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Don DeLillo, Cosmopolis (London: Picador, 2003, £10.99, 216 pages, ISBN 0-330-41275-2)óGeorges-Claude Guilbert, Université de Rouen


Cosmopolis 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:

It's 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 abandoned building.

Indeed 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.

So, 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.

I 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.

He 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."
"Activity." [65]

Much 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!

The 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 much):

I 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? [61]

The French translation has just been published.

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