Cosmopolis (London: Picador, 2003, £10.99,
216 pages, ISBN 0-330-41275-2)óGeorges-Claude Guilbert,
Université de Rouen
is Don DeLillo's thirteenth novel. As much as
I liked his twelfth, The Body Artist (2001),
I must admit I am rather disappointed. Some of DeLillo's
books are masterpieces (he has often been hailed as
a literary genius), but others are not, evidently.
White Noise (1985) was postmodern and funny
and hugely entertaining. Mao II (1991) was
postmodern and not so funny but still extremely entertaining.
Cosmopolis is resolutely postmodern and not
funny at all (there are times when you realize DeLillo
could possibly be trying to be funny, e.g. when he
describes a doctor's visit in a limousine, but the
result is more pathetic than anything else). The Body
Artist retrospectively turns out to be a parenthesis
in DeLillo's career, as opposed to a new direction.
It was a moving novel, full of feeling (however masqueraded)—in
the noblest sense of the word. In Cosmopolis, DeLillo
handles themes he has explored before—notably
in Mao II—but this time he inaugurates
the ice age of literature. The book is cold, cynical,
clinical, and chillingly intellectual. The blurb announces:
a stunningly eventful day in the life of Eric Packer,
a multi-billionaire who owns a forty-eight-room apartment
and a decommissioned nuclear bomber and who has recently
married the heiress of a vast European fortune. Sitting
in his stretch limousine as it moves across the middle
of Manhattan, he finds the city at a virtual standstill
because the President is visiting, a rapper's funeral
is proceeding through town, and a violent protest
is being staged in Times Square by anti-globalist
groups. Eric's bodyguards are worried that he is a
target and, indeed, he is—although the danger,
as it turns out, is not from protesters or political
assassins but from an anonymous man who lives in an
the book narrates one day in the life of the immensely
wealthy Eric Packer. And indeed most of it takes place
in his glamorous limousine driving around Manhattan.
But the only suspense the reader is granted is when
he is made to wonder what political or literary point
DeLillo is going to make next. He does not wonder
when or if the main character is going to get shot,
because he could not care less, quite frankly. Evidently
I do not imply for one second that DeLillo is not
aware of this. DeLillo made quite sure that not one
of his characters would attract the least sympathy.
Even the driest of John Barth's characters in his
driest novels resonate a little bit in the reader's
heart, and some vague sense of identification is achieved
almost in spite of the author. I enjoy John Barth
(though I did find a little bit too much "John
Barth" in his latest opus) and I have always
admired the fiction of postmodern novelists such as
Donald Barthelme and Thomas Pynchon (even at his most
hermetic), but DeLillo, for his part, has managed
the ultimate no-one-gives-a-damn-what-happens novel.
the world is in a sorry state. Multinationals and
globalization have wrecked havoc on the planet. Technology
has dehumanized us all. How is the individual to cope?
What does individuality mean? Is it possible to have
meaningful relationships? How do you define "meaningful?"
And what of money and the stock market? Can money
itself be an object of mathematical / economic / philosophical
(disgusted) fascination? How can a self-respecting
highbrow postmodern novelist continue writing in 2003?
And if he does continue writing, can he write a novel
and publish it in 2003 without making sure that the
twenty-eight layers of meaning echo each other and
finally cancel each other until the result is a slab
of cold meat? Apparently not.
recently went to a Canadian Studies conference and
attended an excellent workshop with the Canadian author
Russell Smith (let me take this opportunity to recommend
Young Men, How Insensitive, Noise,
and the more recent The Princess and the Whiskheads).
Smith discussed his own (interesting) handling of
dialogue and quoted with apparent regard from Cosmopolis,
highlighting DeLillo's unconventional punctuation
and the particular use of words like "what"
or "this" in the dialogue.
saw Torval walking toward him.
"Imperative that we reroute."
"The situation is what."
"This. We have flood conditions in the street
ahead. State of chaos. This. The question of the president
and his whereabouts. He is fluid. He is moving. And
wherever he goes, our satellite receiver reports a
ripple effect in the traffic that causes mass paralysis.
This also. There is a funeral proceeding slowly downtown
and deflecting westward. Many vehicles, numerous mourners
on foot. And finally this. We have a report of imminent
activity in the area."
of the book is in the same vein and it does tend,
pace Smith, to get a little tiresome. As
does the fact that the main character keeps running
into his wife and not recognizing her. I am not worried
about verisimilitude, although I might be tempted
to be old-fashioned enough to find a modicum of it
desirable, but it simply becomes irritating. We do
get the point!
narrative, in two parts, is interrupted twice (clumsily,
but that is no doubt deliberate) by "The Confessions
of Benno Levin." I will let Levin conclude, fittingly
(reader be reassured, the penultimate sentence does
not give the ending away, although it would not matter
thought I would spend whatever number of years it
takes to write ten thousand pages and then you would
have the record, the literature of a life awake and
asleep, because dreams too, and little stabs of memory,
and all the pitiful habits and concealments, and all
the things around me would be included, noises in
the street, but I understand for the first time, now,
this minute, that all the thinking and writing in
the world will not describe what I felt in the awful
moment when I fired the gun and saw him fall. So what
is left that's worth the telling? 
French translation has just been published.