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April 18, 2003

A long drive for someone with nothing to think about

Don DeLillo is known as one of our greatest living novelists, but to call most of his works "novels" is to stretch the intention of the genre: they're ideas with a plot and a cast. In his weird world of armchair semioticians, his creations pronounce rather than converse, their dialogue reading like a stylized reworking of the author's inner monologue. Some of his works have more personality than others, and a few have legitimate characterization, but DeLilllo tends to live and die on the strength of his ideas. Thus, any reader of his works can expect some ratio of lively, cutting observations on the state of the world to unfinished thoughts that end in vapor trails of abstraction. In his most brilliant moments, such as Libra and parts of Underworld, these deliberations revolve around virtually lifelike characters that give his ideas human resonance. Cosmopolis, unfortunately, weds flat ideas to flatter characters in a collision of DeLillo's worst habits.

For a writer whose work is naturally chilly and distant, a novel that consists of an investment banker's drive through New York in a cork-lined, armored limo portends disaster. The reader follows Eric Packer, a 28-year-old financial wunderkind on a trip from his 48-room apartment to his death in an anonymous building in Hell's Kitchen. It's a busy day for Eric, who cheats on his wife Elise with three different women (sadly, it's not an orgy; that would at least save us some time), gets a haircut, kills his bodyguard, reads poetry with Elise in a bookstore before squandering her money on the global markets, gets stuck in a globalization protest, watches a rapper's funeral procession, is stalked by a psychotic ex-employee, and loses all his money. Cosmopolis is 209 small pages, barely novel-length, and not nearly as exciting as it sounds.

Anyone who wanted Bonfire of the Vanities cut down to a fifth of its length might enjoy Cosmopolis. Anyone else, however, will find that the book suffers badly in its attempt to capture New York with a length that wouldn't do a single apartment building justice. DeLillo has a gift for satire (White Noise), philosophical abstraction (Mao II), epic (Underworld), miniature (The Body Artist), and even character-driven portraiture (Nick Shay in Underworld, Lee Harvey Oswald in Libra). Within the claustrophobic confines of an extended novella, Cosmopolis wants to be a little bit of all of this.

To pack New York City into this form would take an inhuman feat of compression-which may explain Packer's obsession with short poetry and the consistent references to it-and the novel fails in this regard. Packer spends half the book screwing other women, then tells his wife that "I married you for your money in a way, the history of it, piling up over generations, through world wars. This is not something I need but the history is nice." A moment later he claims he's going to change. This is on page 121. Fifty-seven Elise-free pages later, he realizes he loves her. This kind of instant character evolution could be considered satire if it weren't designed, in part, to make us sympathize with Packer when he faces his own mortality at gunpoint.

By the end, DeLillo is writing things like "he'd come to know himself, untranslatably, through his pain." To the extent that readers know him, however, we want this adulterous, violent captain of high finance to suffer not for his own purification but out of sheer malice. Were DeLillo to arouse sympathy in us at the end of Cosmopolis, it would be a noble feat, but there's simply not enough characterization in the book to swing this. The shift from broad yet cryptic satire to broad yet cryptic mortality play is simply too jarring. Characters are allowed to change drastically in books, but to do so they have to be characters first. DeLillo tries to evolve Packer from a straw man to a character and then have that character evolve into a new one. Were Cosmopolis devoted to this project alone, it might be an interesting or even worthy experiment.

Instead, he kills time with musings while waiting for Packer's epiphany. Unusually for DeLillo, who does prescience like David Foster Wallace does word count, these meditations are dated and flaccid. Describing Packer, he writes: "He liked to track answers to hard questions. This was his method, to attain mastery over ideas and people. But there was something about the idea of asymmetry. It was intriguing in the world outside the body, a counterforce to balance and calm, the riddling little twist, subatomic, that made creation happen." Chaos theory is, well, kind of early '90s; any self-respecting real-world Eric Packer would be laughed off the pages of Wired for such a comment.

At one point, DeLillo actually shows us Eric Packer's heart: "Ingram did an echocardiogram.... The image was only a foot away but the heart assumed another context, one of distance and immensity, beating in the blood plum raptures of a galaxy in formation." Cosmpolis aspires to such raptures, but like Packer, it does so too late; we're left with nothing more vivid than an image of his essence projected in a grainy haze.