By John Menick
Published on THE THING (http://bbs.thing.net)
Except for its most dutiful votaries, the collapse of the ‘90s cyber-economy surprised few, but what is unexpected is how attractive the nostalgia has become for that minor utopian moment. In fuzzy hindsight, the era before September 11th, Bush II, climbing unemployment and evaporated retirement accounts, is almost beatific. The nostalgia is easy, attractive, and like all nostalgia, mostly false. The ‘90s boom delivered on almost none of its promises, and many Americans were left worse off after the decade came to its inauspicious close than they were at its optimistic opening. The majority of the political and economic problems the Bush administration is currently augmenting can be traced to long before the spectacular deflation of the then new, now old, economy. But the longing for the days of adolescent instant billionaires and sleek start-ups persists, and is as worthy of study as any other mass hallucination.
Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis is among the first novels to do this, and the results are, at best, mixed. The novel is a picaresque of sorts, chronicling a single, circuitous day in the claustrophobic world of Eric Packer, an impossibly wealthy asset manager. It is April 2000, and the twenty-something Eric is making a financially suicidal bet against the Yen. Meanwhile, he rushes - crawls, really - across Manhattan in his high-tech limo to get a haircut. He probably doesn’t need the haircut, but he wants it anyway. Along the way, he sets himself up to become a casualty of the fin de siècle’s rapid burn, and like most of the burnouts from that era, his hurried odyssey leaves little behind.
Eric begins his apocalyptic April jaunt in his massive apartment of forty-eight rooms, complete with shark tank, and two elevators continuously pumping in his favorite musical figures: Erik Satie and a Sufi rap star named Brutha Fez. After a sleepless morning, he moves to his white limo, where he will spend most of his day. The limo, like the apartment, is absurdly overblown: it is cork-lined, bulletproof, toilet-equipped, outfitted with a dozen screens showing financial data and news, all the while streaming video of its interior daily onto the web, so that the world, and Eric Packer, can watch Eric Packer do what he does.
Which, in the end, is not all that much. Eric has chosen the worst possible day to get his haircut - New York seems to be having one of the most hectic days in its history, and he spends most of it moving glacially through traffic. The President is in town, and so are anarchists bent on destroying Times Square, thousand of mourners attending a spectacular funeral of a pop star, and a killer intent on putting a bullet in our protagonist’s head. So, Eric is in his car, “working” - an activity that consists of buying Yen over the phone in mind-boggling sums - while holding court with market gurus, security specialists, bodyguards, and business analysts. Every so often, Eric will pop out of his hyper-mediated womb for a quick bite, to browse poetry books, screw, or just to take a look around. It’s dangerous to do this of course: he is followed everywhere by security guards, who magically drift in and out of focus, as do all of the characters in book, as does Eric.
Eric's philosophy, if his mental activity warrants the term, is decidedly futurist. For Eric, everything is finished. Freud is finished. Einstein is finished. Computers are finished. So are phones, automatic windows, PDAs, airports, offices, and ATMs. So, it seems, are other people. However, Eric is never finished with sex, and a large chunk of the book is devoted to his prodigious sexual appetite. When he is not having a quickie with his disconnected ultra-wealthy wife, he is getting it on with an endless parade of mistresses of varying backgrounds. While not getting laid, he is thinking about getting laid, hitting on any female in view, babbling on about the powers of sex, philosophizing about its hidden mysteries and epoch-making meaning. Here is the pontificate of the penis talking to his chief of finance, Jane Melman, after finding her jogging down Park Avenue with a water bottle on her day off:
“Sex finds us out. Sex sees through us. That’s what is so shattering. It strips us of appearances. I see a near naked woman in her exhaustion and need, stroking a plastic bottle pressed between her thighs. Am I honor-bound to think of her as an executive and mother? She sees a man in a posture of rank humiliation. Is that who I think he is, pants around his ankles and butt flung back? What are the large questions he asks himself from this position in the world? Large questions maybe.”
Maybe, but probably not. A lot of questions and answers, of varying sizes, come out of Eric’s mouth, not just about sex, but on a whole range of subjects, and they are often matched in preposterousness by the declarations of everyone around him. Eric’s pronouncements cause more than his own ruin: they also send the entirety of Cosmopolis into a downward spiral.
Before dealing with Eric and his problems, though, a note on DeLillo’s style. The author’s writing, frequently brilliant, has also been plagued by dialogue, or “he said, she said” problems, and over the years DeLillo has done little to change what is probably his most noticeable flaw. Almost every reviewer of DeLillo remarks on how all his characters sound alike, and how their spoken statements exist as little more than an extension of the rest of the DeLillo’s non-spoken text with quotation marks added. The manner of his characters’ conversation is one better suited to philosophical dialogue than to everyday speech. This type of dialogue tends toward the larger than life, and when discussing such subjects as the Cold War, as in Underworld, or JKF’s assassination, as in Libra, this tone is mostly fitting, if occasionally portentous. Characters discourse on the scope and depth of their lives, on the horrors of mass death, nuclear war, or the sublimity of seismic historical changes, and DeLillo’s grim, often darkly funny prose usually hits the appropriate register.
But the problem of DeLillo’s dialogue runs deeply through Cosmopolis, and it balloons into more than a flawed literary technique. Unfortunately, the reader is trapped with the neurotic, self-possessed and destructive child king of international finance, and has to go about the thankless task of reading his hyper-inflated thoughts about his hyper-inflated time. It is material that has been well tested since the arrogant ‘80s by a host of novelists, including DeLillo himself. With the proper mix of irony and distance, the thoughts of a ravenous capitalist can be made philosophically engrossing, if not attractive. But Eric’s pronouncements, on almost every page, only inspire a sigh or a slap to the forehead. Before long the reader begins muttering: “Can DeLillo really believe this?”
While Eric’s “New York balls” are taking a rest, their owner often cogitates on matters concerning the American agora, or its rapid demise. One moment of reflection occurs while Eric is stuck in traffic in Times Square, where a group of anarchists take over the streets, bombing their way into a building controlling the massive stock tickers, and replacing the stock quotes with their slogan: “A SPECTER IS HAUNTING THE WORLD - THE SPECTER OF CAPITALISM.” (Hear the Derridians and lovers of Empire sigh in admiration.) Our Eric is conveniently meeting with his “theorist” at the moment the text flows across the monitors, and she asks the following:
“You know what capitalism produces. According to Marx and Engels.”
“Its own grave-diggers,” he said.
“But these are not 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.”
She is a capitalist’s theorist (of what exactly is a mystery), and as the quip goes, in the ‘90s on Wall Street, Marx was the economist of choice. Many ex-Marxists now claim that capitalism holds much more revolutionary potential than socialism, and this might be true. So, the statements are cynical. They’re self-serving. They represent not just a willful misreading of Marx; they represent simulation theory at its bawdy best. The point of the interlude may seem clear, though cartoonish, for anyone acquainted with either the Wall Street Journal, or the New York Times’ Op-Ed page. But the problem with Cosmopolis is that this kind of talk constitutes almost the entirety of the novel’s philosophical horizon.
Cosmopolis is an impulsive, fast-moving, overconfident novel about an impulsive, fast-moving, overconfident era. One wishes not for an easy critique of capitalism, but for a character and a historic moment that is worthy of the effort. Eric is no Gatsby, or more precisely, he’s no Tom Buchanan. Even Gordon “greed is good” Gekko, the caricatured corporate raider of Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, would make a better cross-town riding partner. In over two hundred pages, Eric rarely transcends his moment, and his musings amount to little more than a thesis that is as inflated, disconnected with reality, and unappealingly naïve as the era itself.
However, Cosmopolis is not devoid of moments of respite from Eric’s hapless adventures, and even his own groping ruminations do have their moments. Most of the novel’s highlights have to do with one thing: rats, or the notion of an economy with rats as currency. The haunting image is Zbigniew Herbert’s: “a rat became the unit of currency,” and Eric and the Times Square protestors take it as their guiding slogan. The “finished” Freud treated the theme exhaustively in his novelistic Case Studies, but Eric engages in little analysis of his favorite image. This is a relief. Freud’s patient with rat problems was an obsessive neurotic, linking his own guilty relation to his daddy to an overwhelming dread of a vicious rat torture. The story of “The Rat Man” - the super-villain-like name by which the anonymous patient is known - is dissimilar to Eric’s in that Freud’s tale makes for better reading, but there are thematic connections between the two that are of no small importance. The two men’s fixations are expressed through a fanatical relation to money, outrageously excessive in Eric’s case, and insufferably proper in the Rat Man’s. Both men are the products of similar environments: the extremely bunkered life that Eric leads being not unlike a more extreme version of the interiority of Freud’s bourgeois Vienna. Father figures loom large in the libidinal landscapes of each man’s unconscious, and end up helping to cause the obsessive detours essential to their narratives. The thought that other people might be best dealt with by murder also crosses the minds of the men - Eric being of course much more can-do regarding this matter.
But Benno Levin (or “Benno Levin”), Eric’s stalker and disgruntled former employee, is the true psychopathic voice of the novel. His confessions, interrupting the text at two points, are written in the first person, thus circumventing many of Cosmopolis’ dialogue problems. DeLillo’s narrative interludes often offer his best moments: the hostage of Mao II, and the scatological journey into the Soviet Union of Underworld, are among two that come to mind immediately. Like the rat fantasies, these punctuations stand for the historical and psychological unconscious of much DeLillo’s writing, and the author’s language, often sweeping and abstract, finds its fitting objects when grappling with the unspeakable and the non-rational.
With Cosmopolis, DeLillo, one of America’s most incisive and prescient writers, has applied his talents to what is, for him, familiar terrain: the detritus of history, albeit here of an era just three years dead. The approach is, true to form, apocalyptic, but unlike in White Noise and Underworld, it is misapplied to the minor digerati of a lacking era. Cosmopolis may have found its appropriate moment if it had been set one year later, in a year that would decisively end an era, and begin another one, rich with apocalyptic hubris.