Don De Lillo’s Zero K, and Making Readers Care about your Characters

Don De Lillo is one of my favourite authors. I relish reading books that deal with difficult issues and those that face death head on. Add those two facts together and I should have loved Zero K . In his latest release, Don De Lillo looks at the issues of euthanasia combined with cryogenics, giving the wealthy and ill the chance to decide when to die, along with the promise of living for ever. De Lillo does a good job of creating atmosphere, but the setting he achieves is cold and clinical. There is a lack of heart that detracts from the whole reading experience: perhaps I just didn’t care enough about the characters, Jeffrey, the protagonist, his father, Ross, and his dying stepmother, Artis.


In De Lillo’s Cosmopolis we were swept into a chaotic futuristic New York. The lead character, Eric, isn’t necessarily likeable, but he is compelling, and I stayed hooked as his day deteriorated. In Zero K, the coldness of the cryogenic theme seeps through both the setting and the characters. Jeffrey travels to a remote part of  Russia to see Artis and Ross before she dies in a strange facility that preserves the body until such time comes that technology can bring people back to life. This unnatural act is mirrored in the strange, pared down surroundings of long corridors, endless doors, and the writing itself echoes this remoteness, this blankness.

A book about facing death, about  the wait before death, about choosing to walk towards death, is always going to be a hard read. I was compelled to keep reading, but with less relish than other of De Lillo’s works. But does that mean this isn’t a good book? I’ve checked out the other reviews on Amazon. The reviews are written by a mix of those who have read De Lillo’s other works and those who are new to him. Universally, the ordinary reader/reviewer does not seem to be grabbed by Zero K. The chilly atmosphere has deterred even those who like me are fans, who approached the book with eager anticipation. De Lillo’s books are generally critically acclaimed, however, and this raises the question in my mind, ‘Do I have to like a book for it to be good? ‘. On a superficial level, the answer is, of course, no. One person may love a book, another dislike it intensely. We all have favourite genres and will say with passion, ‘I hate sci-fi!’ or, ‘I love chick lit.’ Although I don’t enjoy the atmosphere of Zero K, it contains good writing. In fact, if De Lillo wasn’t so good at conveying atmosphere, perhaps we couldn’t feel so chilled by the book.  And writing about difficult people and difficult issues sometimes makes for an amazing read.  I’m also reading Chernobyl Prayer: A Chronicle of the Future at the moment which is harrowing, but in which Svetlana Alexievich really manages to convey the humanity of people affected by the incident.  Another book that I am midway through is Brian Keenan’s An Evil Cradling . Keenan is the best writer that I have come across in the selection of hostage memoirs that I have been studying, In the first half of the book he drags us down into his mind while he is in solitary confinement during the initial period that he is held. Again, this is not an easy read, Keenan feels that he is going mad, and he writes into that madness. But it is compelling. I want to read on to find what happens next, even though I know the outcome from newspaper reports, from reading John McCarthy’s version of their shared experience. Keenan does not attempt to make himself likeable, I think his aim was to communicate his experience with veracity, but there is enough humanity in what he wrote to make me care. 

 This also makes me reflect on my own writing. I asked a friend to read the first section of the book’s second draft, and she reflected that she wasn’t sure if she liked my characters.  There is a fine line here.  My characters don’t need to be totally likeable, the people I’m writing about need to have flaws, need to have the possibility that they will change, but they also need to be compelling enough, likeable enough to make the reader keep on reading. Returning to Zero K, perhaps this is just what De Lillo’s characters lack. Jeffrey, Ross and Artis don’t make me care enough. And considering one of DeLillo’s books that I loved, The Body Artist, in which the lead character Lauren, loses her husband and deals with a strange sort of haunting,  the way de Lillo writes makes me care. When I pick up a book, I want to care, I need to care about the characters.  For me, there is no point reading a book unless I engage emotionally, unless I really care what happens. It is easy to care about the people who lived through Chernobyl, about Brian Keenan, because they are real.  Perhaps, unusually, this time, De Lillo has failed in the writer’s duty to make people care. Without emotional engagement, a novel is no better than a list of words, and that is something I will take away and remember when editing my own writing. 

 

Zero K is released today and costs between £7 and £12 at time of writing, depending on format.

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3 thoughts on “Don De Lillo’s Zero K, and Making Readers Care about your Characters

  1. Pingback: What I’m writing #whatimwriting @writingbubble | 38to39
  2. I am so with you on this! If there is no heart or engagement with the characters then, to me, there is no story. I found your review really honest and an interesting read. Thank you for linking to Prose for Thought 🙂 x

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