In Don DeLillo’s new novel, “Zero K,” words have come unattached from the things they mean. The title indicates the temperature zero Kelvin, best known as absolute zero. But in the story, Zero K is an elite level of cryogenics, and even the scientists who work there admit it’s not actually part of the process.
That’s only the beginning. Our thirtysomething protagonist Jeff doesn’t meet people so much as observe and define them. “I named them the Stenmark twins. They were the Stenmark twins,” he decides about a pair of artist-futurists, never learning their actual names. But even then his designation is unsettled; they are, he concludes, “Jan and Lars, or Nils and Sven.” When young, Jeff would challenge himself to define a word, chasing it down through the dictionary: Fishwife to shrew to shrewmouse to insectivorous to vorous. He hasn’t given this up, and his attempts to find definitions lead