Bonfire of the Verities


By Don DeLillo, Scribner, 224 pages, $25.00

Either Don DeLillo has written his worst book or he's done something so sneaky I can't see it yet. Cosmopolis' tale of a new-economy billionaire who reduces the world's currency markets to rubble while crossing Manhattan to get a haircut relies on a premise no weaker than those found in some of DeLillo's 13 other novels. His triumphs have often had a seat-of-the-pants quality. This book, however, doesn't quite scrape through.

Wittingly or unwittingly, DeLillo has written a novel of the 1980s. Published in 2003, Cosmopolis opens with a warning that the story takes place "IN THE YEAR 2000: A Day in April." Tear this marker out, though, and you're left with a repetition of the major motifs of '80s popular culture and novels, without any assimilation of the truths of the recent fin de siècle: what was new about the new economy, how New York differed in 2000 from its earlier incarnations and what globalization has wrought.

New York City hasn't looked this bad in fiction since Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987), back when Tompkins Square Park was a homeless tent city and not a hipsters' village green. Prosperous, optimistic, pre- September 11 New York is nowhere to be found in DeLillo's novel. Eric Packer, Cosmopolis' 28-year-old capitalist, is Gordon Gekko redux, updated from Oliver Stone's Wall Street (1987) with remote Internet access on his watch. The novel's aesthetic comes straight from the '80s, too: flat towers, stark art and minimalist furniture.

It's an any-city that DeLillo portrays, or a no-city. All the signs point to a Ulysses in miniature: One man travels in one representative city in one day. But the metropolis seems small, and Eric creeps only a short distance. His destination is the old-fashioned barbershop on the block where his father grew up -- a fortress of authenticity. He makes conjugal forays from the safety of his armored limousine, and has sex with everyone from his female security guard (whom he asks to shock him with a stun gun) to his wife. The city drops out of view completely, except for what comes from Hollywood. The book's climax occurs in a boarded-up Hell's Kitchen tenement of the sort rehabbed during the Giuliani years and turned into luxury duplexes.

DeLillo adds drama with the inevitable 1980s sociopathic turn. Eric will start killing people. Isn't that what you do when you're rich? Bret Easton Ellis mined this vein in American Psycho (1991), a book that's already dated enough to have become '80s camp in its movie adaptation. Meanwhile, as Eric's trigger finger gets itchy, other nutcases begin murdering financial wizards all over the world. Arthur Rapp, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, gets it from an assassin in North Korea. "He was killed live on the Money Channel," DeLillo writes. You can feel the strength of his cool language even in the midst of cliché:

Eric wanted to see it again. Show it again. They did this, of course, and he knew they would do it repeatedly into the night, our night, until the sensation drained out of it or everyone in the world had seen it, whichever came first, but he could see it again if he wished, any time, through scan retrieval, technology that already seemed oppressively sluggish, or he could recover a slow-motion shot of the willowy woman and her hand mike being sucked into the terror and he could sit here for hours wanting to fuck her then and there in the bloodwhirl of knife and random limbs and slashed carotids, amid the staccato cries of the flailing assassin, cell phone clipped to his belt, and the gaseous bloated moans of the dying Arthur Rapp.

DeLillo's last novel, 2001's the Body Artist, hinted that the author was recharging his batteries. The changes seemed fruitful, a new departure. That book was a novella billed as a novel, something Henry James could have written if he'd lived a century later. It was a ghost story spun from a single conceit: that a husband who'd committed suicide could have his last conversations repeated verbatim by an autistic visitor, who'd been hiding in the man's house, to the grieving wife who wanted to hear them. It was better than it sounds -- just as, say, The Turn of the Screw is better than its synopsis.

The wife, the novella's protagonist, also happened to be a performance artist who modified her speech and gestures in order to become other people. This was a book about art and embodiment, and about what it feels like to be one human in a small world of a few others. A reduction of means produced richer effects than DeLillo had achieved before. Purely interior and intimate, the beauty of the book came via its exact descriptions of eating, moving, breathing and thinking.

Cosmopolis is also a novella, but one that has overgrown its boundaries. At more than 200 pages, it could have been 100. DeLillo is still interested in the capacities of single minds to discern order. This had always been a topic in his earlier fiction, and the reason that he was lumped with the "conspiracy" or "systems" novelists of the American postwar era. The Eric character has a monomaniacal take on it: "When he died he would not end. The world would end." The intimate psychological turn of The Body Artist is in evidence here. But if Eric is the single artificer of the world, he relies too much on his intimacy with technological extensions of his consciousness. He finds in computer analysis, as of financial markets, the essence of life, "the zero-oneness of the world, the digital imperative that defined every breath of the planet's living billions ... . Our bodies and oceans were here, knowable and whole."

DeLillo's strength in the past came from his ability to show the limitations of people trying to hold on to the patterns they craved. He stood characters on the pivot between sense and senselessness. There is a moment in White Noise (1985) when Jack Gladney, exposed to vapors from a toxic cloud, has his chances of survival calculated by an infallible computer. It concludes he's already dead. That moment captured what it feels like to live enmeshed in numbers, patterns, algorithms -- and still be able to look down at your two hands and see nothing changed. DeLillo wanted to know what it was like to be a statistical person, or a historical personage (as in Libra or Underworld), and still a living person.

Cosmopolis gets caught in high technology and stumbles. It gives up a human dimension. DeLillo allows his protagonist to make declarations such as "[i]t was almost metaphysics" -- about his wristwatch's "electron camera" -- without cracking a smile. Dick Tracy had a neat watch, too, but that's not the same thing as the foundation of philosophy. And this, disappointingly, becomes the basis of a renewed "consciousness" plot. The Body Artist looked at personal and timeless paradoxes of inner life, retreating from the social themes for which DeLillo is celebrated -- a temporary retrenchment that Cosmopolis could have made good on. But the new book suggests that the media of surveillance and replication, the technologies of computing and the scale changes of global finance do something weird to experience. Eric watches himself on a camera and begins to see events that haven't yet occurred. Instead of the intimate, we get the extrasensory. "A consciousness such as yours," someone tells Eric, "hypermaniacal, may have contact points beyond the general perception."

One is reluctant to call Eric a consciousness, though. His is a deeply inconsistent but wholly loathsome character. And as if sensing that this line of quasi-philosophical explanation is going nowhere, the novel lapses from unexplained events into that oldest of narrative tricks, the theology for which the novel was made -- predestination -- as first we, then Eric, begin to foresee his death.

The texture of the novel is its most interesting feature. Characters appear and disappear. Eric's route isn't mapped and the chronology isn't altered. Only one aspect of space-time is affected: The narration starts to take apart our experience of interior, of private spaces. Eric's apartment unfolds, revealing a fantastic existence. We discover its expansion, as details grow like crabgrass: A rotating room erupts here, a shark tank there, and the apartment itself has "forty-eight rooms." Eric's limousine perfects this strangeness. Visitors stand up and leave it as if it were a bedroom. The floor is made of marble. The space contracts and widens.

There may be an argument to be made that the narration incarnates in its formal qualities the slippery nature of global finance-capital. Certainly the tone differs from the bourgeois modernist novellas of a dream space or dream logic, of which Arthur Schnitzler's Traumnovelle (the 1926 inspiration for Stanley Kubrick's 1999 Eyes Wide Shut) is archetypal. The narration here has a disjointed rather than a dreamy quality. It undergoes tiny fluctuations, which the reader registers without emotion. Capital may feel like something -- or it may not. But does it simply feel unmotivated, like this?

As for the politics of the novel, don't even bother. You can't doubt that DeLillo's heart is in the right place. In the mouth of Eric's "chief of theory," however, a semi-academic named Vija Kinski, the book repeats watery versions of the stupidest analyses of the present, which are so unmindful of real conditions as to be neither of the left nor the right.

Fans of White Noise will remember that the theory specialist in that book was given the cleverest lines. This trick is a disaster the second time around. Anarchist protesters attack Times Square, and also Eric's limo, with the theorist and the capitalist seated inside:

There were people approaching the car. Who were they? They were protesters, anarchists, whoever they were, a form of street theater, or adepts of sheer rampage ... . It was a protest all right and they were smashing the windows of chain stores and loosing battalions of rats in restaurants and hotel lobbies.

Then the theorist gets to pronounce on them:

'You know what capitalism produces. According to Marx and Engels.'

'Its own grave-diggers,' [Eric] said.

'But these are not the grave-diggers. This is the free market itself. These people are a fantasy generated by the market. They don't exist outside the market. There is nowhere they can go to be on the outside. There is no outside.'

What follows is the most lifeless riot scene I have read. These are magic anarchists. They can do anything. Television used to be a subject for DeLillo's critical imagination. The extended scene in Mao II of the funeral of the Ayatollah Khomeini, seen on a TV set in New York, was unforgettable. Here DeLillo seems to have been captured by the ephemeral hysterical and already forgotten figures on his set. One of the great portraitists of the postmodern, DeLillo ends up accidentally illustrating the power of our era to turn writers into mere viewers.

When, in 50 years, the Library of America issues a volume titled Underworld and Later Novels, this contribution will exist for antiquarian interest. But it does nothing to diminish the sense that DeLillo still holds the stature of deserving to be read in 50 years. A bad book makes you dislike most novelists. This one, despite its faults, made me like DeLillo more. He attempted to think the present through, which is all we can ask of a writer. Sometimes even a master is caught in a back eddy of his own titanic project. May the next few years throw him a life preserver.

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