Book Review


Don DeLillo

Scribner, 2003, ISBN 0743244249; 224 Pages, Hardcover $25.00. [Browse/Purchase]

Review by Laurence Daw

Standing, or some might say towering, midway between the cinematic, operatic, and historiographic vistas of Thomas Pynchon and the linguistic lusciousness of our own neo-Joycean conjurer Salman Rushdie, Don DeLillo remains an enigmatic, innovative, decidedly un-generic writer whose works constantly surprise and fascinate us because they seem to emerge, sui generis, from a theme-laden imagination which is dovetailed with a micro-machined, precise prose style which exudes the best of modernist imagism and the choicest of technological discourse. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that his latest novel, Cosmopolis, rears up like a swoop-façaded, chrome caryatided, art-deco-style skyscraper from the front page of a 50s magazine like Amazing Science and clobbers us with meditations on imagination, capitalism, temporal existence, and, yes, even love.
It’s a slim volume, to be sure, wrapped in a slick white minimalist cover that shows two views of a limo, front and back, chunks of a Mies Van der Rohe skyscraper, and pure white spaces that would do a Tom Wolfe suit proud, but inside it’s a cornucopia, a re-iteration, a summary, an extension, an evolution, and a development of DeLillo’s continuing thematic and stylistic experiments, and that’s what makes this short novel so utterly compelling and amazing, even at this later stage in DeLillo’s drive to dominate what we can still consider to be left of true postmodernism in an age of neo-historical nostalgia, hard feminist re-reading, and postcolonial meandering.
To put it bluntly, Cosmopolis “has it all” when it comes to DeLillo’s themes, and even more when it comes to the evolution of his prose style, even though most critics seem to be overlooking that fact in favour of some rather lugubrious comparisons between DeLillo’s new book and our “original” modern novel, James Joyce’s Ulysses. As always, DeLillo remains dogged by such annoying comparisons, perhaps the most memorable of these being the one in which he is made to become Thomas Pynchon – as if he could be stretched to fit that man’s polymathic 60s liberalism, historical recreationism, and global and environmental conspiracy theorizing based solely on works of his such as Libra and Underworld – as if he had written no other types of fiction at all.
The fact is, Cosmopolis could not be less like Ulysses even if DeLillo had set out to create a diametric opposition between his own work and Joyce’s, something he clearly wasn’t even considering in the least from the outset. If I may be so bold: Joyce’s Ulysses is obviously an extraordinarily introverted, character-based narrative which takes place during one day in a city, but which transcends all the limitations of such a narrative through a concerted application of time-specific modernist theories about the resurrection of myth and what were called “artefacts of time” and which brings about a generically epic reunion of two myth-based characters, two race-based characters, two religious-based characters, two nation-based characters, two age-based characters, and so on, and so on.
In Cosmopolis, DeLillo chooses a single day for his action, but nothing else in his narrative even barely approaches what occurs within the much grander scale of Ulysses, and making the critical mistake of saying the books are similar borders on the ludicrous. Most importantly, Cosmopolis never, ever, holds out the promise of reconciliation. The main character, Eric Packer, is told pointedly “Your genius and your animus have already been fully linked…Your mind thrives on ill will toward others. So does your body, I think,” and he cannot even enjoy connubial bliss until after he and his wife have played the role of corpses in a street-movie, and he has been able to defraud her of money by simulating her existence within computer memory: “to examine the bank, brokerage and offshore accounts of Elise Schifrin and then to impersonate her algorithmically and transfer the money in these accounts to Packer Capital…” Hardly Poldy and Molly here, is it?
And, of course, as innovative as DeLillo is linguistically, he is not quite yet a Salman Rushdie, so saying that Cosmopolis is similar to a vast novel in which the entire history of the English language is recorded, parodied, revered, dissected, and sometimes desecrated, is to make an error of such horrendous proportions as to render any further comparisons to Ulysses inane and worthless. A day passes in Cosmopolis, to be sure, but the purpose of that day is given almost from the outset, within the interpolated narrative of the psychotic character Benno Levin, aka, Richard Sheets, and may best be stated by Eric Packer himself: “This was the day, was it not, for influential men to come to sudden messy ends.”
What Cosmopolis is, rather than “is not,” is a sonorous threnody on ambition, capital, information, technocracy, obsolescence, abstraction, cruelty, impersonality, hunger, sex, love, marriage, men, weapons, territory, terrorism, revolution, psychosis, distorted time, society, myth, culture, writing, Freud, Einstein, and Mircea Eldiade, all in a very short tale which sometimes makes cheap forays into rap culture, rave culture, break dancing, world music, and homely neighbourhoods, but which stays, for the most part, as “on track” as when the tragic Eric Packer says: “He knew there was something no one had detected, a pattern latent in nature itself, a leap of pictorial language that went beyond the standard model of technical analysis and out-predicted even the arcane charting of his own followers in the field.”
Yet, Cosmopolis also does what many other DeLillo books do, maintains a sense of linear thematic continuity with the author’s other works, even while leaving ample space for the stylistic innovation he seems to require for each new addition to his body of work. DeLillo’s Cosmopolis appears to take place in a slightly alternate time from ours, even though dates in the novel coincide with those in our own: “the watch wasn’t showing the time. There was an image, a face on the crystal, and it was his…he’d activated the electron camera unintentionally…The Camera was a device so microscopically refined it was almost pure information. It was almost metaphysics.” But the range of the work encompasses most of the familiar territory of the DeLillo oeuvre, and is therefore no mere sci-fi blip like Ratner’s Star.
In Cosmopolis, we are given a tour of DeLillo’s distinctive hyper-realist portraits of couples and family life squeezed by implacable technological forces, stories taken from such novels of history, country, family, friends, and global trends as White Noise, Underworld, Mao II, End Zone, and Americana; we are shown the consequences of fame and ambition forecast in Great Jones Street; and, perhaps most importantly, we are shown the broadest patternings of terrorism, conspiracy, fame, fear, power, and decadence – just as we are in all the great and lesser studies of these topics the unflagging DeLillo has given us in books like The Names, Libra, Players, and Running Dog. To put all this within the slim, skyscraper-shaped Cosmopolis is clearly the work of a fictional master, and shows us yet another of his master-strokes.
His latest protagonist Eric Packer appears like an odd and often unwholesome contradiction, a capitalist who is meditative, “poems made him conscious of his breathing. A poem bared the moment to things he was not normally prepared to notice,” brilliant, “He mastered the steepest matters in half an afternoon,” a maker of sweeping statements like “Freud is finished, Einstein’s next,” and who enjoys showing his mastery of trends and the very proclivities of society itself: “He liked paintings that his guests did not know how to look at…The work was all the more dangerous for not being new. There’s no more danger in the new.” He knows he can be brought down, “A person rises on a word and falls on a syllable…the phenomenon of reputation is a delicate thing,” and this fatalism keeps him apart from others: “A surface separates inside from outside and belongs no less to one than to the other.” He is obsessed with the coldest parts of technological development. “I think you acquire information and turn it into something stupendous and awful. You’re a dangerous person,” he is told by his own wife, and he cares most about those aspects of technology which pertain to the Scylla and Charybdis of innovation and obsolescence: “The hand device itself [PDA] was an object whose original culture had just about disappeared. He knew he’d have to junk it.” This is fear; and it is very real for him. Only ostentation can help, “He wanted the car because it was not only oversized but aggressively and contemptuously so, metastizingly so, a tremendous mutant thing that stood astride every argument against it,” even if it is occasionally touched by a sense of nostalgia for what is truly enduring and valuable: “He thought about the partition behind the driver. It had a cedar frame with an inlaid fragment of ornamental Kufic script on parchment, late tenth century, Baghdad, priceless.”
In an artist, a poet, or a philosopher, his obsessions could be noble, “‘There’s an order at some deep level,’ he said. ‘A pattern that wants to be seen,’” but in a capitalist whose name always seems to evoke in the mind the unwholesome phrase “meat-Packer," they are always Satanic, expulsive, animatic, sterile, and conflagratory: “He wanted to be buried in his nuclear bomber, his Blackjack A. Not buried but cremated, conflagrated, but buried as well…reaching maximum altitude and levelling at supersonic dash speed and then sent plunging into the sand, fireballed one and all…” In addition to the prefiguring of Levin’s interpolated narrative, we always know what the outcome of Packers’ day will be. How could we not, when fatalism is so all-pervasive? “What did he want,” he asks himself, “that was not posthumous?” His existence is so mentalized that it appears almost entirely disembodied at some points, “There are minds operating, a few, here and there, the polymath, the true futurist. A consciousness such as yours, hypermaniacal, may have contact points beyond the general perception,” so much so that he sees himself doing things before they actually happen: “He knew the spycam operated in real time, or was supposed to. How could he see himself if his eyes were closed?” He wants to become extra-corporeal in some way, “he’d always wanted to become quantum dust, transcending body mass, the soft tissue over the bones, the muscle and fat,” and to live forever as translated data: “ It would be the master-thrust of cyber-capital, to extend the human experience toward infinity as a medium for corporate growth and investment, for the accumulation of profits and vigorous reinvestment.” In a further dimension of alternate time, he would be staring back at himself from the face of his own watch: “This is not the end. He is dead inside the crystal of his watch but still alive in original space.” If there was ever a case of true Pynchonian postmodernist open-endedness, then Packer’s unending narrative and techno-immortality must be it!
But, if Packer is indeed a man out of time, is he obsolescent? Even modern cash machines seem beyond his contempt, “he was thinking about automated teller machines. The term was aged and burdened by its own historical memory. It worked at cross-purposes, unable to escape the influence of fuddled human personnel and jerky moving parts,” as do the very video displays of his information, “He was tired of looking at screens. Plasma screens were not flat enough. They used to seem flat, now they did not,” and the very medical technologies which keep him alive: “he didn’t know why stethoscopes were still in use. They were lost tools of antiquity, quaint as blood-sucking worms.” He sometimes connects to the past, as has been mentioned, but only when things are used up or outmoded and rendered so nostalgic that they cannot be any threat to him, nor worthy of any real “modern” respect: “The floor of the limousine was Carrara marble, from the quarries where Michelangelo had stood half a millennium ago, touching the tip of his finger to the white stone.”
Eric Packer leaves a 48 room palace atop a mathematically formulated building, “It was 89 stories, a prime number, in an undistinguished sheath of hazy bronze glass,” to get a haircut – half a haircut, really – and then is accosted by one of those whom he has scorned after he himself has killed as a result of some utterly wretched and unfathomable lust for power over his bodyguard. Small wonder, then, that the insane Benno Levin’s explanation of his own disease might well be taken as a definitive statement on madness, one which, given the utter loveless implausibility of Eric Packer’s own “day in the city,” might describe the sickness of our own materialistic waste land of capitalistic excess: “When I try to suppress my anger, I suffer spells of hwa-byung (Korea). This is cultural panic mainly, which I caught on the Internet.” One has to ask oneself, what kind of a social order would allow a single man to have enough money to put “the shark in the 30 foot tank lined with coral and sea moss, built into a wall of sandblasted glass blocks” at the top of an 89 storey building, whether it is described by a prime number or not? Of course, with the “scary little geek-humanoid” President of Microsoft currently worth over $50 billion himself, perhaps we already have our answer.
DeLillo’s Cosmopolis shows us the logical consequences of unbridled ambition in the most mundane and the most exalted of circumstances, and all of the human and social costs accrued thereof. Much is made of a world of lustrous, machine-perfect surfaces, and the way human personality, motive, desire, and love can be abstracted into streams of flowing data. Symmetrical process, the binary system of zeroes and ones, is all that seems to matter, and we wonder how it is that Eric Packer could have missed the critical importance of the organ which funnels his biological seed out towards its various goals throughout the novel’s single day of action, the nut-sized prostate gland which gives that seed the very medium of its propagation, the liquid rather than the data “stream” actual human propagation requires, something which could never be simply written as an algorithm. His wife was one such illusory construct, “He began to understand that they’d invented her beauty together, conspiring to assemble a fiction that worked to their mutual manoeuvrability and delight. They’d married in the shroud of this unspoken accord,” but he still didn’t see the significance of a tiny part of his human physiology and still thought he had his life under control as he finally impregnated her behind a billboard.
The biggest problem out of all those he’d had to deal with was that, as we are told by means of a repeated textual mantra in the novel, Packer’s prostate was asymmetrical.
Doomed. Never going to balance the books. Not enough money in the world to save his life. As DeLillo ends his gigantic, full-scale analysis of obsession, greed, capitalism, and failure, the man who felt he’d caught diseases from the Internet tells us an all-important final truth about the billionaire:
Packer “should have listened to his prostate.”

--Laurence Daw
21 April 2003


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Aleph, alpha: nought, nought, one.