Loving To Hate Don DeLillo

Brian Cook

Death, fame, suicide, Hitler, atomic warfare, terrorism, nuclear waste, theoretical mathematics, small rooms where smaller men smoke fiercely and conspire, West Texas. Don Delillo takes you where you don’t want to be. To the above list, haphazardly compiled from his previous 12 novels, DeLillo’s latest, Cosmopolis, zeroes in on another center of modern fear and paranoia: a white stretch limousine.

Discounting The Body Artist (more novella than novel), DeLillo’s last full length work was Underworld, a title that would fit Cosmopolis as well. The book’s luxurious limo functions as a present day skiff of Charon, ferrying its owner, billionaire asset manager Eric Packer, on an anti-Odyssey amid the dead souls haunting Midtown Manhattan. Though only 11 city blocks separate his high-priced highrise near the United Nations from his childhood barbershop in the slums of Hell’s Kitchen, Eric’s journey takes the whole of the day, severely impeded by the urban Scylla and Charybdis of a presidential motorcade and a protest against capitalist financial institutions. Other dalliances and obstacles include the funeral procession for a beloved Sufi rap star named “Brutha Fez,” a movie set with more than 300 extras lying naked and inert upon the cityscape, four sexual encounters (including one with a 100,000 volt taser), a murder with a voice-activated handgun, and the international “pastry assassin,” André Petrescu. Welcome to DeLilloland. It’s a nice place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there.

Perhaps its resemblance to the Third World accounts for the hostile reviews Cosmopolis has received from a host of critics who seem to believe that, if they cannot wipe DeLillo completely off the literary map, they can at least disparage him to the point of irrelevance. It’s unlikely to rattle DeLillo; it’s his cool and detached prose that has the critics so rattled to begin with (“robotic,” “inscrutable,” and “not human” seem to be their favorite cries). But I imagine he understands. As DeLillo’s star has steadily risen over the past 30 years, few novelists have as scrupulously examined the painful paradoxes of human existence: how a fall is implicit in every rise, how we lift our idols high so as to better enjoy their crash, and how every life, no matter how tenderly and lovingly cultivated, is but a prelude to a death.

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DeLillo has always seemed to be a few steps ahead of the rest of us. A wide reading audience finally caught up to him with 1985’s White Noise—the book with the “airborne toxic event” published just a month after the Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal, India—but throughout the ’70s, DeLillo was undoubtedly America’s most prescient and prolific chronicler of the times. From 1971 to 1978, DeLillo published six books, including 1972’s comic smart-bomb End Zone (a great place to begin). The two least enjoyable novels from this period—1973’s Great Jones Street and 1977’s Players—respectively predicted the death cults of rock ’n’ roll and terrorism. Indeed, if 9/11 taught us anything, we learned, in the words of Players’ Kinnear:
[Terrorism] accomplishes nothing. It’s another media event. Innocent people dead and mutilated. Toward what end? Publicize the movement, that’s all. Media again. They want coverage. Public interest. They want to dramatize.
It’s easy to see why this type of perception may not play too well in the mass media. And yet, with the perverse logic of a DeLillo novel, more critics began hailing him, alongside Thomas Pynchon, as one of the new American masters. There were shrill cries of dissent, of course, the most humorous being George Will’s booh-hooing of Libra as “an act of literary vandalism and bad citizenship.” (Will also suggested that the novel blamed America for Lee Harvey Oswald; to which, in an interview years later, DeLillo responded, “I don’t blame America for Lee Harvey Oswald. I blame America for George Will.”)

As the years passed and the great books kept coming, the critical lovefest continued through 1991’s Mao II, and finally culminated in an orgasm of praise for 1997’s Underworld. It was definitely something else: gigantic and sprawling, its execution nearly matching the insatiable ambition needed to mirror its subject, Cold War America, and everyone inhabiting it, from the ’50s to the ’90s. It may be too early to tell, but at the moment, Underworld looks to be the center of DeLillo’s axis; everything before it was leading up to it, and everything after it is leading away.

Certainly, after its completion, something happened. His next work, The Body Artist, seemed to be in direct opposition to it, as if, to keep interest, DeLillo began writing against himself. The essential themes—the limitations of human systems, the disconnect between theory and reality, an explosive return of repressed fears of mortality—remained intact, but this small, compact novel was written in a tight, sparse phrasing that, instead of covering vast expanses of space and time, preferred to seek the intimate infinities of various nutshells (an empty house, a body) and the eternities of single moments. It was hard to tell if DeLillo was simply regathering his energy and strength for another massive work, or shifting focus in his wintry age, but either way the future looked promising.

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Something else, much less important, also happened after Underworld. The critics began slamming DeLillo, pretty much for the same reasons they had championed him. His voice went from “distinctive” to “too distinctive,” too stylized and far removed for the rest of us humans to relate to. Instead of zany and darkly comic, his novels were now considered spasmodically predictable and inscrutable. His “postmodern” concerns with theory and cultural analysis over the old standbys of plot and character no longer were viewed as taking the novel to places it had never been before, but instead as false leads, tactics that, in fact, could “threaten the existence of the novel form,” in the words of estimable DeLillo basher James Wood.

These arguments were trotted out in a variety of publications, with varying degrees of skill and acumen. My personal favorite was a 2002 New Republic piece by a novelist called Dale Peck. Though supposedly a review of Rick Moody’s memoir The Black Veil, Peck used the opportunity to bemoan what he considered to be the wrong-headed turn of modern literature, not just in its present day practitioners like DeLillo and Pynchon, but even in their direct predecessors, Joyce and Nabokov. While castigating DeLillo’s work as a collection of “stupid—just plain stupid—tomes,” Peck, in order to give his argument some type of historical significance and consistency, also needed to disparage everything that Joyce wrote after the first half of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. And thus, without quoting from the book once, Dale Peck—Dale Peck!—dismissed Ulysses as a mere “diarrheic flow of words.”

Now, admittedly, I’ve never read any Dale Peck, but I have read Ulysses. What frustrates us in that book is that which we cannot fully hope to control. The human mind yearns for a way of thinking—so easily amenable to a totalitarian slippery slope—that can take in everything, rationalize, justify. When artists like Joyce or Pynchon or DeLillo frustrate these impulses, they are not simply being cute or clever; they are pointing to the wall of finite reality, the physical limitations our “emancipated” minds fail to see.

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For this reason, I cannot tell you what Cosmopolis is. But I can tell you what it isn’t. It’s not the “major dud” declared by Michiko Kakutani, and it’s definitely not, in the words of James Wood, a “conventionally mapped” tale of “redemption” in which Eric Packer begins wrapped in a “dim, matutinal confidence” and “ends it chastened, suddenly penniless and eager to change.”

“Eager to change?” Hardly. Cosmopolis’ second to last paragraph reads: “Maybe he didn’t want that life after all, starting over broke, hailing a cab in a busy intersection filled with jockeying junior executives, arms aloft, bodies smartly spinning to cover every compass point.” Rather than following Wood’s “conventionally mapped” analysis of a “redemption” nowhere to be found in Cosmopolis, Eric strikes his own unique chord, staying unapologetically, and frustratingly, all too human.

Try as we might, we can’t fit him into any of our ready-made notions of what he should be. Like his creator, he’s something else entirely.

Brian Cook was an editor at In These Times from 2003 to 2009. He now works on the editorial staff of Playboy magazine.
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