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BOOKS & THE CULTURE Oblivious Pursuits BY JEFFREY SEVERS Cosmopolis by Don DeLillo Published by Scribner 209 pages, $25. Eric Packerthe brainy 28year-old billionaire and hero of Don DeLillo’s disappointing new novel, Cosmopolisdoesn’t know what he wants. The book opens with the currency trader sleeplessly wandering the 48 rooms \(including lap pool, shark New York penthouse that cost $104 milliona sum he paid not for the amenities but for the prestige of the price, “the number itself,” as he’s later told by his chief of theory \(yes, he has one of those too; also chiefs of security, Setting the action on a single day in April 2000, DeLillo has built around Eric a somber, detached fable of the end of the ’90s boom, of money disconnected from value and benefit and merely “talking to itself.” It’s the story of an oblivious man’s pursuitin his tricked-out white limo, through a Manhattan snarled with traffic and anticapitalist protestersof the one thing he’s decided he does want: a haircut. 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, packingcompression, 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… [T]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 gridlockwhere 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 ident 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 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. Like many a DeLillo character before him, Eric is a wry stoic, quick-witted, full of muted but articulate anxiety about a menac ing, unknown future. His arid emotional lifeincluding a 22-day-old marriage, already on the rocks, to a woman even richer than heis one of the book’s main sources of humor. But a character who wants nothing and no one, a man without qualities who chooses to watch the exploding world just outside his car door on live video feed can make an annoying lens through which to view a storyhowever exemplary he is of his society’s failed humanity or fixation on technology. I’m a longtime DeLillo fan, an admirer of that glint in his lean, careful prose that’s often dismissed as chilliness; yet even I found Eric’s studied reflections too often repellent, a cipher with no real code behind it to break. Here are his blandly evasive thoughts