Thursday, March 24, 2005

Author: Don DeLilo
Publisher: Picador

Cosmopolis is the thirteenth novel by American writer Don DeLilo, like his previous novel The Body Artist, this is slim volume at just over 200 pages. The novel follows the life of Eric Packer, an absurdly rich man, as he goes through one day of his life. That day is a day in April of 2000 in New York City, and the novel is split into 2 parts, each of which consists of 2 chapters about 50 pages long, with each chapter split by a handful of pages from the view point of someone who plans to kill Packer.

Packer is the sort of rich that has a 48 room apartment in the centre of New York, which cost him millions, and has features like a swimming pool and shark tank. He starts the day setting out on a quest to get himself a hair cut. Leaving his apartment he spends the day in his specially designed limo, crawling along from event to event. Everything he could need for his office is built in to the car, and the head of each of his departments comes and goes, pick up from one street corner to a drop off on another.

But today isn’t like any other day, it takes on the characteristics of an odyssey. Through his journey from his home to getting a hair cut he is met by a range of curious characters; ranging from his various members of staff, though repeated encounters with the woman he has just married but doesn’t really know, to the random. At the same time, New York has been brought to something of a stand still; the president is in town and security is on full alert, wide scale anti-globalisation protests lock down the streets, and a rap stars funeral procession works it’s own way through the city.

Cosmopolis is introduced by the quote “a rat became the unit of currency”, which Parker jokes about with one of his managers, only to have a number of rat encounters there after; men waving rats above their heads, a giant Styrofoam rat propelled along the streets, protesters releasing rats into fast food stores, and even the quote from the poem being inserted into the stock market streamers. Which is a kind of summation of what kind of novel this is, one that has a particularly contemporary and real time feel, while at the same time some how transferring into a voyage that is abundantly more surreal.

The lead character Eric Parker is a curious one, at 28 he is ahead of the game and absurdly rich. As the novel progresses there is a sub narrative being woven in, one which tends towards the darker side, as Parker deals with a point of business which goes further than he has before. So that this business sets the real tone of the journey, rather than the base line of the trip to get a haircut. Again while the novel goes on there are a series of deaths, prominent figures in the world bank, or Russian billionaires, and the rap star, all of whom it turns out Parker has met and has an opinion on. Or the events which occur alongside the journey, the riot, the rave, the film set, all providing a certain colour, while also providing an insight into how Parker reacts and is driven by the world around him.

To a degree Parker reminds of William Gibson’s Cayce Pollard in Pattern Recognition, as Parker is the sort of man who has made his fortune by recognising the patterns in money and sales. Then there seems to be an element of Warren Ellis in the way Parker looks at the world, the regard for things like computers or phones as redundant, looking toward the future that is upon us now, where the idea of these objects has already changed past their original definitions. There are perhaps even parallels with Pynchon’s The Crying Of Lot 49, the journey at the core of that novel as the lead gets steeped in events has a similar kind of euphoric hysteria.

Don DeLilo is an acclaimed novelist, hailed to some degree as one of those writers who particularly writes “great American novels”. This is the second of his books that I have read, and I remain uncertain about his work. Cosmopolis starts a little hit and miss, at times one is struck more by the idea that DeLilo is awed by his own ability to string together sentences. Such that one has a sense of self-indulgence, where lists are strung together in attempts to create narrative as nonsense poetry. However as the novel progresses and we actual start to get into the flow of events, I found myself more forgiving and more interested in the actual narrative that is Cosmopolis. Cosmopolis in the end is deeply weird fiction, not because of what happens, but rather because it recounts moments taking place in a deeply weird world, which we can all recognise as having parallels to our own.

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