By Don DeLillo
(Scribner, $25, 224 pp.)
There was a time, not long ago, when Don DeLillo ruled the American literary world. By the mid-1980s, largely on the strength of his National Book Award-winning White Noise, the Bronx-born novelist had established himself as a searing satirist of late-Cold War America and a daring prose stylist; within 15 years of beginning his career, he had risen into the postmodern pantheon, taking a seat beside William Gaddis, John Barth and Thomas Pynchon. From the ad-industry-spoofing Americana through Underworld’s wandering dissection of the postwar era, his books sacrificed character and plot, but they gave readers something better: ideas, and lots of them.
Though at times exceedingly dense, DeLillo’s best novels are like brussels sprouts: not always appealing, but nonetheless full of brain-boosting goodness. Recently, though, he has ceased improving with age. Underworld, from 1997, was arguably his greatest accomplishmentone many critics believe was robbed of the 1998 Pulitzer Prize. Magnificent in size as well as scope, the book riffs magisterially on many of the themes that had occupied his writing to date: the dark side of American capitalism and government, the fractured nature of modern relationships, the linguistics of advertising. But like an astronaut returning from the moon, DeLillo has since seemed at a loss for what to do next.
His follow-up, 2001’s The Body Artist, was a slim, overly obscure work revolving around a mere three characters, one of whom commits suicide early on. The severest critics called it the worst book of the year (a bold statement, given that it arrived in January); those more sympathetic deemed it “transitional.” Admitting The Body Artist’s imperfections, Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times said that it pointed, nevertheless, “to an exciting new vein in Mr. DeLillo’s already remarkable body of work.”
But if Kakutani possessed the sixth sense to have seen precisely the direction DeLillo would takea direction all too obvious in his latest effort, Cosmopolisshe might not have gone so easy on him. Where The Body Artist was intensely personal and introspective, Cosmopolis is, like his earlier efforts, broad and social in its scope. The plot covers a day in the life of Eric Packer, a young billionaire venture capitalist trying to get from his East Side Manhattan condo to his favorite barber shop, located somewhere near the Hudson River. Thanks to a presidential visit to New York City, a funeral for a rap artist and the general bad traffic that fills midtown Manhattan, the trip takes Packer the entire day; the delays, in turn, give him time to do things like have lunch with his wife, visit his art dealer/mistress and engage in long-winded, nonsensical conversations with his various financial advisers and miscellaneous lieutenants.
But unlike those in Underworld and White Noise, DeLillo’s message in Cosmopolis is out-of-touch, unclear and utterly unconvincing. The characters never speak to each other; instead they pronounce, denounce and philosophize at random. They are clearly never intended to be more than voices for DeLillo’s own thoughts, but on a mechanical level their dialogues read like randomly spliced lines from a thousand different plays. Speaking with his wife, Packer says:
“You’re wearing a cashmere sweater.”
“Yes I am.”
“And that’s your hand-beaded skirt.”
“Yes it is.”
“I’m noticing. How was the play?”
“I left at intermission, didn’t I?”
“What was it about and who was in it? I’m making conversation.”
From another writer, such wooden dialogue would be just bad writing. But DeLillo has done this before, created characters whose words bump up against each other but never cross, in order to establish a sense of slippage between the human and the technical, the dehumanized world of hypercapitalism into which he is afraid we are quickly falling. As one of Packer’s advisers tells him, “People will not die. Isn’t this the creed of the new culture? People will be absorbed into streams of information.”
The problem with Cosmopolis is that it conveys this dehumanization so artlessly. The characters, lacking depth, are merely placeholders, and the book barely delves into the complexities possible when a truly human, psychological element is present. Indeed, DeLillo’s insights are painfully limp. Packer is America, a benign dictator of currency and machines, wading through a city that is all too obviously a stand-in for today’s interconnected world. Like the companies he buys and sells, Packer at one point is attacked by anti-globalization protesters. But instead of providing a new take on the protest movement, DeLillo is content to characterize it as wanting to “hold off the future” and, simultaneously, being at one with capitalism’s destructively creative urge. These are not in any way new ideas, and the only surprise is seeing them emanate from the mind of a supposedly original writer.
And in a book whose dominant theme is the blinding speed of obsolescence, DeLillo is himself woefully behind the curve. He calls personal digital assistants “hand organizers,” and his attempts at rap lyrics recall “The Superbowl Shuffle.” Globalization, technology, cultural clashes both at home and abroadthese are big, important topics that demand literary attention. Someday, perhaps, there will be a Great International Novel, written by a Great International Novelist. But given the weak effort put forth in Cosmopolis, it clearly won’t be DeLillo.
Thank you for the write up. We greatly appreciate it! Hope we raise the funds…
Looks like he was a great Artist.......who left his Legacy behind for others to follow.....
Indianapolis (CA-35), not Indiana.
There were plenty of jumps and screams at the severed-head reveal at the Sunday night…
I just...this recap...why did I not know these were here until now?! 4 times on…