Back in the USSR: Returning to History in Don DeLillo's Zero K
by Don DeLillo
Simon & Schuster Trade (2017), 288 pages
We begin in effect, the sound of a plane touching down. In The Beatles’ “Back in the USSR,” the listener lives in the sound of travel for a brief moment before the lyrics descend. Then, upon arrival, Lennon and McCartney celebrate the women of the Soviet Union, as well as the names of places: “The Ukraine girls really knock me out/They leave the west behind/And Moscow girls make me sing and shout/That Georgia’s always on my mind.” The song is, of course, more than a simple parody of the national narratives one encounters in The Beach Boys (“Surfing USA” and “California Girls”) and other American patriotic ballads from the time (“Okie from Muskogee”), and Lennon and McCartney do not just extol the virtues of Soviet women. They also praise the landscape and musical traditions of the communist country—“Oh show me around your snow peaked mountains way down south/Take me to your daddy’s farm/Let me hear your balalaika’s ringing out/Come and keep your comrade warm”—and, in the song’s chorus, they invite the listener into a brief liminal relationship with their subject when they cut two syllables from the penultimate line to create a companion to the ultimate: “Back in the US/Back in the US/Back in the USSR.” Thus, embedded in the name of the one is the name of the other. For The Beatles, the bridge is in the chorus. The connection is in the name, in the deconstruction of the name, in the illusion of division.
Fifty years after “Back in the USSR,” and 25 after the fall of the Soviet Union, Don DeLillo takes us back to the borders of the old USSR in Zero K. In the years between the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the year of Zero K’s publication in 2016, however, a great deal of history has taken place within the context of an age determined to erase a certain idea of history. To return to the language of rock n’ roll, it was Jesus Jones who said, after the fall of the Wall: “Right here, right now/Watching the world wake up from history.” And it was Frances Fukuyama who, in 1992, wrote The End of History and the Last Man, a popular scholarly treatise on the end of the Cold War and the inevitability of a universal and homogenous world, a globalized neoliberal democracy. Fukuyama was not the only scholar celebrating the end of history if, by history, we mean a nationalist and class-based model of “ideological evolution.” Third-wave feminists and cyberutopians alike, such as Naomi Wolf and John Perry Barlow, also predicted a brave-ish new world of radical individualism where free markets and new cybernetic technologies—network systems—global capitalism—would leave the very notion of the state in smithereens.
Yet here we are, “Back in the US, Back in the US, Back in the USSR,” a moment in history where we find Donald Trump, the new American President, the arch-capitalist of the Reagan 80s, going back and forth in a strange multi-media narrative with “Putin, Putin, Putin,” the former KGB officer and the current President of the Russian Federation, both men simultaneously promoting aggressive nationalist narratives as well as a call for new transnational alliances.
Don DeLillo, like the French theorists, Jean Baudrillard, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, has been preparing us for this moment his entire career. DeLillo’s fiction, like their criticism, constantly reminds us of history and the American desire to forget, that willful amnesia—that hunger for an end to history—that so distinctly marks the American identity. In his 1988 classic, America, Baudrillard describes a country enraptured with two particular technologies, film and the automobile, driving as a “form of spectacular amnesia. Everything is to be discovered, everything to be obliterated.” But if the cinematic image and the speed of the car “deterritorialize” the American mind, to use Deleuze and Guattari’s term, DeLillo shows us the exponential consequences of this techno-fantasy of “spectacular amnesia.” In Zero K, advances in computing have created a moment in history where certain wealthy characters can choose to converge with technology—to embed a simulacrum of their consciousness within a complex computer network—and thereby leave history and all its linear players behind in the dust. This vision of cheating death through “Convergence” possesses an echo of humanity’s timeless desire for timelessness, immortality, the conquest of death as the final frontier.
This frontier is Don DeLillo’s territory. In Zero K, I read a deepening of patterns that run throughout DeLillo’s work, particularly a concern with place rooted in his approach to history, his novels consistently positioning his readers between New York City and the deserts of the American West. In Americana, Underworld, Falling Man, and Point Omega, DeLillo's characters find themselves torn between the sparseness and the timelessness of a desert landscape and the immediate mediatization of the city, the skyscrapers of New York cast in unsettling relief by not just the sand and stone of the desert, but also by the ruins, relics, and parodies of civilization one encounters near the wastes and the canyons: the burned-out hulks of Cold War bombers in Underworld as post-war art after the fall of the wall, the casino of Falling Man as the place American money and former World Trade Center employees travel to after the famous attacks and the post-9/11 sentimental urge to unify settles back into a context of business as usual, division.
In Zero K, this division, this disconnect, is cast in a global, transnational light as DeLillo’s archetypal U.S. desert moves to the edge of the USSR, a place where his characters and readers, like the first European Americans, are invited to abandon history—the homeland—once and for all. It is through this deterritorialization of the American West and its dream of amnesia and frontier that DeLillo delivers a devastatingly incisive critique of simplistic nationalist narratives and the equally alluring myths of globalization and cyberutopias espoused by conservatives and neoliberals from both coasts: the bankers of New York City and the techno-visionaries of Silicon Valley.
Zero K begins in effect. The novel gives its audience a moment to orient, a brief initial scene seemingly grounded in a familiar place: an office in New York City, a conversation between a father and a son. But no sooner do we think we have achieved a bearing, a coordinate on the map, then we realize we are merely remembering New York City and are now, in the time of the narrative, traveling in a strange land in “an armored hatchback with smoked side windows, blind both ways. The driver, partitioned, wore a soccer jersey and sweatpants with a bulge at the hip indicating a sidearm.” Thus, immediately, we are mediated, divided from the seemingly immediate scene, the first words. We begin in a memory—a history—triggered in a moment of alienation, partition, and division. Zero K takes the reader swiftly into this liminal zone, this place in the desert on the edge of Uzbekistan where a New York City banker named Ross Lockhart has “grown a beard” and is about to hand his aging body over to a “faith-based technology” called the Convergence. His son has arrived to say goodbye.
DeLillo’s careful attention to name and place has always provided a counter-narrative to an increasingly deterritorialized zeitgeist, the ungrounded ahistorical myth of the Internet Age and “Make America Great Again” and other nationalist projects that simplify or simply erase the complexities of history. The great cyberutopian dream of our time—the merging of man with machine—what Silicon Valley pioneer Ray Kurzweil calls The Singularity, is in DeLillo’s hands named The Convergence, and DeLillo’s version of this cyberutopia is, of course, not positioned in Silicon Valley where the real estate is perhaps too expensive to bank the bodies of so many bankers and their second wives, but, instead, on the edge of the former Soviet Union, where capital can capitalize on the ruins of its former enemies and vice-versa. What DeLillo has set up in Zero K is not a simple linear relationship of cause and effect or singular exploitation and innovation—a singularity—but a project that requires co(i)llusion and cooperation. DeLillo’s narrative of our current historical moment, therefore, builds its map upon a territory of names taken not from the technologist or the entrepreneur, but from the careful critical eye of the artist. This is not about Singularity. This is about Convergence.
In addition to Jeffrey’s father, his stepmother, Artis, also wishes to converge. This character, like every subject and object in the novel, presents an onomastic dilemma for narrator and reader, a question of how to properly name. Artis is the first character to give her body to the Convergence, the faith-based technology, and as Jeffrey confronts her death and the possibility of her transformation/transubstantiation, he does so through a struggle with names, onomastics: “I used to think of her as the Second Wife and then as the Stepmother and then, again, as the Archaeologist. This last product label was not so reductive, mainly because I was finally getting to know her.” Here we are in familiar DeLillo territory with a child struggling to name a momentous figure. Like the children in Falling Man innocently dubbing Bin Laden as Bill Lawton, the children of Zero K are also the ones struggling to historicize—to name and place—the figures of their moment. But in Zero K, DeLillo raises the stakes by raising the ages of the children. As he almost always does, DeLillo ups the ante.
Jeffrey is the son of Ross, the witness to the Convergence of Artis and technology. He is a recognizable 21st century man-child, a good-natured American in his 30s who still has not found a job, a place in the world. If by deterritorialization we mean the Deleuzian sense of feeling increasingly detached or distant or a sense of “disjunction” from one’s local coordinate in the hypermediated world, then Jeffrey fits that strange mold. He struggles to connect with job offers in the financial sector, the places offered to him by an increasingly placeless place, the Foucauldian heterotopia that is a utopia of diversity to some and a dystopia of relativism to others. This is New York, a 21st century networked city so suddenly connected and dynamic that the old names just do not seem to fit or fix anymore. Jeffrey is still young, still a bit of a modernist insofar as he struggles to find the right job and the right name for the people and things in his life, but Jeffrey is not the only child in Zero K. DeLillo’s approach to history—to those who still have the hunger to seek out the truth, if by truth we mean the right names for people, places and things—can be deciphered in the tension between the two children in this novel, the two sons: Jeffrey and Stak.
When Jeffrey returns from the edge of the old USSR to New York City, he finds himself traveling in a taxi with his girlfriend, Emma, and her son, Stak. Jeffrey and Emma are decisively American in the Baudrillardian sense of the American character being stamped with a willful “amnesia,” a resistance to history. Driving through the city, observing Stak eagerly speaking Pashto (“Afghani, she said, to enlighten me further”) to a taxi driver who was once allegedly a member of the Taliban, Jeffrey describes himself and Emma as “two individuals exploring a like-mindedness, determined to keep clear of the past, defy any impulse to recite our histories.” Stak’s curiosity about Pashto and the history of his true father’s homeland (the Ukraine), is represented as symptomatic of a general interest in names and places, coordinates. As Emma explains to Jeffrey, Stak “talks about the weather all the time. Not just today’s weather, but the general phenomenon narrowed down to certain places. Why is Phoenix always hotter than Tucson even though Tucson is farther south?” Stak studies the weather both home and abroad, Tucson and Baghdad, but when Jeffrey wonders if “He’s interested in climate,” Emma resists the essentialization, a classic DeLillo move of mystification. Even as Jeffrey seeks to pin Stak and his interest in coordinates down, the boy’s mother refuses to territorialize her son so simply. This is about more than climate. “He’s interested in numbers. High, medium, low. Place-names and numbers. Shanghai, he will say. Zero point zero one inches precipitation.”
Stak mystifies his American mother: “I don’t know who he is, I don’t know who his friends are, I don’t know who his parents were.” What we, the readers, know, through Jeffrey, is that Stak is curious about all of the ingredients of history: names, places, numbers, maps. Constructed as a foil to Jeffrey, who has visited the strange dynamic territory of the former Soviet Union, is this teenager who, in his bedroom, possesses “a cot with an army blanket, an enormous wall map of the Soviet Union. I was drawn to the map,” Jeffrey tells us, “searching the expanse for place-names I knew and those many I’d never encountered. This was the boy’s memory wall, Emma said, a great arc of historic conflict that stretched from Romania to Alaska.” Here, in the child’s room, like in so many DeLillo novels, is the contrast to the nation of adults so anxiously eager to avoid the topic, if not the entire discipline, of history.
Jeffrey and Stak, the two sons of Zero K, like so many of DeLillo’s characters, are marked by a profound existential crisis the author embodies as an onomastic dilemma: what shall we name the thing—the terror? Stak resists his parents' resistance to history. Unlike those prepubescent children from Falling Man, however, Stak lives in the liminal land of the Young Adult demographic, a market designation that quite often territorializes the teenager as an ahistorical heroine in a dystopian future. But Stak does not live in the deterritorialized America of the Hunger Games or Divergent. DeLillo does not remove his children or his teenage character from the maps and territories of history. He does not take us/them out. He does not divide us like bookstores do, with their Young Adult marketplace markers. DeLillo, instead, leaves us in, all of us together, in a moment of history where this young son doesn’t usually have much to say to his mother other than “Putin, Putin, Putin. This is what he says.” Like so many of us, journalists, daytime television personalities, historians, and citizens alike, Stak’s mother, seemingly against her will, is being pulled by the next generation back into the past, back into the USSR.
This tendency concerns Emma and Jeffrey. Jeffrey attempts to intervene, tries to reorient Stak and the young man’s putatively simplistic, linear relationship with the world, his desire to go back. Like so many mentor figures throughout the body of DeLillo’s work (think the Jesuit monk in Underworld), Jeffrey takes a linguistic approach to simultaneously sophisticating and grounding Stak’s mind, challenging him, through a game of generating definitions for things, toward a basic agency, toward not accepting the definitions—the perceptions—of the old world, but shaping the world himself through constructing definitions of his own. Jeffrey does not want the young man to be overwhelmed by the brutality of history and its oppressive nationalist narratives, but the strategy/game by which he seeks to save the young man from the sickness of nationalist history is itself rooted in “ideas that belong to Martin Heidegger,” a phenomenologist who has been discredited due to his history, “his firm fellowship with Nazi principles and ideologies,” a paradox that leaves Jeffrey exasperated: “History is everywhere, in black notebooks, even the most innocent words, tree, horse, rock, gone dark in the process. Stak had his own twisted history to think about, mass starvation of his forebears. Let him imagine an uncorrupted rock.”
Thus, traveling through New York City, dreaming of “an uncorrupted rock” for a young man’s mind, we encounter the archetypal American dilemma that has so obsessed French theorists from Baudrillard to Tocqueville, that quintessential American hunger to not just escape history and Europe for the virgin lands of the “frontier,” but to do so in a landscape of capital—trees and rocks—largely acquired from the French in the Louisiana Purchase. The hunger for “an uncorrupted rock,” a frontier, a green breast of wilderness, an undiscovered country, is, of course, not just the desire for territory in Zero K, but the ambition for immortality, a deterritorialized future in which capital’s divisive “segmenting machine,” as Deleuze and Guattari call it, finally converges with the flesh, the destruction of death as the final neoliberal triumph over history, if only such technology and its requisite stack of bodies didn’t have to be banked in an affordable landscape, a cheap and specific plot of real estate on the edge of what was once called the USSR.
Like Jeffrey, who travels to that territory to say goodbye to his father, Stak ventures to that same place to say hello. “You say goodbye, and I say hello,” might be the pat, reductive way to end, an echo of another Beatles song from that Cold War past that is still present, but perhaps the more sober and precise place to stop is in Jeffrey’s final encounter with Stak, or at least the simulation thereof. In Fredric Jameson’s An American Utopia: Dual Power and the Universal Army, he writes that “It is easier, someone once said, to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism: and with that the idea of a revolution overthrowing capitalism seems to have vanished.” Perhaps as an ironic (or purely sober) response to thinkers like Jameson, DeLillo’s Convergence—the faith-based technology and the bank of wealthy bodies waiting to converge with that technology—imagines the utopia that replaces the utopian ideologies that once imagined the replacement of capitalism. In doing so he speaks to a persistent current that still runs through both the East and the West: the desire to sacrifice this time and this place for someplace else, the desire to choose death over life or, rather, the desire to leave the conversation with history behind in exchange for war on the one hand, or the promise of immortality on the other. Stak, like many contemporary young men, decides to run away from home and leave behind the comforts and conversations—the cosmopolitan nuances—of New York City. DeLillo does not rip Stak from the headlines and drop him into the straw man hands of ISIS or Al-Qaeda but, instead, sends him into the territory of the old USSR where he enlists to fight for the Ukraine against Russia.
It is here, in these borderlands, where Stak dies, and it is in these same borderlands that Jeffrey witnesses Stak’s death on a bank of screens while saying goodbye to his father who is about to converge. Standing with his “baldheaded and barefaced” father and a guide, Jeffrey listens as the Convergence is framed for its customers: “You are completely outside the narrative of what we refer to as history,” says the guide. “There are no horizons here. We are pledged to an inwardness, a deep probing focus on who and where we are.” This celebration of the self-interested spirit suggests that, rather than seeing history as a dialectic of classes or collectives or discourses or tribes, it might just as easily be framed as “single lives in momentary touch.” Jeffrey does not buy it. His sense of humor and its concomitant will to conjure names for the people in this place, evaporates as he listens to this guide who has transformed immortality into a commodity: “Never mind giving her a name, I thought. That was last time. I wanted this visit to be over.”
So Jeffrey says goodbye to Ross, “the determined father in his uterine tube,” and just before he leaves the sealed screen-studded confines of the underground facility on the edge of the old Soviet Union, he encounters an image, “but this time the shot is prolonged,” and “the shot,” as always with DeLillo, suggests both act and representation, the convergence of immediacy and mediation, technology and nature, film and gunfire, and in this final “shot” Jeffrey recognizes the “distinct image of the figure, khaki field jacket, jeans and boots, spiky hair, he is three times life size, here, above me, shot and bleeding, stain spreading across his chest, young man, eyes shut, surpassingly real. It was Emma’s son. It was Stak.” Therefore, even though Zero K ends in New York, we end here, underground, in the desert, in effect, back on the border of the old USSR, with an image of the boy’s death repeating itself, death rendered deathless by the screen, DeLillo’s vision of history as a mystic’s record of the causes that fall from effects.