The New Death

In Cosmopolis, Don DeLillo operates on a level of dread and alienation so deep and unrelenting it's a challenge to one's own seriousness. Dispensing almost altogether with the metaphysical lyricism and hieratic gleanings that grace novels such as The Names, White Noise, Underworld or The Body Artist, Cosmopolis is a kind of return to the punk corrosion of his '70s novels, books such as Great Jones Street, Running Dog or Players, where gaunt men hunch in small rooms, paranoia runs in the prose like bad blood, and the Void is daily bread.

When DeLillo ended Underworld, his pained meditation on the maelstrom of the American century, with a one-word prayer—”Peace”—then two years later followed up with the palpable spiritual yearnings of The Body Artist, I thought he had turned some kind of corner. He was in his 60s now, had been wrestling for so long with the quicksilver shifts of American reality—its headlong hurl into the new-world technofuture; its cathecting of its spiritual impulses onto the worlds of getting, spending and mass media; its stupefying imagination for violence—that his turn toward a more open and generous spiritual reflection seemed earned, a working free from the dark night of the soul that seems the final reward to the lucky few American writers who survive the via negativa (I'm thinking Eliot, Merwin, Bellow, perhaps Pynchon).

But Cosmopolis is a plunge right back into a darkness so fierce and plagued that it's as if DeLillo—who had begun the novel long before Sept. 11—had picked up on those pre-disaster terrorist cell-phone murmurings that the FBI had apparently missed and re-seeded his imagination with their menace and horror.

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Cosmopolis takes place in New York on a single day in April 2000, largely on a single street, 47th Street, as a 28-year-old billionaire asset manager named Eric Packer slices across Manhattan in his limousine. Packer has a 48-room apartment he bought for $104 million; a Russian strategic nuclear bomber (no longer flyable) he bought for $31 million just for kicks; a penchant for abstract art, spare poetry, big meals (“he wanted to eat all the time, talk to people's faces, live in meat space”) and highly unusual sex with just about every woman with whom he comes into contact, one of them his wife of 22 days, Elise, who keeps showing up along 47th street in increasingly surreal contexts. (The unusual sex? Try a tryst with a female bodyguard that involves her shooting him with a stun gun. Try Packer talking another woman to orgasm—not touching her in the least—while his doctor finger-probes his prostate for cancer signs. Try sex with Elise after meeting her in a pile of 300 naked bodies gathered as extras for a film scene, the purpose for which nobody can figure out. None of these scenes is played, particularly, for laughs.)

His personal hungers for food and sex notwithstanding, Packer craves even more a world that's denuded of history—stripped of all physical residue, really. He longs to live by the “digital imperative,” where “data itself was soulful and glowing, a dynamic aspect of the life process,” where life gets morphed into a serenely smooth array of information waiting to be manipulated, profits streaming across the hyperreal, by hypercapitalists like himself. (Remember those impresario-like hand gestures Tom Cruise used in Minority Report to bring up or shove out of the way all those images and information in front of that amazing screen? Packer would have envied that.) Slightly out-of-date technology bugs him (ATMs, for example) as do units of language (like “Automatic Teller Machine”) since “the term was aged and burdened by its own historical memory . . . unable to escape the inference of fuddled human personnel and jerky moving parts.” Fie on all that human befuddlement. Fie on words like “fie.” Give Packer the gleaming virtual future wrapped in his stretch limo, where death and destruction feel as thin as our new computer screens.

The limousine is elaborately equipped not just with surveillance machines meant to ease Packer's (totally justified, it turns out) paranoia of being pursued by weirdos, but also with supertech, voice-activated gadgetry that keeps Packer abreast of world events and second-by-second financial markets data. (The “cosmopolis” of the title may refer to New York as the world's most fecund cultural and economic center, but also to the interior of that limousine, where the most advanced technologies bring the world, in simulacral form, to a single consciousness.) It's on these TV and computer screens that Packer learns of the assassination of a Russian media mogul with whom he used to be friends (“He was glad to see the man dead in the mud”). It is on these screens that he watches live—and then replayed over and over on the Money Channel—the assassination of a high official of the IMF in North Korea (“Eric wanted them to show it again. Show it again.”). It is to these screens that Packer repairs when an anti-corporate riot erupts on New York's streets, trapping his limousine next to a man who immolates himself to death in protest against a global world order that creates men like Eric Packer. (“How will we know when the global era officially ends?” one of Packer's many advisers asks him. “When stretch limousines begin to disappear from the streets of Manhattan.”) It's on these screens where he learns that the yen continues to rise, though throughout the day, in a growing ecstasy of self-destruction, he will bet millions, and then perhaps billions, on it falling.

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.”

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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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