautiful scientist and the little girl – Rosey/Rosalind – who gets pulled into the mix. It becomes more interesting and successful, though, as Pears’s ambition becomes more evident. He really is trying, Escher-style, to create a tangle of origins, to fuse these two different literary genres in a way that refuses precedence to either.

The only book I can think of that accomplishes anything so remarkable in terms of genre is Dune where Frank Herbert blends the two threads to create a space fantasy. (Stars Wars, of course, attempts the same thing, but it isn’t a book, and it’s at its best when it just lets the adventure run forward without pausing to explain its ideas. In fact, the more serious Star Wars asks us to take it, the less bearable it is.) That’s a very different experience in terms of tone and scope.

This book is not Dune, though. As much fun as it eventually becomes – and that’s a lot of fun – there are some clumsy technical aspects to it. The audiobook has two narrators, one for the Lytten thread and one for the Meerson, and that reflects the narrative challenge of telling the whole story from two different sides. Pears frequently resorts to the tired device of narrating one person’s view of an experience and then switching in the next chapter to another person in the scene giving us the other half of a conversation or encounter. That means some repetition, and it means some narrative condescension: it’s as if our narrator asks us to ‘hang on a moment’ while the author makes some changes to the scenery.

There’s also the problem of our getting new information at awkward times. It’s a great deal of fun to discover that minor characters introduced early on turn out to have connections to threads that get revealed to us later, but sometimes Pears can’t quite pull that move off with real deftness. Sometimes we simply get a new character introduced as consequential when it feels we should have known him or her more fully at an earlier stage. Some of that might be the product of a narrative that changes because its past changes, but other times it feels as if it’s Pears has reached the limits of his own story-telling capacity.

And, [SPOILER] there’s the somewhat jarring move in giving us two Roseys, of splitting her so that one remains in Anteworld and one returns to the 1960s. I kept expecting that to create the conditions for two distinct future worlds, but it seems simply an anomaly. It’s Pears ‘halving his cake’ and eating it too. It breaks the universal rules that he gives us, but then it doesn’t radically alter the future.

Those quibbles aside, the real fun of this is the way Lytten’s world begins to expand. Once Rosey accidentally stumbles into it, it begins to flesh out its own logical conditions. A reference to the nature of taxation in Lytten’s notes becomes the seeds for an entire economy. Individuals Lytten knew at one time or another become the basis for new characters, but those characters beget others as well. It feels like a literal realization of what authors do; the vision conjures the details, and the details drive the story that carries out and alters the vision.

We get, among other things, the fun of Rosey helping the members of the new world to understand English (they’re language has altered over time) and of reintroducing them to Shakespeare. With that, we have her enacting parts of Rosalind from As You Like It. So Shakespeare becomes – as the book’s title reinforces – one of the authors of the universe that Lytten and Meerson have set in motion.

There’s a lot more to tell, and part of the fun of reading this is to imagine the conversation you’d have with another reader. This is rich in details, seeming contradictions, and clever resolutions to those contradictions. It’s the kind of experience that gets better through sharing; Pears cleverness becomes all the more enjoyable when you can explain it in slow motion, when you can point to the ways he pulls off what he does.

[SPOILER] There is a cleverness to the final pages as well, when Meerson’s daughter turns out to have used the misunderstandings of the fascist bosses to help them wipe out their dystopia so that she and her renegade friends can replace them with a pastoral utopia. I saw that coming for a while, but I never quite believed Pears would do it. That is, this is such a gentle book – there’s only one killing through the entirety of it, and that’s a misunderstanding where a lifelong soldier gets to die a slow and honorable death – that it seems uncomfortable to make the happy ending dependent upon the nuclear holocaust that gets set in motion. That is, the ending fits the narrative structure, but not its tone.

In any case, this is certainly one to read if you have the time. It has its flaws, but those flaws are the result of remarkable ambition and nearly endless cleverness.


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Thursday, June 14, 2018

Review: Quarry

Quarry Quarry by Max Allan Collins
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I love the concept of the Hard Case Crime Series. In older, rediscovered pulp classics like Lawrence Block’s Grifter’s Game, or in neo-noir like Ken Bruen and Jason Starr’s Bust, they go after the aesthetic of the hardboiled tough guy as American philosopher-angel. When it works, it’s a little bit like watching Mitchum pull out a cell phone, a little incongruous but something you can get used to anyway.

This one, I’m afraid, doesn’t really work.

I’m a fan of Collins going way back. I enjoy his Heller novels very much; he used some of them to write about my gangster relatives and when I had the chance to meet him quickly he was generous and interested in what I had to say. I also like what he did with Dick Tracy (which I wrote part of my dissertation on), and I admire Road to Perdition even if – I realize now with a start – I never did read the whole thing.

So I’m disappointed not to be able to give this Hard Case/Collins a better recommendation. Still, if Heller felt like lighter weight E.L. Doctorow, this feels like Mickey Spillane retread. I have no problem if you try to write like Hammett and fall short; when your model is as unimpressive as Spillane, well, hit or miss you still fall short.

As I understand it, the twist in this series was that Collins made an amoral hit-man his protagonist. That’s not a bad idea, and maybe he was the first to do it, but it’s been done since and done better (by Lawrence Block among others). After that, this is a series of clich├ęs and clumsy plot devices.

Any time Quarry needs a clue, there’s a character who conveniently tells it to him. Any time he has to be one step ahead of someone, he is, effortlessly and with a Mike Hammer like arrogance that gets tiresome quickly.

There’s also an uncomfortable take on homosexuality. To Quarry/Collins’s credit, there’s an explicit credo of live-and-let-love to the question, but there’s also an implicit sense that “those people” are simply too different. [SPOILER] Quarry’s gay partner brings disaster to their ‘job’ when he falls for a sadistic predator, and Quarry is willing to tolerate such difference so long as it doesn’t get in his way. In other words, it could be worse – and it may have been progressive for the early 1970s – but it isn’t anything we really need to revive.

Anyway, I’ll try to get to Road to Perdition one of these days, and I might go back to one of the early Hellers – True Detective actually features a photo of my great-uncle as the heavy who walks into a bar on page one – but I’m certainly done with the Quarrys. Collins went on to do some solid work, but as far as I’m concerned it isn’t happening here.


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Review: Grifter's Game

Grifter's Game Grifter's Game by Lawrence Block
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve been reading Block as long as I’ve been reading noir, which is close to thirty years now. I’ve enjoyed his Scudder novels – which my father recommended to me as far back as the late 1980s – as well as the Bernie Rhodenbar and Hit Man novels. He may well be the king of the detective series; others have strong ones, but three? That may be unbeatable.

So I am predisposed to like and admire anything he does, and, when Ken Bruen dropped a reference to enjoying Block and I found a copy of this in a great used book store in Ithaca, NY, I decided to give it a shot.

I didn’t realize when I picked this up that it was from 1961. I wouldn’t have guessed Block was old enough to be writing back then, but it turns out he is almost a missing link between the James L. Cain school and the more contemporary series-focused star. I’m not going to call him better than Elmore Leonard, but I’m also not going to say that he’d be embarrassed by the comparison. Even back that far, closing in on 60 years ago, Block was a pro’s pro.

Put differently, this is a conventional femme fatale/just-better-than-stupid male patsy story, but it’s so expertly done that it could serve as a textbook. (I’ve heard of apprentice writers who sometimes write out models of their hoped-for genre by hand, trying to unpack what makes an admirable work function. If I ever try that, this will be one candidate.) When I say I remember little of the early parts of this, it’s not an insult. This one is like a literary equivalent of a roller coaster. You know it’s headed somewhere, and you know you’re on board. You don’t have to think much, but it will thrill you all the same.

As a [SPOILER] this has a memorable and disturbing conclusion, though, one I imagine I’ll remember for a long time. Near the end, Joe goes to a Hitchcock film and realizes how much of it turns on coincidence. As a viewer, he forgives it because the direction is so crisp, so distracting in its skill. He starts to realize the same may be true of Mona, who might have been leading him along so he’d kill her wealthy heroin-dealing husband.

Joe considers that Mona may have been distracting him from coincidence, and Block runs the risk of making the same claim for himself. And it works; it’s only when I look back at the coincidence of Joe stealing just the right luggage and then falling for the owner’s wife that it bothers me. Block implicitly compares himself to Hitchcock, and, again, he doesn’t embarrass himself with the claim.

When Joe does see through it, though, he realizes he can’t imagine killing Mona, but he also can’t imagine living with her. She’d leave him eventually, and she’s got all the money. He wants her, but he wants to be able to control her.

So [DOUBLE SPOILER] in one of the most sadistic moves I can remember from fiction, he gets her hooked on heroin. It’s brutal and blunt, but he keeps her in a hotel room, shooting her up every several hours for a week, and then he has her, or at least a shell of her. He fell in love with her beauty, but also her independence. The drug steals it from her, he steals it from her, and the novel ends with the likelihood that he’ll get himself hooked as well, less out of guilt than a burning desire to follow her and be with her even in her drugged state.

I’ve thought a lot over the last several years about the nature of the femme fatale. I incline toward the argument that she is a proto-feminist figure, a woman who, lacking options in a world where only men can have true economic, cultural, or political power, uses her sexuality to break the bonds of convention.

In such a light, Mona is a classic femme fatale. Her ultimate comeuppance marks her defeat, but it does so in a way that acknowledges her allure. Joe was frightened of her power, but he realizes in the end that he loved her for it. In the world they share – a world where World War II vets still dominate society – there’s no place for such power, and that eventually means there’s no place for either of them.

This is genre done with real skill by a guy who’s an old master today, but who was a young star just figuring it out when he did this one.


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Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Review: A People's History of Chicago

A People's History of Chicago A People's History of Chicago by Kevin Coval
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a wonderfully ambitious book, and I couldn’t help feeling as if it had my name on it. It’s an alternative history of Chicago – and I suppose I can call myself an alternative historian of Chicago – yet it’s also a book of poetry, and I write (rarely) and teach (more frequently) poetry.

I realize this takes its name and theme from Howard Zinn’s famous People’s History of the United States, but I see this in many ways as a particular person’s history of the city. Coval is pushing throughout against the idea that Chicago grew because of its industrial leaders. We don’t get Marshall Fields or Col. McCormick – which is great; they’re both overrated in any case. Absent the standard parameters of the city, though, we get Coval’s vision of how to draw a line from the city’s origins to its status today.

And the line he draws is a pretty straight one: it is, throughout, a story of displacement, of the disenfranchised fighting against – and generally losing to – the powerful. We begin with the group of ‘X’-signing Native chiefs who had the land of the city swindled from them (a story, to my embarrassment, I don’t really know). We early on get a poem about Jean Baptiste DuSable, the African-American man acknowledged as the city’s founder, and the way he has no streets named for him while Kinzie, the man who purchased his original homestead, dots the map with his namesake streets and landmarks.

Coval does a good job of noting others who are dispossessed in the city. We get Haymarket, the victims of the Eastland disaster, the residents who aren’t served by the opening of the ‘L.’ Selfishly, I was sorry not to see a reference to the Lazarus Averbuch affair – that’s the one Walter Roth, Aleksandar Hemon, and I have all written about – but Averbuch is there in spirit.

The second half of this becomes increasingly personal, and we see Coval identifying with those dispossessed. One late poem talks about the night the Cubs finally won the World Series, but he speaks of his inability to join in the celebration. He’s too aware of how the performance of North Side joy would be impossible on the West or South Side, and he implies that it mimics the sort of violence that the police and mayor use to justify cracking down on those neighborhoods.

In the final one, “Chicago Has My Heart,” he talks of wanting to love the whole of the city, of wanting to find a way – and I paraphrase – to re-possess (not repossess) all of it. He wants, as he says, for it to belong to the entire “body politic.”

It’s only fairly late in this that Coval begins to identify himself as Jewish, and, for me, that provides a fascinating complementary perspective to the Native- and African-American perspective he works to push into the foreground. Throughout, he celebrates – directly and indirectly through the language of his poems – the role Chicago has played in developing hip-hop culture. By writing as a Jew, Coval both acknowledges himself as on the periphery of the crucible that formed that culture and shows its pliability. Hip-hop and slam poetry may be the language of African-American youth, but it’s also a vocabulary that can be put into the service of a project like this – a project that reframes the history of a city that celebrates itself as a matter of policy.

In that light, one of the most intriguing poems for me is the late, “Atoning for the Neoliberal in All, or rahm Emanuel as the Chicken on Kapparot.” To begin with, even the title reference is obscure. How many non-Jews (for that matter, how many contemporary Jews) know what Kapparot is? (It’s a ceremony of repentance in which a chicken serves as a scapegoat – and yes, I did look that up to be sure I had it right.) More subtly, the insistent repetitions of the final page read with a rhythm reminiscent of the closing prayers of Yom Kippur (at least in the Reform and Conservative siddurim I’ve known). This is, in other words, a kind of Jewish prayer in which our subtly Jewish narrator condemns our overtly Jewish mayor for selling out half the city. The comparisons to Israel as a place that enforces apartheid on its Arab citizens seems to me to lessen some of the effect, but the point is clear: Emanuel’s Jewishness opens him up for even more condemnation from a Jewish writer wanting the city to be all it promised it would be.

And, to take that a step further, I’m struck by the degree to which this book is also a subtle homage to the great Yiddish poets from between the World Wars, poets whom Coval’s grandparents likely knew as well as mine did. (That is, they probably overheard them at Bughouse Square or in various Jewish restaurants.) For all that these poems are hip-hop inflected, they are also engaged with the contemporary world in the way someone like Yaakov Glatstein was. They take for granted (as hip-hop does) that the material of the newspaper is more fit for poetry than are references to Greek mythology or towering historical figures. They enter into conversation like opinionated old men, throwing their opinions and their anger at the world without apology and with – if you listen for it beneath the growls – a fierce and humorous joy.

The proof of a project like this has to be in the quality of the poems, of course. I’m drawn to many, though not all. I especially liked “The L Gets Open,” “The Great Migration,” “Muddy Waters Goes Electric,” “Sun Ra Becomes a Synthesizer,” and “mayor byrne Moves Into & Out of Cabrini Green.”

More impressive to me, though – and perhaps this is a hip-hop device – are the many memorable and tight lines that Coval fires off. Here are a few of my favorites:

“City of long cons [,] fire & fine print.”

“City of scraps & sausage”

“Jane Addams…originated in loot & leisure”

“the city builds heaven for a few, tenements for most.”

“the acoustic guiatr’s an impotent whisper in the throat of the war machines”

“shtetls grew ghettos”

“patronage is a Chicago word for family”

“I witness…until America is haunted by the spirits of those it says never happened”

“this is how Black boys are bar-mitzvahed in Chicago/America, by boot and brick”

So, yeah, I admire what Coval is doing here, and I’m glad he’s in the city to do it. I’ll keep this one on the shelf, and I imagine I’ll pick it up again every now and then when I want to be reminded how much of the city’s history has never quite made it into the city’s history.


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Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Review: The Last Painting of Sara de Vos

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I picked this novel up in hopes it would be reminiscent of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, another novel about a centuries-old painting and the effect it has on some contemporary lives. Where Tartt’s masterpiece is written on a Dickensian scale, giving us characters from trailer parks alongside characters from the New York elite, this one works toward a broader historical scope, mapping a pair – or maybe a triptych – of unhappy love stories across the 1630s, 1950s, and 2000s.

The abiding concern throughout this seems to be with an exploration of “forgery.” That’s true in its concern with paintings and their copies, but maybe even more so with the ways people pretend to certain roles within a relationship. When we first meet Marty DeGroot, he’s a not-quite-satisfied New York patent attorney who seems to have it all. When the painting he’s inherited from several antecedent generations gets stolen, though, he discovers the extent to which he’s been shamming happiness. He comes alive when it’s his responsibility to recover the painting, and he’s more authentic seeming as a lover when he adopts an alias to seduce Ellie, whom he discovers is part of the plot.

In turn, Ellie is unsatisfied with her work as an art history grad student until she has the opportunity to make a near-perfect copy of the painting. She too comes alive, more authentically, once she is involved with the fake. For the only time in her life, she is a real artist, a real artist engaged in the work of forgery.

And, in the other story, Sara first paints her work as a substitution for the real joy of her dead daughter. Even her original, that is, is a sham of the experience that inspired it.

I like the ambition such a series of inquiries implies, and I’m not troubled by the fact that Smith never quite resolves them. I am a bit troubled, though, by the clinical tone of much of this. I admire this at a technical level, but I just couldn’t quite embrace each of the separate stores with the intensity I wanted. It’s as if those underlying questions attenuate the stories they make possible – everyone is experiencing something that’s a type of forgery, a semblance that falls short of the authentic. [SPOILER] Each of our three protagonists finds a measure of true happiness at the end, but Smith gives that happiness only cursory attention: Marty makes a kind of amends for being a bastard, Ellie finds a new scholarly passion when she determines to uncover Sara’s last days, and Sara finds a kind of peace with a non-artist who loves her. It’s as if the point of this is that we can never approach the authentic until it’s too late.

I wish I could be more specific about how this falls short in such ways. All I know for certain is that, after listening a while, I’d find myself no longer enthralled. Smith writes beautifully, and I admire each scene, but I feel as if the central conceit of falsification simply deadens the effect of the story itself. I love the opening section here, where we see Marty in his unfulfilled life, but then I feel as if each time we revisit him we’re starting over. The different scenes simply carry less weight as they reintroduce us to the characters. It’s always interesting, but we seem always to be called on question what we think we know about them.

I don’t want to sound too cranky with all of that. I enjoyed the novel thematically, and, more than that, I admire its form.

Like a lot of novels I admire – like at least one I dream of writing myself – this is a broken narrative, one that calls on us to assemble a whole from its fragments. As a reader, I’m charged then with making meaning from these parts, and I love that challenge. There are writers who do that especially well across a contemporary swath – what I call the Dickensian scope. Tartt, of course can be great at it, but I think as well of Colum McCann and Jennifer Egan who also give a good range of the world of their own time. My own ambition – and I think it’s Smith’s as well – is to do that across time, to let these different pieces imply a history so vast that no single person’s perspective is enough to take it in. My hero and model for that is Mordecai Richler.

Smith doesn’t resolve this with the easy conclusion he might have selected, a conclusion in which our contemporary characters find happiness in discovering the lost happiness of those who came before. On the other hand, he ends this with sufficient parallels that it feels as if that’s the lesson we’re supposed to take from it ourselves.

As a bottom line, then, I admire the ambition and the technique here, and there are many passages I admire. I wish, though, it found some way to come together more effectively as a whole.


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Friday, June 8, 2018

Review: Zero K

Zero K Zero K by Don DeLillo
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Philip Roth dealt with old age in a series of strong and overlooked short novels that mark the last of his bibliography. Each dealt with a separate character – sometimes a revisited David Kepesh (The Dying Animal) or Nathan Zuckerman (Exit Ghost) and sometimes brand new, aging figures in Nemesis, Everyman, The Humbling, or Indignation – but the subject was always the indignation of the failing body, the central nemesis of mortality. It was always a dissection of how a single human being confronts the end of a life.

Don DeLillo deals with the same question in his own, very different fashion in a novel that seems to me to keep alive his hopes of winning a Nobel prize. (And, with Roth’s death, his chances are probably a little higher than they were, since he’s moved up a place in the line of Americans worthy of the honor.)

DeLillo has always been more philosophical, more abstract than Roth or Cormac McCarthy (whom I love to contrast him with since McCarthy is so elemental). At his worst, as in the overrated White Noise, he gives into his own concepts and loses a sense of the personal. At his best, as in Mao II or Underworld, he discovers characters who can confront his impulse to see humanity rather than individual humans.

In Zero K, DeLillo’s protagonist is a comfortably middle-aged Jeffrey Lockhart. He’s inherited enough wealth that he never needs to work, but he’s also estranged enough from his billionaire father that he doesn’t have a hand in managing anything. He’s repaired their relationship, but there’s still a clinical feel to it. And clinical is a tone DeLillo knows well.

The central action of the novel comes in the way Jeffrey’s father, Ross, has become convinced of the possibilities of cryogenic freezing – of putting dying bodies into Zero K states from which they can be awakened decades or centuries later when medical technology has improved. Ross’s second wife, Artis – with whom Jeffrey has a subtle but compelling relationship – is dying, and Ross has invited Jeffrey to join him in a former Soviet Republic for the unregulated operation that will shut her down altogether. Ross, giving into grief over the loss of Artis, eventually announces that he too would like to enter Zero K so he doesn’t have to endure life without her.

This sets up, then, a kind of dampened version of Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” with a son trying to pull a dying father back into life. Only here, there’s nothing of passion and little of compelling interest for the son to conjure with. Ross has done everything he can imagine with his life and wealth, and he and Jeffrey don’t exactly share a life. The only reason to stay alive is philosophical, abstract – again, DeLillo territory.

That conflict takes up the first 60 percent of the novel, and it’s compelling. DeLillo unfolds his situation with typical skill, and he reveals his characters – and their flatness – slowly and masterfully. Then, as he’s been doing in some of his other recent novels like The Body Artist and Point Omega, he disrupts the narrative form he’s used most of the way.

We get, briefly, a powerful meditation on the nature of the unraveling self from the perspective of Artis as she’s in the cooling tank. It’s got a slightly gimmicky feel to it, but it works for me, recalling the moment in As I Lay Dying when Addie Bundren reflects on her life as her family wheels her lifeless body toward her family burial ground. It works because Artis is one of those late-DeLillo characters who comes to life, whose appreciation for the concrete world acts as a check on the floating abstractions that otherwise so tempt DeLillo and his characters.

At one point before her “death,” Artis talks to Jeffrey about how she loved watching drops of water fall down the shower curtain. It’s gorgeous prose, but more than that it’s also life-affirming. It’s DeLillo reaching for what Roth found at every turn – the concrete complexity and beauty of being a human.

So, brief as the episode is, Artis’s posthumous reflections serve as a powerful check to Ross’s reluctant, deadened embrace of a final shot at life.

The final section of the novel moves us forward a couple years. Jeffrey has “come alive” in relative terms. He has, for the first time, gotten close enough to Emma that he has a real and enduring relationship. Through her, he’s come to know her son, Stak, who has his own challenges living in the concrete world. And he feels the potential of a happiness he’s never known.

At the same time, though, Ross turns out really to be dying, and he eventually asks Jeffrey to accompany him back to the Zero K facility for his own freezing operation. Soon after, Stak gives in to his preoccupation with foreignness – he’s loves speaking other languages and eventually [SPOILER] runs off to take part in a pointless internecine rebellion in the country where Zero K is located – and that sends Emma back to her estranged ex-husband. While in the country, Jeffrey sees a news broadcast that shows Zak being killed by government troops, but he can’t bring himself to tell Emma.

By the end, Jeffrey has again lost everything that tethered him to the human world. Ross is “dead,” and Emma has left him. He hasn’t even been able to tell her that he knew about – even saw – her son’s death before she could confirm it.

He has, in other words, entered into a kind of emotional Zero K. He’s too frozen to appreciate the world that he glimpsed with Emma and that Artis so movingly articulated.

To end where I started, then, I read this as DeLillo answering Roth’s (and Thomas’s) challenge to confront the fact of dying. For now, at least, DeLillo’s “death” is an emotional more than a physical experience. The work he sees as urgent is to fight against the clinical experience of losing touch with the people around us. Or, if you prefer a cynical reading, it’s to embrace the notion that we cannot take our friendships and love with us when we go.

Either way, DeLillo remains a powerful voice. I’m getting to this a year and a half after it came out, but it seems to me a powerful addition to the literature of what it means to confront death from the perspective of old age.


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