It is the fortune, or some might say the misfortune, of American novelists that they still have one of the prime subjects of narrative art, that is, the founding of a nation, the forging of a people. In relative terms, America is a young country, where the melting pot is still vigorously bubbling, especially in the great cities. Travelers from tired old Europe arriving for the first time in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, are struck immediately by the sense of multifarious life seething all around. Reality moves faster here, hurtling along these broad, seemingly endless avenues. The nervous foreigner stands on a street corner wondering if he should dare the sprint from his side to the green man on the other, under the fuming glare of that massed herd of cars, taxis, and stretch limousines longing to jump the corralling red light and come charging down on him like maddened buffalo.
In these days the pull of this quotidian reality upon the American writer is stronger than ever. Ivory towers are scarce in this land of the triumphantly demotic, but even the most secure of these rare eminences shook to the collapse of the World Trade Center, and now their occupants taste between their teeth the dust of Araby's deserts. As a writer Don DeLillo has always had an acute palate for the dark savors of his time, yet in his work he strikes too the faintly self-mocking attitude of the dandy, the dilettante. From the start his style was marked by what one might call a muted panache. In novels of the middle period of his career so far, such as The Names and the balefully funny White Noise, he has reveled in a sort of beady gorgeousness in his pursuit of the arcana of the capitalist state and his portrayal of the uncommon manˇin DeLillo's world everyone is strangeˇcaught fast in its toils. Consider the deceptive, beautifully modulated, and poetically dense first paragraph of his new novel, Cosmopolis:
Sleep failed him more often now, not once or twice a week but four times, five. What did he do when this happened? He did not take long walks into the scrolling dawn. There was no friend he loved enough to harrow with a call. What was there to say? It was a matter of silences, not words.
Cosmopolis is not as short as its predecessor, The Body Artist, but it's a sprat compared with the leviathan that was Underworld. The new work announces its moment directly after the title page: "IN THE YEAR 2000ˇA Day in April." All the same, every line of this quintessential New York story is marked by an unacknowledged awareness of 9/11. True, most things nowadays are thus marked, especially in the city of Ground Zero, but DeLillo has always been a connoisseur of chaosˇif the attacks on the Trade Center and the Pentagon had not happened he would surely have had to invent themˇso much so that it would probably seem tastelessly obvious for him to deal with that outrage directly. Hence, one imagines, the pointed dating of this new narrative of catastrophic urban dysfunction.
"You live in a tower that soars to heaven and goes unpunished by God," one of his advisers tells Eric Packer, twenty-eight-year-old self-made stocks billionaire and the novel's doomed but curiously inert protagonist. As the verb form indicates, it is the tower, and not Packer, that has unaccountably evaded divine retribution. As always with DeLillo, the urban landscape is as much a character as any of the people in the novel, like them a living organism, shivering with pent-up energy and violent desires, and as deserving as they are of praise or punishment.
The adviser, Vija Kinski, Packer's "chief of theory" and genius ideas woman, finds funny the thought of Packer and his inviolate $104 million penthouse, and, not for the first time in the course of this dystopian work, the reader wonders if perhaps it is to be read as a comedy before anything else. Certainly the things that happen, horrendous as they areˇat one point a man burns himself to death on the sidewalk, Vietnamese-monk style, in the midst of an anticapitalist protestˇhint at a muffled, hectic hilarity. Like the drifting cloud of toxic chemicals in White Noise, the self-immolation and the riot happening around it occur in an atmosphere suggestive of Bakhtinian carnival.
Packer is traveling across town in his custom-built white stretch limo, on his way, we are told, to get a haircut. The car is equipped with every conceivable, and many inconceivable, devices for the comfort and care of its owner; in one of the book's small, inspired jokes, the vehicle's interior has been "prousted," that is, cork-lined. As the limo moves at an "inchworm creep" through the daylong gridlockˇthe president's motorcade is in town, and there is a bomb explosion, a water-main break, and lavish anarchist violence, not to mention a "credible threat" to Packer's lifeˇhe is visited in the backseat by several of his advisers and carers, who simply step off the street and into the gridlocked car. As well as Vija Kinski, there are his currency analyst, Michael Chin; his chief of finance, Jane Melman, whom, incidentally, he causes to have an orgasm merely by talking dirty; and his doctor. Packer has been speculating massively in the yen and stands to lose his entire fortune if it does not stop rising. Melman tells him he should ease off, retrench, but he is as far gone as any Old World gambler betting everything on one last throw as dawn comes up over the C˘te d'Azur, and with the same inevitable result.
The world of Cosmopolis cannot keep pace with the speed at which it is wearing out. Even the newest things are already obsolete, as Vija Kinski knows:
"Computers will die. They're dying in their present form. They're just about dead as distinct units. A box, a screen, a keyboard. They're melting into the texture of everyday life. This is true or not?"
"Even the word computer."
"Even the word computer sounds backward and dumb."
There is, of course, a danger in this kind of thing, the danger of being overly wised up, of being so cool that frost begins to sift across the pages. It is the besetting peril for many New York fiction writersˇCosmopolis is dedicated to Paul Austerˇand in this book DeLillo frequently succumbs to it. For example, Packer's numerous chance meetings with his wife, who is so new that on each occasion he hardly recognizes her, form a leitmotif that is at best whimsical, at worst so irritating it will set the reader's teeth to grinding. A large part of the very great strength of DeLillo's work is the fact that beneath the martini chill of the writing's surface there is the lather and fizz of a schooner of old-style New York beer. Toward the end of the book Packer has a wonderful set-piece encounter with an old man, Anthony, who was his barber when he was a boy, and his father's barber before that, and who gives him at least half the haircut he has spent the day looking for, as well as something to eat. Anthony has a lovely line in dialogue:
Anthony stood in the doorway, a small white carton in each hand.
"So you married that woman."
"That her family's got like money unbeknownst. I never thought you'd get married so young. But what do I know? I have chickpeas mashed up and I have eggplant stuffed with rice and nuts."
The end of the book is, as one would expect, apocalyptic. Packer, having casually lost his money and as casually killed a man, comes at dead of night upon an outdoor film set on which hundreds of naked extras are lying in the street under the arc lamps, pretending to be corpses. Packer, who by now has come to see himself as one of the walking dead, takes off his clothes and joins them. Beside him, her face pressed into the asphalt, isˇyou guessed itˇhis wife, to whom, after the cameras have stopped rolling, he makes highly gratifying love, for the first time in their marriage, as it happens. Then she wanders off into the night, and he goes to meet his nemesis. Just another ordinary urban disaster.
In the stressed-beyond-stress figure of Eric Packer, DeLillo has created a figure horribly representative of our damaged times. Cosmopolis may not be the best book that he has written, or is capable of writing, but in these grim days it is probably the best that we can expect.
John Banville's novel Shroud was published this spring by Knopf.