Monday, February 15, 2010

Cosmopolis by Don DeLillo

Eric Packer is a 28 year old currency trader, a driven genius whose command of the markets is total. He knows instinctively, immediately, what to do in any given situation. The situation which serves as the central conceit in Cosmopolis is not a straightforward one, but Packer’s response to it is. The city is completely gridlocked because of the convergence of three major events: a Presidential motorcade, a huge funeral for a rap singer and an anti-globalisation protest. Throw in a burst water main and it is a good day for staying at home but, instead, Packer decides he wants to cross town to get a haircut from the barber who has been cutting his hair since he was a child. And so, along with his armed bodyguard, that’s what he does, his armour-plated car crawling its way through the city streets, trapped in time, in an everlasting present. The novel thus becomes a picaresque story of that journey and this day, a day like no other, a day like anything else.

Cosmopolis is a novel about America, about what it is to live in America in the twenty-first century, what it is to be part of a society in which information has become the primary currency. Indeed, information is what creates ‘meaning in the world’: ‘time is a corporate asset’ and technology is changing what it means to be human, turning us into objects that ‘think in logic blocks’. Eric Packer’s slow journey to oblivion is interspersed with a series of encounters – a sexual liaison with his art dealer and mistress, lunch with a woman he consistently fails to recognise, who turns out to be his wife, a masochistic tryst with his female bodyguard, even a prostate probe by his doctor in the back of the limousine. Such is the degree of Packer’s solipsism, it is as though he is only vaguely present at these encounters, as though his consciousness is elsewhere, wrapped up in the technological sweep of information that is silently re-ordering the world. Indeed, he decides, early in the novel, that ‘When he died he would not end. The world would end.’ And so his progress across the city continues. His bodyguards warn him of a ‘credible threat’ against his life: he appears unconcerned. His financial strategy, betting heavily against the yen, is unraveling, costing him millions, potentially his entire fortune, possibly even destabilising the entire global currency market. He is caught up in the middle of the anti-globalisation riots, his car attacked by a mob, and he watches with disinterest as a protester sets himself alight: nothing, it seems, can penetrate this empty soul. It is a slow crawl into darkness.

DeLillo dedicates Cosmopolis to Paul Auster, and there is certainly a strong whiff of Auster about it, with its bleak disconnects and blank surreality. Nothing is certain, appearances are only surface, without depth or meaning. DeLillo continues with the device, used in his earlier The Body Artist, of explaining something and immediately stating its opposite. In The Body Artist, this often seemed arch, contrived, but in Cosmopolis he has perfected the technique. Thus, when we are told “I’ve been working in it, sleeping on it, not sleeping on it”, or “Look, I married you for your beauty but you don’t have to be beautiful”, or ‘The technology was imminent or not’, in the contex of the novel these apparent contradictions make sense. In a world of ‘stupendous and awful’ information, truth is opaque.

Michiko Kakutani, predictably enough, dislikes Cosmopolis. It is ‘a major dud’, ‘lugubrious and heavy-handed’, portraying a ‘hopelessly cliched’ portrait of the post 9/11 world. However, she completely misinterprets the theme of the novel, suggesting it is merely ‘that chaos and asymmetry will trump the search for order and patterns’. With such a lunk-headed understanding of the book it is no surprise she doesn’t like it. Cosmopolis is, indeed, a post-9/11 novel but, more than that, it is on the verge of being a post-human novel, or at least it is portraying a world in which humanity is being rendered obsolete by the progress of change. And that is what the novel is about: time, the relentless urge of mankind to control it, the advance of the moment, the soul-destroying, dehumanising battle for the present. Our very understanding of time is changing. We are beginning to live in a continuous present, where technology allows us to relive moments over and over in digital loops (think, for example, of the 9/11 footage). CCTV is on every street corner. The prospect of an event happening and simply passing into unrecorded history is increasingly unlikely. Indeed, in the brave new future, could such events even be said to have happened at all? With the crowding of the present in this way, there is a concomitant shift in our perspectives. “We used to know the past but not the future,” Packer’s wife tells him. “This is changing.” A new theory of time is required. The flaw of human rationality, she says, is that "It pretends not to see the horror and death at the end of the schemes it builds. This is a protest against the future. They want to hold off the future. They want to normalize it, keep it from overwhelming the present.”

The novel, then, is located at that juncture between the past and the present and the future, that impossibly fluid continuity which merges our exterior and interior worlds, action and reaction, infinity. As Packer’s world disintegrates he finds himself curiously detached from perceived reality. He reacts to events a fraction of a second before they actually happen, but he is not predicting them, exactly, so much as experiencing them in isolation, unconfined by those factors, emotional, communal, which help to define us: he is observing, not participating, in human endeavour. He is falling outside time. He is disconnected. ‘People think about who they are in the stillest hour of the night,’ DeLillo writes, echoing Nietzsche, and the answer in this novel becomes increasingly troublesome. ‘A specter is haunting the world', we are told. It may well be that this spectre is ourselves. Who are we? What are we doing?


courtmerrigan said...

I read this several years ago and don't remember it clearly enough to comment succinctly. I do remember, though, that other than a few amusing moments, it being empty and airless and pretty much unoriginal. A currency trader in a limousine is a soulless hack? Who would have thought? It reminded me of the lesser Updike books I've waded through - a short-story-sized idea distended into novel form.

I dunno - maybe I'd feel different upon a re-read, but the thought of picking it up again

courtmerrigan said...

... makes me tired. (Sorry the last bit cut off there.)

m said...

This notion of an ever-present present, or continual present, is also explored in the works of Victor Pelevin, a contemporary Russian fiction writer. In his novel Homo Zapiens, Pelevin presents this perpetual present as an effect of the collapsing of the Soviet system, or the Soviet master narrative. Along with this Soviet soul that has “collapsed inwards on itself,” eternity too has followed suit, and the past and future have caved into the present: “It turned out that eternity only existed for as long as Tatarsky sincerely believed in it, and was actually nowhere to be found beyond the bounds of this belief” (4).

I'm extremely grateful to you for point out this transformation of time in DeLillo's Cosmopolis! Have you read Point Omega yet, or are you planning to? I just finished Falling Man, and I think this disassociation with linear time is also present there as well. It's also something that Baudrillard writes a lot about ... and Baudrillard's always been useful when studying DeLillo, at least since White Noise.

Thanks again! So happy I found your blog!

Jonny Ross said...

agree with above comment re the delillo-baudrillard connection. nowhere is this more apparent than in 'falling man' and baurdrillard's 9/11 essay 'the spirit of terrorism.' or even 'mao 2' for that matter -- which presents a weird sort of backwards dialogue if we read it as his real 9/11 book, which it kind of is.

enjoyed the last couple posts on delillo. i'm doing my undergrad project on delillo and will getting into him hard the next few months.

Tom Conoboy said...

Excellent discussion. Thanks all.

Court - yes I can see what you're saying. There is certainly a soullessness about it, and to an extent it is cliched as well. I think your reaction is similar to mine with Falling Man and with this sort of stuff it either get you or it doesn't. It's very similar to Auster in that regard: some of his earlier stuff I love, but I find its style repetitive after a while.

m, I don't know Victor Pelevin at all. I'll have to look out for him. Interesting that different writers are working in the same kind of territory. Thanks for the tip. I haven't read Point Omega yet, but I intend to. I didn't really get into Falling Man, but I think I probably need to re-read it having subsequently read a few other DeLillo's. I think I probably missed quite a lot.

Jonny, yes Mao II is definitely the best 9/11 novel I've read, and he wrote it in 89, I think. I'm finding DeLillo an increasingly interesting writer. Hope your researches go well.

Patti's Pages said...

Thanks for the very enlightening and thorough review. I still like his White Noise the best.

Tom Conoboy said...

Perhaps you could explain why? I'd be most interested in your views.