“Open your mind. Change your reality.” These are the twin phrases that flash across the screen in the trailer for Marvel’s upcoming Doctor Strange:
The movie promises to follow its eponymous hero, a super-surgeon played by Benedict Cumberbatch, as he searches for mystical wisdom against a backdrop of martial arts and vaguely Eastern architecture. In the original comics the destination was a fictionalized Tibet. (Marvel claims that the film version is built around Celtic mythos, and was recently accused of “whitewashing” for casting Tilda Swinton to play a Tibetan character.)
Westerners have a history of portraying the Orient as exotic—as a stimulating, picturesque Other that’s mystically in tune with atavistic forms of sex, violence, or poverty. And as Edward Said has famously taught, this Orientalist vision ultimately supports an imperialist frame in which the East is a playground for Western actors, territory to be plundered.
And, of course, every ideology needs its narratives. Doctor Strange is just the latest in a long line of blockbuster fantasies that can easily be named Orientalist. Batman Begins has its hero gain fighting skills by traveling to Tibet (which was improbably filled with ninjas); Indiana Jones bopped from Nepal to Egypt in search of an ancient “Jewish” artifact. And the list goes on.
A Journey to No-Place
Don DeLillo’s latest novel, Zero K—a book that is being hailed as an unflinching meditation on death and technology—would seem an unlikely vehicle for Orientalist fantasy. Yet Zero K pursues transcendence in the same manner as a comic-book blockbuster: by cavorting around an Eastern no-place where life is expendable.
The protagonist of Zero K is Jeffrey Lockhart, son of of a billionaire finance king Jeffrey’s stepmother Artis is seriously ill. Facing death, she decides to have her body frozen by a group called the Convergence, who will, in theory, wake her at some point in the future when there is a cure for her illness.
Jeffrey, for his part, wanders through the Convergence compound, and through the rest of his life, speculating vaguely about existence, futurity, his daddy issues, and his own vacuousness, “We retreat into neutral space,” he muses, the bland self-reference surely intentional. He describes his own room in the Convergence compound as being “generic to the point of being a thing with walls. The ceiling was low, the bed was bedlike, the chair was a chair.”
Zero K itself is a novel that is novel-like, with characters that are character-like, and insights that are insight-like. “The thinness of contemporary life. I can poke my finger through it,” one character intones, and the fact that the sneer at contemporary life is an utterly conventional meme is no doubt the point. Nothing is more shallow than talking about how shallow we are—Don DeLillo is a poet of meta-inanity.
Such inanity would seem antithetical to Orientalist tropes. Doctor Strange, for example, is supposed to discover a deeper, more expansive world, not a blank wall. Zero K‘s Artis may be an archeologist who has done digs in China, but Jeffrey is not Indiana Jones and Zero K is not a pulp adventure. Yet, throughout the novel, there are hints of the adventure that wasn’t—as if DeLillo’s exhausted vision of slack nothingness is being defined against a refused Eastern exotic.
The Convergence is located in Kyrgyzstan; Jeffrey’s trip there is described as a series of blind journeys to indistinguishable airports. The journey to the East is a journey without adventure to a location that isn’t.
In a sense, refusing to make Kyrgyzstan exotic pushes against Eastern exoticism. And yet, erasing the specificity of Kyrgyzstan is still an Orientalist trope— a trope emphasized when the novel begins, almost helplessly, to spew half-hearted mysticism:
The woman at the table was speaking about great human spectacles, the white clad faithful in Mecca, the hadj, mass devotions, millions, year after year, and Hindus gathered on the banks of the Ganges, millions, tens of millions, a festival of immortality.
Later, a man called “The Monk,” who comforts the about-to-be-frozen, describes a spiritual quest to the Himalayas. “I had no guide. I had a yak to carry my tent,” he says. And then he talks about walking and kneeling, and walking and kneeling. “I intended to do this, fall to my knees, stretch full-length on the ground, make a mark in the snow with my fingers, speak several meaningless words, inch ahead to my mark….”
It’s an Orientalist quest narrative robbed of its mystical payoff. In DeLillo’s prose, the traveler to Tibet discovers not his own inner resources, but his own inner tedium.
In part, DeLillo uses Orientalism as a foil for his skepticism. The book critiques the New Age vision of enlightenment and transhumanism by turning the idea of pilgrimage to the East into satire. Kyrgyzstan’s airport is as boring as everyone else’s airport; the East is as bland as the West. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, the East exists to make Indiana Jones more exciting and virile; in Zero K, the East exists to make Jeffrey even duller.
But DeLillo doesn’t present the Orient as all dull pilgrimages and airports. In a gratuitous scene he sends to Jeffrey’s room at the Convergence that cliché, the Eastern sex worker, who references both harem fantasies and 90s moral panics about Eastern European sex trafficking. “I watched her unravel the ribbon from her hair, slowly, and the hair fall about her shoulders,” Jeffrey narrates, laboring for sensuality. Then, “I stood and moved into her, smearing her into the wall, imagining an imprint, a body mark that would take days to melt away.” This is the most explicit sex scene in the novel, and it’s also violent.
For the most part, Jeffrey is a dull git, but in the arms of the mysterious Eastern woman, he can be, just for a moment, James Bond. The Eastern, exotic woman has no real role in the narrative; she’s simply there to confer a frisson of libido, brutality, and moral ambiguity.[Spoilers ahead… –the Eds]
The book’s final twist also indulges the pleasures of Orientalist pulp. After Artis is frozen, Jeffrey and Ross return to New York, where Jeffrey becomes involved with a woman named Emma. Emma has an adopted Ukrainian son, called Stak. Stak has taught himself Pashtun with which he chats to a taxi-driver who may or may not be a former member of the Taliban—cue ominous music.
Sure enough, Stak disappears. Shortly thereafter, Jeffrey returns to the Convergence so that Ross can have himself frozen alongside Artis. While in the compound, Jeffrey stumbles upon a video screen, which mysteriously shows him Stak fighting in the Ukrainian resistance, where he is brutally killed.
Jeffrey stares at the screen, horrified, feeling deeply. “All I know is Stak and maybe this is all there is to know,” he announces, “the kid who became a country of one.”
Though Stak isn’t really so much a country as a region. DeLillo has touched on post-Soviet trauma before, but the return of that theme here seems more like a reflexive tic than actual engagement; a spice of newsiness to sprinkle on the generalized exotica. Stak’s ethnicity is deliberately multiple and vague; he’s a Ukrainian-American who speaks an Afghan language, and whose death is mystically transmitted to a screen in Kyrgyzstan.
Stak could be from anywhere; his death stands in for the entire exciting, violent, stimulating Orient, the purpose of which is to provide Westerners like Jeffrey with meaningful-spectacle-as-growth-experience.
Transcendence From the Gutter Slime
Most reviews of Zero K have focused on its themes of immortality and death; universal issues which can be approached from a universal perspective. In this sense, this novel-like novel is a convergence of message and medium. Zero K is weighty, important, and literary, it would seem, because it is not burdened by or bound to genre, time, or place.
“But where is here and how long am I here and am I only what is here,” Artis asks in a brief interior monologue narrated by her frozen brain/consciousness/body. Beyond death is a view from nowhere, at once empty and profound.
DeLillo mocks the emptiness and the profundity; Artis’ monologue is a cosmic meta-joke. “I only hear what is me,” Artis says. “I am made of words.” Beyond death, she knows the truth—which is the novel itself. The author has his character say that she’s made out of words—when she is literally made out of words. The world of the book is nothing, which, in parallel, suggests that the world is nothing. And, in recognizing that with such deftness, DeLillo shows he’s really something. His virtuoso statement is that there is no statement. He is fixed in the canon because he knows that, like Artis, he is fixed in no place.
But is it no place? What if Artis is made, not of words, but of tropes, or figures of speech? And what if her view from nowhere is actually the view of a very wealthy Western woman, who spent her career (as Artis did) performing archaeological excavations in China? Zero K tries to still all movement and heat and action, creating a narrative of isolation, where the body, the brain, and the soul contemplate each other uncontaminated by the dross of genre or prejudice.
But try as the author might, the faded heat of Orientalism still stirs and shakes within the frigid corpse of his novel, illuminating the monotony with weary flashes of racism and cliché.
The Convergence promises its customers transformation. “I have every belief that I will awaken to a new perception of the world,” Artis declares. That sounds like a dream of heaven—but it could also be an alternative tagline for Doctor Strange.
Zero K alternately mocks and hopes for a better, more meaningful world, where limits are conquered and spiritual truths fall gently like clumps of yak hair. And that better, more meaningful world, mocked or hoped for, is couched, again and again, in terms of a half-acknowledged Eastern mysticism. “I recall the taxi driver kneeling in the gutter slime, turned toward Mecca,” Jeffrey muses profoundly, “and I try to reconcile the firm placement of his world into the scatterlife of this one.”
But even when you set out on a quest of the spirit, history and culture tag along, and before you know it you’re stepping towards transcendence by grinding some other human being’s face into the gutter slime. No matter how highbrow and ironic he or she may be, the dreamy pilgrim must reckon with the history of colonialism.
Otherwise, when Doctor Strange opens his mind, his “new reality” will be just the same old white fantasy.
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