The Good, the Bad, and the Hungry Sale

Reviews From


The New Republic Online
Thursday, April 10th, 2003



by Don DeLillo


A review by James Wood

Like Underworld, Don DeLillo's new novel is an up-to-the-minute gizmo with a nineteenth-century heart. It tells the story of a day of reckoning, a day in the life of a young billionaire financier named Eric Packer, who begins the book full of postmodern cynicism and Manhattan materialism, and ends it chastened, suddenly penniless, and eager to change his life. This bald Bildung is fairly conventionally mapped: by virtue of all that he witnesses in his tremendous day, Eric will abandon his dim, matutinal confidence for an enlightened uncertainty of evening, finally beating his chest and throbbing with "enormous body sobs."

Encasing this sentimental education, however, is a frame that is anything but conventional. For a start, most of Eric's day is spent in his car, a madly customized stretch limo that functions as an office, complete with multiple video monitors and digital feeds. In the car, Eric receives his chief of finance, his chief of technology, and his "chief of theory," who drop in during the day to brief their boss. The limo is trying to cross Manhattan, but the president of the United States is in town, so progress is glacial. In the course of the day, Eric witnesses an anti-capitalist demonstration in Times Square, a rapper's funeral, and the shooting of a movie scene that involves three hundred extras lying naked on a street. All three incidents have the quality, explicitly suggested, of performance art — as indeed does Eric's halting, phantasmagoric passage through town.

Eric is given to riffing on contemporary culture and technology, in a Baudrillard-bruised language evocative of an assistant professor of cultural studies with, alas, an MFA: "He took out his hand organizer and poked a note to himself about the anachronistic quality of the word skyscraper. No recent structure ought to bear this word. It belonged to the olden soul of awe, to the arrowed towers that were a narrative long before he was born." Or: "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 inference of fuddled human personnel and jerky moving parts. The term was part of the process that the device was meant to replace." All of the novel's characters speak to each other in this same kind of language, a gnomic, bleached argot of modern knowledge. "Money has lost its narrative quality the way painting did once upon a time," says Vija Kinski, Eric's chief of theory. Even Eric's bodyguard says, apropos of the city's presidentially provoked congestion: "You will hit traffic that speaks in quarter inches.... Barriers will be set up.... Entire streets deleted from the map."

As with Underworld, the success of the book hangs on DeLillo's ability to make the old-fashioned heart of his novel animate its postmodern body; and as with Underworld, this success is compromised by DeLillo's merely theoretical interest in human beings. Eric Packer is an idea, a satirist's smudge; he is no more human, artistically speaking, than his limousine. He exists in order for DeLillo to explore various ideas about global capital, digital information flow, financial power, and so on. From the book's start, Eric Packer is an enormous, deliberate exaggeration. This is not without humor, and DeLillo is often funny; but there is a sense in which Eric is not supposed to be real, so that DeLillo's jokes tell us less about Eric than about DeLillo's idea of how to satirize financial unreality.

Thus Eric wakes up in his forty-room, $104 million penthouse apartment, complete with shark pool, gymnasium, and a special pen for his borzois. He has two elevators; one plays Erik Satie, and moves at quarter speed, to fit the music; the other plays the music of Brutha Fez, a Sufi mystic rapper (born Raymond Gathers in the Bronx — it is his funeral that Eric will witness later in the day). Eric has had his limousine "prousted": "I sent word that they had to proust it, cork-line it against street noise." He has been married for twenty-two days to Elise Shifrin, a poet and an heiress. And he is being stalked by an unhappy former employee, a murderous underground man who has taken the name Benno Levin.

But Eric is really no more than a vessel for theory; he is given not thoughts but meta-thoughts. He enjoys deciding that certain words or phrases (such as "ATM") should be retired. Looking at his bodyguard's earpiece, "he knew these devices were already vestigial. They were degenerate structures." In Times Square, struck by the postmodern abundance of it all, "he thought about the amassments, the material crush, days and nights of bumper to bumper, red light, green light, the fixedness of things, the obsolescences, going mostly unseen." Sitting in his car, watching the digital ticker, he undergoes a typical DeLilloian dilation:

It was shallow thinking to maintain that numbers and charts were the cold compression of unruly human energies, every sort of yearning and midnight sweat reduced to lucid units in the financial markets. In fact data itself was soulful and glowing, a dynamic aspect of the life process. This was the eloquence of alphabets and numeric systems, now fully realized in electronic form, in the zero-oneness of the world, the digital imperative that defined every breath of the planet's living billions. Here was the heave of the biosphere.

The difficulty of the book is working out how much of this is Eric's mildly satirized theory and how much of it is DeLillo's indulged and wanton theory. Eric would think just like this, one supposes. But as so often, DeLillo's language seems too complicit, in its scrabbling enthusiasm, with the subject of his protagonist's reflections. "Here was the heave of the biosphere" (whatever that means): alas, this sounds like DeLillo, not Eric. (But then we do not know what Eric sounds like, because he has no quiddity.) It is DeLillo who seems to be excited as he regards "the heave of the biosphere."

Cosmopolis is postmodern flâneur fiction, in which the hero goes out onto the streets and, armed with the writer's literary gifts, absorbs various shocks, sightings, and revelations. Eric is Manhattan's Malte Laurids Brigge, and a working premise of this kind of fiction is that the ambulatory hero, the porous scout, will see things through the writer's eyes. This has to be the premise of such works, because it would clearly be intolerable for a novelist to have to spend a whole novel recording the world in deeply smothered eloquence. The reader tends to assume, then, that when characters such as Eric Packer start riffing about Times Square, or ATMs, or the "degenerate structures" that earpieces have become, he is being promoted by his author, who wants to have his say by means of his flâneur. Of course, what Eric sees may not be exactly what DeLillo would see, nor exactly how DeLillo would phrase it, but taken over the whole of a book such a character's reflections on the world can plausibly be regarded as comprising the worldview of his creator.

Eric Packer's techno-incantations, his amorous ruminations on postmodernity, are continuous with Brian Glassic's in Underworld, the Brian Glassic who stood before the Staten Island landfill and reflected thus on garbage:

To understand all this. To penetrate this secret. The mountain was here, unconcealed, but no one saw it or thought about it, no one knew it existed except the engineers ... a unique cultural deposit ... and he saw himself for the first time as a member of an esoteric order, they were adepts and seers, crafting the future, the city planners, the waste managers, the compost technicians, the landscapers who would build hanging gardens here, make a park one day out of every kind of used and eroded object of desire.

Brian's rapt tone — bathetically close in impulse to Wordsworth on the Simplon Pass, or to Ruskin on Rouen Cathedral — is hardly different from Eric's tone when he regards the digital ticker in his car. There is the same rising churn of language, the same hovering incoherence, and the same conversion of concrete singularities into massive plurals. Thus, as Brian moves from thinking about one specific landfill to thinking about countless technicians, seers, planners, and adepts, so Eric moves from his ticker to the mere prospect of "the planet's living billions" and "the heave of the biosphere."

And note, too, that what at first resembles clarity is actually a rush to mystification. Eric announces that one should not think of such financial numbers and charts as the "cold compression of unruly human energies," nor as human striving brought into "lucid units." Instead, we should see that such digits are in fact "soulful and glowing, a dynamic aspect of the life process." The idea seems to be that in place of hazy figurative thinking, we must think about the thing-in-itself, data as it actually is. Yet despite DeLillo's talk of the planet's "living billions," his fancy abstractions — "the eloquence of alphabets and numeric systems," "the zero-oneness of the world," "the digital imperative" — only further sunder data from their human origins; besides which, such language is of course as hazily figurative as the language that it seeks to replace.

Underworld was full of flailing passages like this one, and Cosmopolis has enough of them that we can begin to define certain strengths and weaknesses of DeLillo's prose style. DeLillo does not sound like anyone else; but often he does not sound like a human being, either. There are marvelous phrases, in which he finds new language to capture new atmospheres (his greatest talent): so, during the anti-capitalist riot in Times Square, "cops free-lanced in the crowd," and "there were sirens in the distances, fire trucks caught in traffic, the sound hanging in the air, undopplered." Even at more conventional tasks, such as portraiture, DeLillo can be fresh and witty: "her hair was smoky gray and looked lightning-struck, withered and singed."

But DeLillo's chief weakness is that he does not know when to finish a sentence, frequently extending into incoherence an image that, left alone, might have hoarded its pristinity. And in such cases the language always takes on a stiffened, unreal, pluming eloquence. An example might be the decision to write of the bodyguard's earpieces as not merely "vestigial" but also as "degenerate structures." This sounds rather good; but it is the mere music of lucidity. Is "structures" the word DeLillo really wants here? Or this: "He lifted her rhapsodically higher and mashed his face in her breasts. He felt them jump and hum." Hum? Surely DeLillo simply wanted the sentence to have a certain rhythm, wanted a one-syllable verb to jibe with the one-syllable "jump." But he was not thinking of the rhythm of meaning.

Or take the moment when Eric notices, for the first time in his day, his driver, a man called Ibrahim. "He looked wary and prepared, a disposition he'd earned on some sand plain seven hundred years before he was born." This is a slightly vulgar orientalism, but it is not incoherent. Eric notices that one of Ibrahim's eyes is damaged: "There were evening streaks in the white of the eye, a sense of blood sun." Now, that first image — "evening streaks" — is superb; but its successor is superfluous, and tarnishes its predecessor. But Eric is not finished with Ibrahim's eye: "He respected the eye. There was a story there, a brooding folklore of time and fate." This is standard DeLilloian mystification, and more orientalism. Whatever happened to poor Ibrahim's eye was clearly not folkloric, but acutely palpable. It was not a narrative. And why "brooding"? That is just superfluous wordplay. And if DeLillo were to say that it is Eric, and not he, who is thinking in such terms, one would have to reply, once again, that the phrase has too much of DeLillo's own style in it to "pass" as anyone else's. If Eric is thinking here, then by all means let DeLillo give Eric his own language. But in this book he does not have a language that is independent of his author.

At other moments, DeLillo's prose races ahead of the actual importance of its subject. Near the start of the book, he has a little paragraph about clusters of limo drivers: "The drivers smoked and talked on the sidewalk, hatless in dark suits, sharing an alertness that would be evident only in retrospect when their eyes went hot in their heads and they shed their cigarettes and vacated their unstudied stances, having spotted the objects of their regard." This is a wretched entanglement that sounds robotic rather than human. The coda — "having spotted the objects of their regard" — resembles schoolboy Latin translation ("the town having been razed, Caesar departed...."). And how exactly does one vacate one's stance without spontaneously combusting? The diction here has the blocky, pompous cast of FBI officialese ("vacate your stance immediately and exit the domicile"). But more than this, it is the lyrical excessiveness of the phrase "when their eyes went hot in their heads" that is so bemusing. The entire clumsy sentence is a crazy mixed powder of different registers. DeLillo is generally thought of as a coolly eloquent analyst of our age; in fact, his prose is often a softly romantic lyricism applied to modern objects that are not worthy of it.

And he is at it again in a curious scene in which Eric is visited in the limousine by his doctor (in fact, his regular doctor's associate). Eric has daily medical checkups, and since today he is not leaving his car, the doctor must travel to him. Eric has been talking to Jane Melman, his chief of finance, also in the limo, who watches him as he drops his pants and submits to his prostate exam. As Eric, vulnerably naked, faces his female employee, a moment of sexual hunger is communicated between them: "Something passed between them deeply, a sympathy beyond the standard meanings that also encompassed these meanings, pity, affinity, tenderness, the whole physiology of neural maneuver, of heartbeat and secretion, some vast sexus of arousal drawing him toward her." Again, the sentence has that toppling feeling of something being stretched unto gibberish. This is not an important moment in the book, thematically, but the language is vainly trying to summon enormities ("pity, affinity, tenderness").

And with such portentousness! We are solemnly told that here was "a sympathy beyond the standard meanings that also encompassed these meanings," a rhetorical confession that seems unwise given DeLillo's inability precisely to capture even the standard meanings. And it is not enough that Eric and Jane should look at each other with pity, affinity, and tenderness; there must be also involved "the whole physiology of neural maneuver." And some "vast sexus": is Henry Miller the patron of this peculiar expression? Then why not "some vast nexus," or "some vast plexus"? Once this little neural Waterloo has played itself out, the doctor finishes his exam and removes his latex glove: "The associate tore the glove off his hand and slapped it in the waste bin, the rip and the discard, dark with meaning." This is a definition of bathos. When D.H. Lawrence wrote, in his poem, about Bavarian gentians as dark with meaning, he was pondering imminent death, the final journey to Pluto's muffled land. DeLillo is describing the final journey of a latex glove.

The effect of this eager, puppyish, scrambling language, when it runs after contemporary technologies and forces, is to rob DeLillo of whatever critique he might have intended. Indeed, it is hard to discern if DeLillo does have critique in mind, so boisterously lost is his prose. He seems to want to cover postmodernity in happy licks. When DeLillo sees "the amassments, the material crush, days and nights of bumper to bumper, red light, green light, the fixedness of things, the obsolescences," or sees the digital ticker as nothing less than the heave of the biosphere, it is hard not to feel that a kind of unwitting self-flattery is being encoded, as if DeLillo were saying: "Look at how much we moderns have gathered, look at what we mightily are!" Certainly, he does not want to produce this effect; but his book has no moral center, no refuge of calm intelligence from which the reader might be able to judge Eric and his witnessings. We are imprisoned inside the fundamentally uncritical language of the now hybrid Eric/DeLillo. There is a reason, after all, that Henry James was so involved with the question of "point of view." We are saved by perspective, and its lack in a novel simply empties the bath of both its water and its baby.

Cosmopolis, so eager to tell us about our age, to bring back the news, delivers a kind of information, and delivers it in such a way that finally it threatens the existence of the novel form. For in what way does this novel tell us something about the world that only the novel form could tell us? As long as writers such as DeLillo fixate on cultural analysis as the chief mode of novelistic inquiry, so the novel will be thought of as merely unus inter pares, one form among a number of forms (theory, cultural studies, journalism, television), all of them equally qualified to analyze post-modernity. One problem with DeLillo's already half-mortgaged language arrives near the end of the book, when he seeks to raise some moral equity, and finds himself without the means. As Eric drifts toward his ultimate redemption (which will involve financial collapse and a climactic encounter with his murderer), a transfigurative moment occurs during the funeral of Brutha Fez, the Sufi rapper from the Bronx. It is evening, and the limo has been stopped by the enormous cortège. Eric leaves his car to have a look, and soon discovers the identity of the deceased. Like everything else in Cosmopolis, the funeral has the ambience of a souped-up mystical art installation. Eric, of course, succumbs to afflatus: "Eric thought there was something mystical about this, well beyond the scan of human encompassment, the half-crazed passion of a desert saint." The funeral passes — thirty-six white stretch limos

with the mayor and police commissioner in sober profile, and a dozen members of Congress, and the mothers of unarmed blacks shot by police, and fellow rappers in the middle phalanx, and there were media executives, foreign dignitaries, faces from film and TV, and mingled throughout were figures of world religion in their robes, cowls, kimonos, sandals and soutanes.

I wish I could be sure that DeLillo is writing this up with a smirk of irony. Of course, the exaggeration of the scene bespeaks a satirical impulse, but one always has the uneasy feeling with DeLillo that inside such proper ironic impulses lies a solid unironic nut of solemnity. For if DeLillo is not being solemn here, how to explain the empathy that he tries to extract from the scene? Sure enough, Eric has an epiphany, and this time it is for real: "Eric's delight in going broke seemed blessed and authenticated here. He'd been emptied of everything but a sense of surpassing stillness, a fatedness that felt disinterested and free." And a page later:

He began to weep as the follow-up security detail went past, a police van and several unmarked cars. He wept violently. He pummeled himself, crossing his arms and beating his fists on his chest. The press buses came next, three of them, and unofficial mourners on foot, many resembling pilgrims, all races and styles of belief and manner of dress, and he rocked and wept as mourners in cars went by, an improvised continuum, eighty, ninety cars in slack ranks.

He wept for Fez and everyone here and for himself of course, yielding completely to enormous body sobs.

"He wept for Fez and everyone here and for himself of course." Yet who is Fez in this book but a sentimentally useful piece of performance art? And who is Eric, indeed, but just the same? And how can we mourn with such specters? The alert reader might be bounced by this scene to a superficially similar one, at the end of Bellow's Seize the Day, a novel, like this one, that takes place in a single day in Manhattan, and also involves a hero's catastrophic escapade with the financial markets. As in Cosmopolis, Bellow's hero weeps at a funeral: "The great knot of ill and grief in his throat swelled upward and he gave in utterly and held his face and wept. He cried with all his heart."

But Bellow's culmination is deeply moving and DeLillo's is deeply hollow. Tommy Wilhelm, Bellow's hero, is a created individual, who is the focus and grave labor of the book's morality. Seize the Day tells the story of the destiny of Tommy's soul, so that its final excruciation is of great importance to us; the novel hangs or falls on it. Cosmopolis tells the story of some things DeLillo wanted to say about postmodernity, in varying qualities of language. When Tommy weeps at the funeral, a large part of what moves us is that he has wandered by mistake, quite randomly, into a stranger's wake, and is mistaken by the mourners, by virtue of his deep grief, for someone close to the deceased. But Eric ... well, Eric merely "wept for Fez."

When DeLillo reaches here for his desired emotional resonance, he finds only agitated air — the busy vacancy of his central character. And at the very moment when DeLillo needs us on his side, he finds that we have rebelled, hardened into stony-heartedness by the numerous excessive appeals on our sentiment that have already been made. After all, if we were already supposed to have wept for the dark meaning of a latex glove and pondered the brooding folklore of Ibrahim's eye and thrilled to the heave of the biosphere, then poor Eric's mere redemption may well strike us as one alarm too many.

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