by Marty Demarest
DeLillo is one of America's most difficult authors. He regularly takes on major themes that, despite their prominence in contemporary life, are difficult to pin down and discuss, much less turn into a novel. His newest, Cosmopolis, is no different, choosing as its theme the metaphysical destruction that advances in technology have caused in contemporary society.
Setting DeLillo's philosophical investigations in motion is Cosmopolis' main character, Eric Packer. We're informed right away that Mr. Packer is a technology-obsessed billionaire who is experiencing an existential crisis. And so he decides to simplify his life and get a haircut. His wealth and power, however, lead him to the hubris of deciding to get his hair cut across town on the day that the president is in town. As his head of security observes: "You will hit traffic that speaks in quarter inches." And so the bulk of Cosmopolis details Packer's journey across town in an impossibly long white limousine. What occurs on the way is something of a nihilistic absurdist comedy, replete with a pie fight, a murder and non-contact sex.
What DeLillo seems to be investigating with his scrubbed-down prose are the ways in which we are nullifying ourselves by developing technology that makes not only recent technology obsolete, but makes the people who operate it relics as well. Like the limo that is always dozens of feet ahead of Packer as he journeys across town, time seems to have overleapt the characters in Cosmopolis. Security cameras show the actions of people a few seconds before they actually make them, and every technological device is described as being obsolete, "vestigial."
This is the crisis that lies at the center of Cosmopolis: Where are we now when we so continually live in the future? DeLillo seems to suggest that there is no now, now; there are only voids. "It was a matter of silences, not words," he writes in the book's first paragraph. It's a depressing thought. Despite its abstract and alarming topic, Cosmopolis, at only 209 pages, is not a daunting read. Indeed, in the very act of writing a novel, with its trappings of awkward language and inefficient technology, DeLillo reminds us that even in the face of annihilation, art offers a sanctuary, even when it's talking about nothing.
Publication date: 05/01/03