Zero K by Don DeLillo
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
A Twin Paradox Review; Zero-K and the Three Body Problem
I wait for my system to boot up. I use Bing only to get me rotating beautiful pictures which helps along the wait. I feel a bit sorry for them, outpaced in book value. Bill miserably trying to resurrect his vacant soul.
Both authors are new to me, DeLillo and Liu. I’m certain of neither first name yet without a reference check. They cover the same ground, one as an author of literature, one of science fiction which won’t quite make it there, to literature. Both are worth reading.
Seems to me I read a whiney Tom Wolfe defend himself against the high-brows as an author of realism. Pornography on the one end and art on the other are both always distortions of reality. Tom wanted to be in the real and respected for it. I wasn’t quite buying the argument though I enjoy reading him.
Science fiction imagines us out of ourselves. I read the Three Body Problem for the simplest of reasons; I wanted to bring my Chinese vocabulary up to date. As a runaway bestseller, I thought it would keep the pages turning. I was not wrong, although when I incorporated the book into a series of talks I was giving in China in Chinese to students and asked who had read the book(s), only one or two among hundreds had actually read them and that one or two seemed proud. Proud, perhaps, of having enough excess of brainpower to grow a lawn instead of cramming crops for the exam. Other students seemed in some awe of that one or two.
I am boasting sure, but I am weak among that one fifth of the human population with Mandarin Chinese, soon to exceed English in words committed. Nothing remarkable in that. There are historically epic advantages to their written script, only now so recently discovered.
I make valiant efforts to penetrate Chinese popular culture, on stage, in books, on screens large and small. I suppose it is like sipping at an ocean, although I’m not sad that I did forsake the academic pursuit. Those people are so much more focused than I am, deep into esoteric one in hundreds discourse the need for which throngs will eternally misapprehend. Chinese seem to read so much more in translation than we do. Smug we are.
It was only a scant 40-odd years between Einstein’s humble reconfiguration of the numbers and Hiroshima Nagasaki. We are that clever when given a cue.
Both Delillo and Liu contend with hibernation, with choices to resurface years or eons down the road intact or reassembled. Both ponder what we Christians call the soul. I am put in mind of the recently excavated Han Dynasty tombs in Xuzhou which I toured repeatedly because they are all that is there among sameness of reconstruction. Emperors or contenders entombed within jade suits woven together with incorruptible gold thread to ride out eternity behind hidden maze-like stoppers to paths of discovery. Only uncovered so recently among China’s building and therefore excavation boom. The wages of destruction.
There is a massive problem with my computer now in the “cloud” where I save everything because I’ve learned not to trust my local storage. I trust the durability of Google or Microsoft better and they give my eternity away for free.
It seems they can’t quite perfect the versioning matter, and so they present to me autosaved and potentially lost documents for my decision. Which was the whole point of saving and shutting down and feeling confident and now they want me to seek out a potentially lost word that I had slaved against. This is NOT acceptable, though my words are not good enough for it to matter. It makes me hate them. It doesn’t make me stop using them.
Because his Chinese seems translatable nearly word by word into English, I can’t quite imagine that Liu can be a great author. I haven’t read or even glanced at the work in translation, but it’s mostly descriptive prose, difficult to read because of the fictions built on top of esoteric physical competency making it as difficult to read for natives in whatever language it presents itself. Art requires that the medium expose itself, no?? I’m probably wrong here. Scientific knowledge must by definition be independent of the medium for its rendering. It’s like pornography that way. Cross-cultural.
DeLillo delights in working the medium. There would be no point to translate him, although the exercise would be worth the effort. Of all things, recently while in China I sat in among a group of translation academics gathered at FuDan University to hear the reigning experts on translation of Samuel Beckett, himself multilingual, and as beyond translation as distant from Chinese, and there was some comedy to it for me. I could not square the renderings in Chinese with any possible reading I could do of Beckett. No way. I have the same problem with classical Chinese poetry translated into English, though the exercise is well worth the effort don’t get me wrong.
It seems that one doesn’t know what one is talking about until one rehearses its explanation. I don’t know.
DeLillo works a somewhat obvious conceit. That very wealthy individuals now may choose to be preserved rather than to die. To be transported beyond our local hell into some indeterminate future when life will be more regularized. He works it beautifully, and it leads you to understand – or to think you are getting closer to – what it might mean to be human.
Liu is dealing with life elsewhere in the cosmos and toward the same end. As with that recent Hollywood film Interstellar, love is the answer. So simple that it seems a cop-out. Liu’s portrait of love is mawkish, Christian-like pornography where beauty is undersullied and grand life of leisure among wood paneled sybaritic full-blooded leather-bound volumes with child is that which anyone would want and He who has it forsakes that for the sake of our collective endurance. Wine and a fireplace to eternity.
True confession. There is a third volume which I have yet to open (virtually, since I depend on the electronic version to speed my otherwise terminally cumbersome lookup of unfamiliar vocabulary items, most of which are transliterations of English, devilishly difficult to retrofit from Chinese where these transliterations have a life of their own!). I don’t think the denouement holds further interest for me, and its heft feels interminable. I trust the author, but he promises only more exceeding cleverness.
I will finish DeLillo.
I make this case. That DeLillo will endure. Not, perhaps, so long as Shakespeare has after resurrection, nor so long as Einstein, but his prose is durable. There is seeming heart there. That thing beyond cleverness which incorporates the unembalmable part of the lived body. Something to identify with the Man.
In the cloud I am only words and moving pictures, virtual not real. I am realized in the connection, right, to you among those who would die for me.
It is not the warfare. It is not ugly humanity, failing in our purpose to immortalize our goodness. It is wealth. It is the concentration of power in such a very few hands. It is the proxy rage which men are made to feel against fellows, and given a weapon by which to enact it. How could they possibly have rage of their own, but for want of sanction to enact it without choice for occupation in Han times or our own? Rage rage!
I came upon Bentonville, Arkansas by motorcycle from the wrong direction once. I had never heard of WalMart. I hailed from Buffalo and we had been overrun only by bigbox churches, epic consumers of that post-papist commodity concentration. I’d only recently before seen my first HomeDepot-type establishment, in the orbit of DC, in the orbit of money, and I reeled. It was a Disneyland of sorts and yet there was nothing there that I would want. All the goodies in the long-gone and old fashioned hardware store had disappeared. You could do it yourself, but you could make nothing. You could fit part into brand-name constructions. You could be a grunt.
There was an old-fashioned town square in Bentonville. There was a five and dime, and inside was a kindly old man and he gave me a personal tour of the Walton museum, and he seemed actually to believe the hagiography, that he was curating actual greatness, and I was innocent. I had never heard the word Walton or WalMart, but when I went out the other side of the “city” it was all trucks and warehouses and I started to understand. This was something big. Bigger even than the man who started it.
This is also America’s posture to the world. We are willing to pri-vate to undermine competing local forces by force of predatory capital. We are willing to forgo communal protections, warriors all, against the world and that makes us terror incarnate, terrorists, predators upon humanity.
China the same. These the powers that be, these the drivers of technology, of warfare of entertaining ourselves to death. There is no vision beyond but for love. Of course.
So far as I can tell by sipping along the beaches, all modern Chinese literary forms are peppered with English. It always gets a laugh in peformance. As far as I can tell it is studiously mispronounced to sound like English as a moderately literate-in-English Chinese person would pronounce it, although I cannot be certain that this is not simply expression of the limitations of the actors. Mandarin off the tongues of Western actors sounds barely Chinese as well.
Behind these utterances is a fascination with romantic love, that thing which is our most resplendent export. That thing most alien to China. Because it is at root a Western notion, needing to put meaning beyond urges and a direction to history, personal or writ large. Chinese are therefore far far more sophisticated in their understanding of love and its limits, by and large. Not so sophisticated as DeLillo though, who is far more sophisticated than Liu.
At the core of each of these two novels is great concentration of wealth and of romantic love. In the Three Body Problem, humanity is preserved from annihilation by a superior species, by a man in love and therefore beyond technical in his thinking [ambiguity sic]. In Zero-K, there is a fabulously Bill-grade wealthy individual who funds eternity cryogenic hibernation and then drinks his own water in the end to be”with” his great love in eternity as in life. Emperor and concubine.
In neither fiction is there is any hope for humanity but by leaping over our overdetermined and already ruined therefore present. Only now does my snot run clear after two months in China and a bad bad cold across three weeks to clear the passages. I live in the cleanest part of the planet.
It is not strange that we would impose order to terrifying chaos. That we would discern the principles which rock our world, that we would imagine some time when all is peaceful and ordered and perpetual, that we could never trust in random.
And yet, emotional attraction among true hearts is as eternal as the originating forces catalogued in such particulars now by physicists. Mind, not brain, was there in the beginning as the non-perceptual relation among tangibles. Forces, exchange of particles. Love a prognostication of connection, a projection to eternity, an impulse against the laws of physics. Else what’s a meta for?
Already post Hiroshima Nagasaki more time has passed than it took to get there from the ground zero of Einstein’s supposed self-contained genius, which he also was quite willing to celebrate and dress in Wolfeish White. And those with imagination to understand that random is not meaningless but rather simply beyond our imagination’s reach are restricted to story-telling, with truth reserved for the evening internetted news and the emanations of Science.
There are only religionists and true believers in Scientism, and humanity is down the tubes forever and ever amen.
So, while Master Liu is fascinating, Don grants hope and reprieve and proof that lived language lives on, perhaps eternally if anyone is paying any attention.
I am now on first-name basis. I will read more.
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