Books You Really Should’ve Read By Now (No. #8,686,600): Cosmopolis by Don DeLillo

Cosmopolis is the first echo of a great novel that has yet to be written. This is the last call from a pre-9/11 America – a bold type Biblio page informs us: IN THE YEAR 2000 (and then, in smaller print: A Day in April). This is an America – this is a New York – yet to be rocked by the furious outrage of strangers. And yet, we hear an echo of its coming. Our narrator, Eric Packer, Head of Packer Capital, stands outside his building in the opening pages and “faced the building where he lived. He felt contiguous with it. It was eighty nine stories, a prime number, in an undistinguished sheath of hazy bronze glass.” Packer and the building share a relation, just as the building and the city bear a relation (a relation built upon surety and security): “They shared an edge or boundary, skyscraper and man. It was nine hundred feet high, the tallest residential tower in the world, a commonplace oblong whose only statement was its size.”

The day we spend in the company of Eric Packer (as he is driven about the city streets of Manhattan in search of a haircut, meeting the various heads of department at key points about the island and worrying about the steady progression of the Yen’s value as his twenty-one-day marriage falls apart) is a day obsessed with its own passing. Automated teller machines (“The term was aged and burdened by its own historical memory. It worked at cross-purposes, unable to escape the inference of fuddled human personnel and jerky moving parts”). Phones (“It was time to retire the word phone”). Computers (“Computers will die. They’re dying in their present form. They’re just about dead as distinct units. A box, a screen, a keyboard. They’re melting into the texture of everyday life. Even the word computer”). The word vestibule (“if this is still a word”). Even the paintings that adorn the lobby of his forty-eight room apartment (“white paintings . . . knife-applied slabs of mucoid color”) are valuable only as a result of the potential they have to infuriate “his guests” by their obsolescence – “The work was all the more dangerous for not being new. There’s no more danger in the new.” Nothing is new anymore. Everything is dull history, history that cannot be bothered explaining itself (Eric attends THE LAST TECHNO RAVE, “the end of whatever it was the end of” – September 11 is coming but nobody knows it yet). This is a world in need of attribution, a world in which “Chairs have arms and legs that ought to be called by other names.” This is DeLillo writing (and writing boldly, with gusto, and verve and insane invention) about the present and the future in a way he has not since White Noise. This is a world of nanoseconds, zeptoseconds, yoctoseconds – where time is “sucked out of the world to make way for the future of uncontrolled markets and huge investment potential.” This is DeLillo bouncing off of Fukuyama, DeLillo in the midst of a future in which everything has already been decided for you, a future in which there is no point.

“Maybe today,” Vija Kinski, his Chief of Theory, tells him, “Maybe today is the day when everything happens, for better or worse, ka-boom, like that.” This was the day, a narratorial voice intrudes later – after the violent televised stabbing of Arthur Rapp, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, in Korea, and the violent shooting of Nikolai Kaganovich outside his Dacha in Russia and the cardiac arrest of Brutha Fez, a young rapper Eric listens to in one of his personal elevators, whose funeral cortege helps block up the city streets – “This was the day, was it not, for influential men to come to sudden messy ends” (the inference being, pretty much from the word go, that Eric Packer is one such influential man on his way to a messy end). We are aware of this pretty much from the get-go. Between chapters one and two (Eric Packer’s day, if you will), we are given a glimpse of Benno Levin’s night – Benno Levin being a disgruntled former worker with a grudge against Eric Packer, and a man with a dead body at his feet. Later, in Part 2 of Cosmopolis, we move forward into Packer’s night and backwards into Levin’s day (a stylistic trope familiar to readers of DeLillo’s Underworld). If you read Cosmopolis in terms of Ulysses (and given DeLillo’s professed admiration for Joyce, it makes sense), think of Eric Packer and Benno Levin as Bloom and Dedalus (or rather Dedalus and Bloom – Levin says to Packer, “I have my syndromes, you have your complex. Icarus falling. You did it to yourself. Meltdown in the sun. You will plunge three and a half feet to your death. Not very heroic, is it?”) only capable of making sense of the day – of bringing resolution to the day – when at last they finally meet.

“Don’t you see yourself in every picture you love?” Didi Fancher tells Eric as they lie in bed post-fuck mid-morning. “You feel a radiance wash through you. It’s something you can’t analyze or speak about clearly. What are you doing at that moment? You’re looking at a picture on a wall. That’s all. But it makes you feel alive in the world. It tells you yes, you’re here. And yes, you have a range of being that’s deeper and sweeter than you knew.” As with paintings so with great novels. As with paintings so with Cosmopolis. There is a lot to admire here. Which isn’t to say that the book is without fault – certain key scenes (the funeral of Brutha Fez, Packer’s murder) lack authority (as if DeLillo is inhabiting a world he is not altogether familiar with) – but, for all that, Cosmopolis heralds the return of one of the few writers capable of staring the modern world long and hard in the face.

Any Cop?: Cosmopolis is yet one more example of why DeLillo should be prized and championed.

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