The New Death

Don DeLillos Cosmopolis

From his chief of security he learns that a threat has been made on the president's life, who happens to be passing through the city, and that a threat has been made on Packer's own life. Early in the novel, Packer tells another of his advisers, "For someone of your gifts, there's only one thing in the world worth pursuing professionally and intellectually. What is it, Michael? The interaction between technology and capital. The inseparability."

* * *

This inseparability is the novel's major subject as well, and DeLillo explores it partially through his characters' speculations—Packer's advisers are forever getting into his limo to chat about matters globally postmodern, declaring, for instance, that the essence of capitalism, now that technology has given us the means, is "enforced destruction. Old industries have to be harshly eliminated. New markets have to be forcibly claimed. Old markets have to be re-exploited. Destroy the past; make the future"–and when that future is made, destroy it, too, to make room for a later, destroyable future.

But the symbol of all this technocapital inseparability is Packer himself. He lives inside the dread of what turns out to be a triple alienation: his work ("asset management") separates him from the consequences of the money transactions; his gadgetry turns his world into representations that have little to do with what they represent; and lastly—what turns out to be his most interesting characteristic—his intensely self-conscious awareness of his alienation, a self-consciousness that does nothing to dispel it, indeed further alienates him, making it almost impossible to care about the lonely creature dwelling under all his layers of knowingness. He reads poetry, practices meditation, contemplates fine art and makes some astonishing observations, but he can't begin to extricate himself from the sense that everything's virtual and nothing matters, that the conditions of late capitalism have allowed him to slip—the novel suggests this literally—the confines of time into a realm where the present disappears and all there is is the future. But he can't begin to extricate himself until an assassin, in a novel already full of them, comes after him.

If you think this will be one of those novels where a man will begin to understand the full scope of his humanity when he is closest to death, then you haven't been reading your DeLillo. The final scene of this book, drawn out to painstakingly preposterous length, brings Packer together with his killer in a scenario whose ending the reader has been apprised of already, but which plays out in a mind-jarringly eerie way. Turns out that all the premonitions Packer has had all day of leaping forward into the future revisit him in his last hour, and what comes from it is one of the most frightening and uncanny death scenes I've read in many years. This is the new death, DeLillo seems to be telling us, death that is mediated till the end, televised, specular, ourselves watching ourselves, our minds divorced from the bodies that are doing the dying, the final joke on a culture that has been using technology and money to escape death all along.

Cosmopolis by Don DeLillo; Scribner. Hardcover, 209 pages, $25.

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