"Time is the only narrative that matters," wrote Don DeLillo in The Body Artist, and in his new novel,Cosmopolis, which takes place over the course of a single, almost surreal, day, the author proves his theory. He also shows that time is utterly relative, elastic at one moment and condensed at another, and he illustrates this concept by creating a protagonist for whom time is, literally and figuratively, running out ("Nothing existed around him. There was only the noise in his head, the mind in time.")
Imagine this: Eric Packer, an incredibly wealthy New Yorker, sets off on a limousine odyssey along 47th St., voyaging from his East Side, forty-eight-room penthouse triplex apartment to the barbershop of his childhood years near Tenth Avenue ("He didn't know what he wanted. Then he knew. He wanted to get a haircut.").
Sounds simple enough, but of course this is DeLillo territory, which means that a presumably straightforward limo trip turns into what can only be described as post-apocalyptic novel set in everyday manic Manhattan. As the trip becomes more and more extraordinary, and, eventually, more dangerous, we observe Eric's precipitous and apparently longed-for fall from the sky, a globally influential Icarus plunging almost suicidally into a sea of urban blood and chaos.
DeLillo inches his readers forward through the dense city traffic (the crosstown trek, avec ou sans limo, can sometimes feel this long in real life, so it's not hard to imagine. "You will hit traffic that speaks in quarter inches," Eric's driver says. "Barriers will be set up....Entire streets deleted from the map."). The car is stalled again and again by everything from a presidential motorcade to a funeral procession for a Sufi rap star to a frenzied globalization protest. As the limo creeps along like some kind of asphalt canal barge, Eric moves in and out of it at will, going about his day as if this were the only logical way to live in such a place and at such a time. Inside the car, he holds meetings with employees like his chief of technology and his currency analyst, and submits to his daily complete physical exam by his personal doctor. Outside, he has breakfast with Elise, his wife of twenty-eight days, followed by sex with the woman who acquires his art works (He's only half-joking when he tries to convince her to help him buy the Rothko Chapel in Houston), followed by another accidental meeting with Elise further along 47th Street. They have lunch, then it's back inside the limo again for a meeting with his enigmatic chief of theory, Vija Kinski ("Money has lost its narrative quality the way painting did once upon a time. Money is talking to itself.").
As the globalization protest heats up in tandem with an apparent threat on Eric's life, the novel darkens and intensifies, its atmosphere becoming almost as anarchic as the anarchists on the streets would like it to be.
It is intriguing, and logical, that DeLillo dedicates Cosmopolis to Paul Auster, since the reminds me of Auster's novel In the Country of Last Things, which contains a sentence I committed to memory long ago because it so perfectly summed up my own approach to living in this world (Auster describes a character as having a "pessimism so deep, so devastating, so fully in tune with the facts, that it actually made him cheerful").
Certain lines in Cosmopolis still resonate for me:
"He liked spare poems sited minutely in white space, ranks of alphabetic strokes burnt into paper."
"The street was an offense to the truth of the future."
"He liked paintings that his guests did not know how to look at."
"The noblest thing, a bridge across a river, with the sun beginning to roar behind it."
"What did he want that was not posthumous."
That last line is from a paragraph near the end of the novel, when Eric ponders life after wealth as he sees that gambling his fortune against the value of the Japanese yen will fail. ("Maybe he didnÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½t want that life after all, starting over broke, hailing a cab in a busy intersection filled with jockeying junior executives, arms aloft, bodies smartly spinning to cover every compass point.") How can you resist those junior executives, spinning like dervishes for yellow cabs?
I'll read Cosmopolis again because I'm sure I missed much the first time through. The story line is deceptively straightforward, a thin layer of icy prose barely concealing vertiginous depths of emotion and intelligence. The art, literature, and music references are ubiquitous (everything from Eric Satie's piano music playing in Eric's personal elevator to spectral intimations of mortality out of Dickens's Xmas Carol to Bruegel's silently plunging Icarus (with a mischievous spin, given the global financial havoc Packer is wreaking, on Auden's lines "About suffering they were never wrong...")), but always laid in like seasoning rather than on like heavy sauce. The story transcends all the usual showoffy cultural hyperreferencing (see anything by McSweeney's crowd) to stalk bigger game.
If I have any quibble with the novel, it is that not for a moment did I believe the protagonist was twenty-eight years old. Though the narrative is told in third-person, it is an intimate third, and the world-weariness, cynicism, and fatalism seem much more in tune with its middle-aged author than his character. This is a significant shortcoming, though not so significant as to tarnish my overall positive reaction to the book. I had not read DeLillo before Cosmopolis, but have since read Underworld andThe Body Artist, and I'm ashamed to say that I didn't know what I was missing. DeLillo's narrative voice is confident and often lyrical. As I read him, I kept thinking of the way painters use color - a touch here, a flick there - to make the world come alive on canvas. DeLillo has that touch, that sense of what to say and what to leave out. He writes as if he knew that his readers were intelligent enough to read him. ~ Reviewed by Bob Gray