Monday, May 10, 2004

Downward Spiral

Cosmopolis, by Don DeLillo, Read by Will Patton, Audioworks/Simon & Schuster, 2003

Will Patton, the actor who narrates Don DeLillo's latest novel, Cosmopolis, is in love with his own voice. He reads in a swoony and breathy tone as though he had his arm propped up in a corner of a quiet wine bar and was deep in the midst of seducing himself. This is damned unnerving and distracting. I forced myself to listen to the book, to get past Patton's ode to himself, and wondered how the man had been tapped for the work. Actors often get narrating gigs solely on the basis that their familiar voices will make listening even more enjoyable for listeners. This is not the case here as Patton is neither household name familiar nor an evocative reader.

The novel's pre-futuristic obsession with cutting-edge technology has a superficial sheen that calls out for a more impersonal voice, a voice as crisp and as flat as a computer generated voice mail announcement. Patton manages to imbue the many ethnicities of the many characters with subtle enough sonorousness, but it’s his damned whispering and canoodling that annoys so. His breathiness negates the early impressions DeLillo tries to convey of Eric Packer, the 28 year old billionaire asset manager, as a man so enthralled by technology that he at times views himself as only a biochemical function soon to be embedded on a silicon chip in immortality.

The technology that Eric has used to insulate himself from the world and others around him is described almost fetishistically, a loving embrace of the forward thrust of human progression. There are repeated questions about why certain old and lasting technologies, like telephones and walkie-talkies, remain and are still referred to by such anachronistic terminology — and the constancy of this repetition is reminiscent of the chorus of product names in DeLillo's White Noise. The questioning of these holdovers is part of Eric’s constant press onwards.

DeLillo's novel is the kind of social commentary tour-de-force he more or less regularly puts out every one or two years. He inhabits the category of writers such as Dostoyevsky who create entire worlds for their characters, worlds strikingly similar to ours save for a total saturation in metaphor. Every nuance and aspect of these worlds are tweaked for their maximum effect while still remaining normal, commonplace. There is a specter of monomania inhabiting them.

In Cosmopolis, we follow our less than admirable protagonist as he is driven in his white stretch limo across town to get a haircut. As we travel with him, we also follow his scheme to borrow vast quantities of yen to purchase low priced stocks, a plan disparaged by all his advisors. A visit to the city by the President of the United States, a Sufi rapper's ecstatic funeral, a riot by anti-capitalist forces inspired by the line of poetry, “a rat became the unit of currency,” and a sewer main backup reduces citywide traffic to a crawl, turning the quest for a haircut into a daylong ride. The trip is not only literal, but provides DeLillo with the base from which to comment on the ephemera of modern living, the slow creep of time mirrored in the traffic crawl, while the hyper-reality of events shown on Eric's closed circuit monitor and satellite television embodies the geometric potential growth of human invention. On three separate occasions, Eric witnesses himself execute actions on his video screen prior to actually performing them.

The action of the novel is broken up with first person readings from the diary of Benno Levin, a former employee turned assassin who hunts Eric, and when the book shifts to this diary, Patton's reading voice drops a notch. And at this stage he is simply into post-coital nuzzling, the self-seduction a stunning success.

It is a testament to how good DeLillo's writing is that you can get past Patton's blatant self-love and enjoy the actual content of the book. DeLillo has this beautifully precise intellectual coldness which makes the most improbably arranged scenes plausible, poetic. Whether Eric is hitting on his company's chief of finance in his limo while having his prostate examined or having a philosophical discussion with his assassin at the novel's end, each bizarre pairing is rendered so matter-of-factly, yet so poignantly, that they take on a potent reality. It is, in fact, DeLillo's cold poetry that renders the moments all that more powerful.

Which is not to say that there isn't a great human warmth in DeLillo's books, only that it is hiding down below the surface; it is masked and furtive. Eric's love for his wife, the poet heiress Elise Shifrin, despite his nearly routine infidelities in the day's course, is aching and tender, playful yet a betrayal far beyond the flesh. (At one point, as his finances spiral out of control, he electronically loots her bank account and dumps her money into his failing venture leveraged against the yen. It is his way of preventing her from saving him in his doomed scheme.) His choice of haircut venue, the old neighborhood barbershop across the street from where he grew up, is an unconscious retreat to the past prior to facing down the death coming for him.

Eric is made aware of a certain free-floating threat to himself, and his chief of security provides him with regular updates on the chatter out there. DeLillo is often described as the genius of paranoid writing. Cosmopolis doesn’t let that side of him hide at all. Death, the threat of death, is sown throughout the book whether it be Eric’s own personal death, the death of his financial proposals, or the death of his marriage.

The book's emotional climax occurs when Eric, late at night, comes across a movie crew filming a scene in which three hundred naked people lie in a street for an event never explained. Hungry for sensation, for immersion in the humanity he has kept at arm’s length for so long, Eric strips down himself and sneaks onto the set and joins them. There he merges his humanity with the variegated grouping.

He wanted to be here among them, all body, the tattooed, the hairy-assed, those who stank. He wanted to set himself in the middle of the intersection among the old with their raised veins and body blotches and next to the dwarf with a bump on his head. He thought there were probably people here with wasting diseases, a few indissuadable, skin flaking away. There were the young and strong; he was one of them. He was one of the morbidly obese, the tanned and fit and middle aged. He thought of the children in the scrupulous beauty of their pretending, so formal and fine-boned. He was one.

In the midst of this film scene, Eric finds his wife one last time (he and she keep on running into each other accidentally throughout the day) and after shooting, they disappear into an alley for their first, last and only lovemaking of their marriage before his death. This moment of ecstasy finally fulfilled allows him at last to get his haircut and go to meet his death.

The book ends with Eric’s death, yet we never do find out what happens in the larger scheme of things. The global instability of Eric’s multibillion-dollar gamble against the yen remains unresolved, a rippling on the world’s water his self-engineered downfall causes. It is one of DeLillo's ploys that haunts you, forces the book to stay with you after the fact: that our actions and our lives have repercussions we will never come to fully grasp, that will live on after us. In this fashion, the book then could be read as a cautionary tale for an event that has already transpired. We watched it happen on the screen; it is happening now.


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