Sunday, June 26, 2016

Zero K by Don DeLillo

Although not an avid fan of Don DeLillo, I have read a few of his novels without the urge to read all his works.  I have ranged from red hot, Underworld to luke-cold, Libra.  When I saw his latest novel, Zero K, the jacket prompted me to buy it.  I am glad I did.  While not as sweeping as Underworld, I found the premise and the prose most intriguing.

Don DeLillo is an American novelist, playwright, and essayist.  He was born in the Bronx, NY in 1936.  Significantly to me, his influences are listed as Thomas Pynchon, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Vladimir, Nabokov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and last, but certainly neither least nor last, James Joyce.  This is powerhouse-central for my reading satisfaction.  I haven’t reviewed some of these authors, because I last read most of them before the beginning of “Likely Stories.”  I think I will dig some up for a much needed second reading.

Zero K tells the story of Ross Lockhart and his second wife, Artis, and his son Jeffrey from his first marriage to Madeline.  Ross has amassed a huge fortune, but Artis is dying of cancer.  He becomes involved as an investor to a program known as the “Convergence.”  This organization, hidden deep underground somewhere in central Asia, has developed a process for preserving a body in deep freeze -- hence “zero K” for zero degrees Kelvin, or absolute zero.  When Jeffrey learns of this plan he is, at first intrigued, but when He learns his father will join Artis even though he is not ill, he becomes horrified.  To make matters worse, Artis and Ross ask Jeffrey to “go with them,” even though he is perfectly healthy. 

DeLillo’s prose has an urgency to it, as he slowly unveils secrets about the organization.  Jeffrey has had some personal difficulties lately, and he is also looking for a “new world.”  Much of the novel involves discussions and speculation about time, death, re-birth, and immortality.  I also sensed that Jeffrey might have some degree of autism.

 Jeffrey, the narrator, wanders around the complex with a wrist monitor, which restricts his access to a highly limited degree.  He attends lectures for family members about to die.  Few of these people have names, but Jeffrey wants to give each a name.  DeLillo writes, “Artis has spoken about being artificially herself.  Was this the character, the half fiction who would soon be transformed. or reduced, or intensified, becoming pure self, suspended in ice?  I didn’t want to think about it.  I wanted to think about a name for the woman [speaker]. // She spoke, with pauses, about the nature of time.  What happens to the idea of continuum – past present, future – in the cryonic chamber?  Will you understand days, years and minutes?  Will this faculty diminish and die?  How human are you without your sense of time?  More human than ever?  Or do you become fetal, an unborn thing? // She looked at Miklos Szabo, the Old World professor, and I imagined him in a three-piece suit, someone from the 1930s, a renowned philosopher having an illicit romance with a woman named Magda. // ‘Time is too difficult,’ he said” (67-68). 

With the ever growing number of states allowing a patient to make the decision to end his or her life, this topic has been on my mind whenever I see a friend or family member kept alive with machines.  Don DiLillo’s latest novel, Zero K, is an excellent story to spark a discussion about end of life.  5 stars.

--Chiron, 6/12/16

Friday, June 24, 2016

The Brontë Cabinet: Three Lives in Nine Objects by Deborah Lutz

I have been fascinated with the three Brontë sisters – Charlotte, Emily, and Anne – ever since I first read Jane Eyre in my high school days.  Even then, my voracious appetite led me to read all of their novels.  When I started an English degree in order to do graduate work, the first class was in the summer before the full semester started.  The second class I took was on British Women Writers.  The class was intense.  We read everything by the Brontës, along with all of Jane Austen, George Elliot, and Elizabeth Gaskill.  This reading regimen exactly fulfilled all I had hoped for in my new adventure.  When I saw a review of a Brontë biography by Deborah Lutz, The Brontë Cabinet: Three Lives in Nine Objects I put everything else I was reading aside.  Deborah is a Professor of English at Long Island University, and she lives in Brooklyn, New York.  She has written several books on the Victorian period. 

Each of the nine chapters delves into the personal lives of the three sisters by way of examining a variety of objects they used every day.  The chapters include “Tiny Books” – my favorite – “Keeper, Grasper, and Other Family Animals,” and “The Alchemy of Desks.”  Along with detailed descriptions in the nine chapters, is an array of photographs of the objects.

In the “Preface,” Lutz writes, “The Brontës scribbled, doodled, and inscribed in their books – stuck plants, drawings, visiting cards in them – making their presence manifest.  Some of these well-used volumes transmitted even more than evidence of reading; they had a certain secret to them, which seemed to my nose, a fleshy smell.  I was lucky to be able to touch (often without gloves), turn over, bring close, and even sniff the things I handled in libraries and museums” (Preface xxii).  Few things give me more pleasure than opening a new book and drinking in the wonderful aroma of paper and ink.  In the “Tiny Books” chapter, Lutz adds, “The Brontës felt an intimacy with these closely handled books, made by their own limbs and clothed with materials familiar from the kitchen or the parlor.  This closeness of the body and the book was an ordinary feature of daily life in the nineteenth century, a relationship no longer obvious today” (23).  I blame e-readers for the loss of the tactile sensations when holding a finely made new book.

In the chapter on “Family Animals,” Lutz explains, ‘For Emily, animals weren’t pets so much as they were family” (105).  I can visualize Emily talking to her beloved Keeper as he cocks his head to one side, as our beloved Lab often does.  The chapter has a drawing which “Emily immortalized [Keeper] in an expressive pencil portrait she did in January 1834” (115).  This pencil drawing is included, along with the color pictures of his collar and a watercolor, also by Emily, of Keeper without his collar.

Deborah Lutz has written a warm, lovely, and informative look into the secret lives of Anne, Emily, and Charlotte Brontë.  The Brontës Cabinet: Three Lives in Nine Objects is a delicious and wonderful trip to Haworth Parsonage in the middle of the 19th century.  Take a walk on the Yorkshire moors and feel their presence.

--Chiron, 6/5/16