Book Review

Oblivious Pursuits


The gap between the ultra-convertible quantities that crisscross the globe at his command and the brute facts of flesh-and-blood desire is Eric’s insoluble problem and the novel’s major theme. It’s one that DeLillo underscores in a pun maybe a tad too obvious: On the morning we meet him, this man with the means for everything and a passion for nothing is inexplicably gambling his fortune on the unlikely rise of the yen. Packer’s seeming whim of a journey is a weighty metaphor, too. DeLillo’s well-known love for Joyce and Cosmopolis’s single day of random urban wandering will lead inevitably to comparisons with Ulysses. And yet, in DeLillo’s postmodern turn on Joyce’s form, this novel’s shrunken time-frame seems less an artistic strategy for telling a man’s whole life than a necessary means to depict the acceleration and abstraction caused by the union of technology and capital.

The business of Packer Capital, which is, literally, packing—compression, creating profit from changes in value over sextillionths of a second— exemplifies this speeded up, unreal world. “Money makes time,” as that helpful chief of theory, Vija Kinski, explains to Eric. “It used to be the other way around… ime is a corporate asset now.” This is the postmodern dream, scrutinized everywhere in this novel, of money in unlimited and uninterrupted streams, freed from labor and locale and turned into the pure information of stock quotes that Eric watches speeding across the walls of Times Square. New York is the cosmopolis of the title not only because its streets are shared by Hasidim and blacks, whirling dervishes and anti-globalization protesters, but also because, in Eric’s imagination, the city outside his car windows looks ethereal, “smart spaces built on beams of light,” its people walking in lines he likens to data flows. All these electric fantasies are undercut by DeLillo’s fairly ingenious choice of a stalling, gasoline-powered plot, stuck in Manhattan gridlock—where it’s hard to get a simple haircut, no matter how rich you are.

Those protesters, decked out in rat costumes and armed with bombs, are hell on Eric too. They’re out in force (and traffic is terrible) because the president is in town, and in this confluence Eric’s trip takes on its broader social and political significance. Remember DeLillo’s obsession (explored fully in Libra) with a certain iconic Wunderkind’s fateful Dallas motorcade, and you see Cosmopolis’s sly rewriting of power for the age of high-tech currency speculation. Packer, who boasts about entire national economies hanging on his trades, is JFK 2000. “Do people still shoot at presidents? I thought there were more stimulating targets,” he muses to his staff, who are alarmed by strikes against global monetary figures taking place around the globe.

Here are his blandly evasive thoughts as, early in the book, he approaches the line-up of nearly identical white limos outside his tower: “He wanted such a car because he thought it was a platonic replica, weightless for all its size, less an object than an idea. But he knew this wasn’t true. This was something he said for effect and he didn’t believe it for an instant. He believed it for an instant but only just.” Here he is 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 inference of fuddled human personnel and jerky moving parts.” Eric’s thoughts can seem a bit jerky, too, made up mainly of avoidance and intellect, expressive of the novel’s thematic concerns but little of his character. Readers of DeLillo’s most famous book, White Noise, will recognize in Eric the prodigious obsessions with technology and death of a Jack Gladney, but find not as much—not nearly enough—of the earlier novel’s balancing, biting humor or colorful supporting players.

Those who appreciate DeLillo’s work for those acute little sociological essays, though, will find plenty to satisfy. Each of the aforementioned expert chiefs pops into the limo for consults with the boss rife with analysis that will show DeLillo’s many critics the interpretive way. Other readers—at least those expecting narrative to mesh with and draw out character—may find the book’s run of events too fragmented, trying too hard to be of-the-moment. They may wonder why is Eric suddenly at a rave. Just “for effect”? Why do we see a rapper’s funeral, and why is Eric so broken up over the death of a character we hear mentioned only in passing? Why a paragraph on breakdancers? The dips into youth and artistic culture that proved so captivating on the huge historical canvas of Underworld left me feeling here, in Cosmopolis’s brisk 209 pages, like I was stuck in the herk-and-jerk of topical traffic, when I wanted to be rolling along.

Eric’s cool detachment and self-centeredness might work for me as symptoms of the blinded American über-wealth that the novel is diagnosing—if DeLillo himself had fully imagined the scenes to which his point-of-view character remains oblivious. Take, for instance, the centerpiece event, in which the anti-capitalist protesters rock, spray graffiti, and urinate on the limo. Untouchable Eric, watching the attack on his car’s several flat plasma- screen TVs, hardly bats an eye; at first he doesn’t even try to make out the Marxist slogans they’re chanting. Trouble is, we readers don’t truly see or hear or understand them either. Kinski, chief of theory, who’s conveniently arrived for her visit just in time to discourse on the riot, says: “These people are a fantasy generated by the market. They don’t exist outside the market… They… invigorate and perpetuate the system.” Eric objects, but, as is his way, only vaguely. A man burns himself in the street as part of the protest, and Kinski dismisses his act as unoriginal, a mere “appropriation” of a well-known historical image.

What? A burning man reduced to a televisual quote? All protest simply absorbed by the market, neutralized by media culture? Rebels should be aware that the revolution will be televised, DeLillo is saying; but will the medium so totally co-opt the message? DeLillo is provoking us, surely, just as he did in Mao II by having a character call terrorists “the only possible heroes of our time.” But isn’t it the duty of literary art to show both the blindness of certain technologies and perspectives and the rich, upsetting world that blindness misses? Reading such scenes in Cosmopolis, I miss the ecstatic prose of his earlier work. Here he regresses into a cold, didactic retracing of his own obsession with our image obsession, a subject he rendered more enticingly way back in 1985 with White Noise.

We’re only halfway through the novel when we get to the pivotal protest scene. But for me, it’s too late. DeLillo cedes far too much power to media’s dominance for Eric’s inward quest to resonate as true and necessary. Even in these technology-obsessed times, does anyone say he wants, as Eric does in all seriousness near the novel’s end, “to live outside the given limits, in a chip, on a disk, as data, in whirl, in radiant spin”? If you say yes, then Cosmopolis may be just the thing for you.

Jeffrey Severs is a writer in Austin.