Wealth, death and style

by

Eric Michael Packer, 27-year-old self-made billionaire, buyer and seller of money, decides one morning after another sleepless night in his 48-room apartment (which includes a screening room, a gym and a shark tank) that he wants to get a haircut. It’s something to do; it gives his day a point. Packer needs this small goal because he’s starting to disappear. The sleeplessness is part of it, the sign of a weakening consciousness, not robust enough to tire. He’s also succumbing to the side effects of his talent, which is the ability to live in the near future, to stay ahead of the competition.

Packer is surrounded by the latest technological marvels and they arrive at such a pace that they’re only briefly innovative before becoming forever obsolete. He lives in a cocoon of abstraction, feeding on data which is “soulful and glowing, a dynamic aspect of the life process.” The slow crawl of ordinary life annoys him. Looking out from his stretch limo on the way to his haircut:

 

He was thinking about automated teller machines. The term was aged and burdened by its own historical memory. It worked at cross-purposes, unable to escape the inference of fuddled human personnel and jerky moving parts. The term was part of the process that the device was meant to replace. It was anti-futuristic, so cumbrous and mechanical that even the acronym seemed dated.

 

Packer is the agent of a post-new world and the cost is a dwindling present. Seeing beyond the new, he’s drawn to the incomprehensible, the final stimulant. He decorates his apartment accordingly:

 

He liked paintings his guests did not know how to look at. The white paintings were unknowable to many, knife-applied slabs of mucoid color. The work was all the more dangerous for not being new. There’s no more danger in the new.

 

Immersed in the implied reality of time and money, he admires the bluntly concrete, like his apartment building which has “the kind of banality which reveals itself over time as being truly brutal” and his limo, “Because it was oversized ... aggressively and contemptuously so, metastasizingly so, a tremendous mutant thing that stood astride every argument against it.”

I’ve been quoting liberally because, as is often though not always the case with DeLillo, style is the thing. Style is what saves Cosmopolis, a snippet of a book, from being tedious and it’s what makes it worth rereading. It’s barely a novel, more like a poetic essay, crammed with ideas and thinly drawn characters, and with a plot that, even though it involves failure and murder, is flaccid and unengaging. The book has zero narrative drive and one continues to read for the next witty observation, the surprising word, the old concept freshly rethought.

The dialogue is, in its way, as stylized as the descriptive bits, with the characters either speaking like well-rehearsed lecturers or in a pared-down manner that seems new but borrowed. And so we get wary, masculine incoherence, as in this Mamet-like dialogue:

 

“Time for you to do what.”

“Yes. All right.”

“You don’t know this? We both know this.”

“There’s work to be done at the office. Yes.”

 

And void-filling badinage, as in Pinter:

 

“I never seen such ratty hair on a human.”

“I woke up this morning and knew it was time.”

“You knew where to come.”

“I said to myself. I want a haircut.”

 

Although Packer, as his would-be assassin says, “wants to be one civilization ahead of this one,” his emotional reflexes, like the book’s dialogue, seem to be leaking air: “He didn’t know how he felt about this” and “He decided to admire this” are two typically repeated reactions to things, people, feelings. The book covers one day and is ostensibly a trip to the barbershop, but it also includes three sexual encounters (two rather dour, one erotically nonphysical), a demonstration against globalism by a group of anarchists dressed in rat suits and the citywide funeral of a famous rapper. And yet it resists being panoramic by staying crouched in the head of its remote and always self-conscious protagonist. Even in the big climax, when he goes to confront the man who would kill him, he’s assessing the texture of the situation.

Is this a complicated joke or a stern warning? Or both? Or a little tour de force between weightier novels? I don’t know, but it seems to me that certain sentences are their own justification. In an abandoned house, going to meet death, Packer thinks, “He liked ... the sound of wind knocking through the rooms and halls. He liked the rats he saw moving toward the food nearby. The rats were fine and right, thematically sound.”

Richard C. Walls writes about film and music for Metro Times. E-mail him at letters@metrotimes.com.

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