Don DeLillo's Zero K is boring.

It's not a word I use lightly, particularly since this novel has been hailed by many as some sort of masterpiece. My copy comes with gushing back cover blurbs from the New York Times, the Guardian, Joyce Carol Oates, and Martin Amis, among others. “The gods,” Amis writes, “have equipped DeLillo with the antennae of a visionary.” Although this comes as praise, it serves as a warning; Amis, after all, is a man who decided to tackle British classism through a novel whose protagonist is named Lionel Asbo.

Here's what Zero K thinks it is: a commentary on the arrogance of seeking to transcend the bounds of mortality via technology in a world that seems ready to implode at any moment. However, DeLillo's failure to explore his narrative's overarching concepts or bridge the gap between his concept of millennial living and the realities thereof leaves Zero K hollow and strangely superficial.

The plot centers on a facility that cryogenically freezes people with the promise of reviving them in a better future where they can create a new world. Narrator Jeff Lockhart has been invited to the facility by his father Ross and dying stepmother Artis, who is one of those undergoing the treatment. Zero K is a section of the facility named for the freezing temperature of absolute zero. This propels an attempt at examining the impermanence of life and our contemporary technology-induced detachment from the same.

It must be mentioned here that Jeff is thirty-four years old, at the older end of the millennial age bracket but a millennial all the same; I'm just a few years younger than Jeff myself. DeLillo unfortunately seems unable to situate him in the milieu that actual millennials inhabit. In one scene, Jeff checks his bank balance via cash machine receipts and paper statements, scrutinizing the minor calculation errors made by computerized banking systems – because, you see, technology can't be trusted. No millennial relies solely on paper to check their accounts. Even if this is meant to portray Jeff as a somewhat obsessive person, if he were a believable character he'd have found another, more generationally appropriate way to pursue that obsession.

The above may sound like a petty fixation on a single gaffe, but it illustrates a larger problem: DeLillo is working with major themes that he doesn't understand. The apocalyptic fears of pre-Baby Boomers (DeLillo was born in 1936), who as a group are much less technologically engaged and much more prosperous and economically settled than we millennials, are going to differ from those of a generation with meager economic prospects and raised on digital technology. Placing the fears of the former in the mouth of the latter prevents this novel from exploring its intended themes in any real depth.

It's hard not to wonder whether these issues could have been surmounted if the narration had been left to an older character like Ross. There'd be a smaller generation gap to deal with, which would make DeLillo's ventriloquism – say that three times fast – via the character less jarring.

Speaking of ventriloquism, the dialogue throughout Zero K is highly contrived, to the point where characters become mouthpieces for DeLillo's would-be high-concept musings rather than individuals with distinct voices. If you've ever watched a sitcom parody of performance art, you have the gist of it.

Emma asked when I'd start the new job. Two weeks from today. Which group, which division, which part of town. I told her a few things that I'd already told myself.

Suit and tie.”


Close shave, shined shoes.”


You look forward to this.”

Yes I do.”

Will this transform you?”

It will remind me that this is the man I am.”

Down deep,” she said.

Whatever there is of deep.”

Unnatural dialogue isn't in itself a drawback; an emotionally aware writer can spin this into gold. Amy Hempel, for instance, has a particular gift for crafting speech that contains multitudes in every sentence. However, since DeLillo hasn't managed to connect with the concepts supposedly driving his novel, his characters are reduced to talking heads, their exchanges an accidental exercise in Brechtian alienation.

DeLillo's inability to distinguish between genuine and pretended engagement is also demonstrated in several scenes where Jeff watches scenes of natural disaster and violent conflict from around the world on video screens, presumably meant to bring home the sense that we're teetering on the brink of apocalypse. Yet for much of the world, disaster is not a remote experience; DeLillo is writing for an audience insulated from such realities by the luxury of industrialized wealth. In fairness, this issue is somewhat explored through Jeff's encounters with people from war-ravaged countries, which contrast his detachment – facilitated, again, by technology – against their stories of real-life horror. The hubris inherent in approaching disaster as a spectacle, however, is never truly critiqued.

The more science-fictive elements of Zero K's central conceit are similarly underexplored. Some characters speak of inventing a new language for the world they will wake up in, a potentially fascinating idea that crops up for a bit and then is never mentioned again. Likewise, the discrepancies between characters' dreams of future utopia and the practicalities of enacting it, which can provide excellent fodder for science fiction narratives, remain undiscussed.

Had these ideas been examined with any real passion, Zero K could have become an insightful foray into anxiety about technology and human transience in a late-capitalist society, in the vein of Margaret Atwood. What we get is a book that is bloodless, cold as its title, and, worst of all, boring.