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Great Prose but Pretty Dry
on April 30, 2003
I should profess that I have never read a novel by Don DeLillo before diving into "Cosmopolis." Sure, I have heard of "White Noise," "Underworld," and "Libra" before, but decided to start with this new, short novel about a billionaire stock tycoon and his trip through the wilds of New York City. DeLillo seems to possess many fans in the literary world, rabid readers who devour everything this guy decides to pass off on the public. I usually see him associated with people like Pynchon or Gaddis, post-modern writers who create sprawling works of endless complexity and dubious quality. Since my experiences with the post-modern genre are slight at best, all I have to go on is my experiences with this book.
The plot seems simple enough. Eric Packer, a twenty eight year old Wall Street whiz, decides he wants to get a haircut. Moreover, he sets out on his excursion in a giant, cork lined white limousine with his bodyguards, advisors, doctors, and drivers in tow. Along the way, Packer undergoes a physical examination of a most personal nature, runs into his new wife at various places, witnesses an anarchist protest, gets attacked with a cream pie, becomes emotional about a rapper's funeral, and discovers someone is stalking him with a view to causing serious injury. There is little that ties these events and encounters together, as even the quest for a haircut often drops into the background when Packer bogs down in New York City traffic. Surrounded by computers and an endless flow of information, the billionaire spends most of his time waxing philosophic about the state of the world, the state of his mind, and the state of his attempt to make a killing off the Japanese yen. Ultimately, that is all this novel seems to do: throw out endless noodlings about the emptiness of life in the high tech, over stimulated information age.
DeLillo's writing style is the best thing going for "Cosmopolis." Infused with deep cynicism and a measurable detachment, it still crackles with crisp, short sentences that convey much with little ado. The problem comes when the language puts too much out there, when the reader starts to bog down under the endless litany of Packer's mental ramblings. Although this book is extremely short and can be finished in a day, it still seems too long at times. If there is any point to this tale, or at least where the point seems to assume clarity, it is when Packer and his "advisor on theory" discuss the meaning of the ticker boards with their endless scroll of information and the implications of self-immolating oneself to protest capitalism. Eric's accumulation of information threatens to overwhelm his existence because all he possesses is random bits of information. He cannot seem to tie it all together into any relevant meaning other than making money. There seems to be a germ of hope for him towards the end of the story, but most of the book is merely cerebral gymnastics.
The message of "Cosmopolis," about a man who has everything but wilts under his own inflated ego and goes off on a rampage, is definitely familiar. Bret Easton Ellis did something similar in "American Psycho," and he did it better. Eric Packer and Patrick Bateman are blood brothers, albeit relatives separated by about twenty years. When will these Wall Street archetypes' meltdowns have finality to them? Probably when the capitalist system finally collapses. In the meantime, we have people like Ellis and DeLillo dutifully reporting the carnage of undreamt of riches on the souls of humanity.
Many people out there are quite knowledgeable about DeLillo's body of work and the philosophy that powers them. I can draw no firm conclusions about this author from reading just one of his books. But I strongly suggest thinking twice before plunging into "Cosmopolis." It takes too much effort for too little return.