Journey Across Manhattan

If there is one facet of reading and literature that I like it is their vastness. Sure, this can be daunting. However, their vast ambit has allowed me to know names and worlds I would have not given a second glance. There is a plenitude, it seems, of writers and books that one can choose from. As I have realized these past few years, the more I read the more I realized that there are uncharted territories I have yet to venture into and that there are a lot of writers whose oeuvre I have yet to explore. One of these writers was American Don DeLillo who I first encountered through a fellow book reader. I barely had any iota on who he was nor have I encountered any of his works before, which was kind of ironic for I, later on, learned that some of his works were even listed among the 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. His works were also listed in other must-read lists and he was even nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature at least once.

This immediately piqued my interest. After obtaining a copy of Cosmopolis back in 2018, I obtained a copy of Underworld in 2020. However, it took some time before I finally found the time to immerse myself in his works. At the start of 2021, I realized the time is ripe for me to explore DeLillo’s prose; of the many American writers I have come across these past few years, he and Thomas Pynchon were high on my list. My growing desire to explore DeLillo’s prose made me list Cosmopolis on my 2021 Beat the Backlist Challenge. With this, I lined up Cosmopolis as part of my journey across American literature. For one, I had it longer than I had Underworld; it was gathering dust on my bookshelf. Cosmopolis being the shorter of the two went in its favor. Thankfully, I was able to read the book before the year ended.

Sleep failed him more often now, not once or twice a week but four times, five. What did he do when this happened? He did not take long walks into the scrolling dawn. There was no friend he loved enough to harrow with a call. What was there to say? It was a matter of silences, not words.”

Thus commenced DeLillo’s thirteenth novel. The year was 2000. The setting: a day in April in the Big Apple. At the heart of the novel was Eric Packer. At twenty-eight years of age, Packer has accreted quite a fortune for himself. Working as an asset manager, he managed to work his way up to becoming a multi-billionaire. This allowed him to live comfortably; he occupied an opulent 48-room apartment on the topmost floor of a prime eighty-nine-story apartment building on First Avenue. It was furnished with amenities such as a lap pool, card parlor, gymnasium, shark tank, and even a screening room. On top of this, he recently got married to a fabulously rich and beautiful European heiress. For a man of his age, Eric Packer had nearly accomplished all. He had all of the best things that life can offer.

“All this optimism, all this booming and soaring. Things happen like bang. This and that simultaneous. I put out my hand and what do I feel? I know there’s a thousand things you analyze every ten minutes. Patterns, ratios, indexes, whole maps of information. I love information. This is our sweetness and light. It’s a fuckall wonder. And we have meaning in the world. People eat and sleep in the shadow of what we do. But at the same time, what?”

~ Don DeLillo, Cosmopolis

When we first meet Packer, we learn that he was struggling with insomnia. He has tried several techniques to cure his insomnia but all of them were for naught. He then turned his attention to other things such as the Yen. The crux of the story, however, was his journey to his barber’s on the other side of New York. Rising up after his restless night, Packer dressed up and rode his limousine to his haircut appointment. This was the frame of the story, with the story transpiring in a single day. We then follow Packer as he was being driven around in his limousine on his way to his appointment at the place where his father came from. The barber he was visiting was also the same barber his father used to visit. Packer’s long and winding adventures and misadventures occupy the story and the entire day.

Rather than a straightforward trip or story, what ensued was a modern-day odyssey that walked the readers through the chaotic streets of Manhattan while, at the same time, stuck in the claustrophobic atmosphere of Packer’s limousine. Packer’s journey, unfortunately, was marred by a series of unfortunate events that made him meander off track. Among the many unexpected obstructions on his way was the traffic jam caused by the motorcade of the visiting President. The busy streets of Manhattan, it seemed, were not going to relent. Packer’s journey was further waylaid by a full-pledged anti-capitalist demonstration that attacked the limousine. He also encountered a funeral procession for a Sufi rap star and a film crew busy at work in the streets.

But Packer had a lot more things to worry about beyond the traffic. His insomnia was oneHe constantly worried about his prostate, which elicited a visit from his doctor. His doctor conducted his examination of his body while he was holding a meeting in the limo. His doctor was also one of many people he would encounter on his journey and fill his limousine, thus, contributing to the looming suffocating atmosphere. Among these unexpected visitors include his head of finance, currency analyst, philosophical adviser, and bodyguard. Their discussions cover a vast range of subjects, from betting against the yen to philosophical discourses centered around mankind. The simple task of meeting his haircut appointment was not so simple at all. Along the way, he stopped by his lover’s house but he was also haunted by his wife who seemed to float in and out like a wraith.

The life of the rich is not as spick and span as many have romanticized. Packer, as he himself became aware, he was on the path to self-destruction. He was able to achieve the proverbial American Dream. His days, however, have been preoccupied with thoughts of making money: “Look at those numbers running. Money makes time. It used to be the other way around. Clock time accelerated the rise of capitalism. People stopped thinking about eternity. They began to concentrate on hours, measurable hours, man-hours, using labor more efficiently.” Getting rich and getting ahead in life has taken precedence in Packer’s life. Even decisions such as choosing who to marry were created from a pragmatic angle.

“In fact data itself was soulful and glowing, a dynamic aspect of the life process. This was the eloquence of alphabets and numeric systems, now fully realized in electronic form, in the zero-oneness of the world, the digital imperative that defined every breath of the planet’s living billions. Here was the heave of the biosphere. Our bodies and oceans were here, knowable and whole.”

~ Don DeLillo, Cosmopolis

While the possession of wealth does usher in its set of comforts – Packer has everything at his disposal – it does come at a price. This fixation on money makes us lose touch with reality and worse, with our inner selves. It also serves as an invitation for different forms of danger such as death threats. As the old adage goes, “the higher you climb, the harder the fall.” For Packer, the prize he had to pay was steep. His money afforded him material luxuries of life but it kept him from one important thing: inner peace. In our pursuit of money, we have started forgetting about ourselves, of the things that we truly value. Some have even lost their souls, and their sense of self. Money was ecstasy that was irresistible. Elsewhere, we read of references to technology, terrorism, and power.

All over the novel, one can sense the looming presence of capitalism. Capitalism was one of the catalysts for this pursuit of wealth that inevitably led to losing one’s sense of humanity. While it was never directly referred to, its presence reverberated all over the story. The protest that Packer encountered was centered around anti-capitalist sentiments. Capitalism has made robots of us, turning us into unwilling participants in a piece of global machinery that churns out soulless individuals. On the other hand, capitalism has also allowed the exploitation of labor. Business owners hold the power to remove their own employees. The novel underscored the class struggles through the presence of Benno Levin, a potential assassin who stalked Packer. Levin’s storyline alternated with Packer’s adventure that April day.

For the great ideas that the novel grappled with, it was sure a challenge reading it. For one, Packer was more of a cipher than a character one can easily connect to. Not that he was a monochromatic character and DeLillo does provide the readers an intimate peek of his interiors. What we see is a complex individual. On the surface, it seemed like his only pursuit was money but as one digs deeper, one sees the portrait of a multifaceted person. We see a genius who has an appreciation for a vast array of subjects such as philosophy, science, and languages. While there were tinges of hubris that tainted his character, Packer was nevertheless a gifted individual. He was meant to be symbolic but still, he came across as flat.

Another lamentable facet was the novel’s thin plot. Sure, there were a lot of things happening in and around the limousine. There were plenty of sexual exploits, one of many deviations form the main plotline. Death was also all over. They created tension and contributed to the story’s overall atmosphere. However, they did nothing to move the story forward. Even the story’s ending was predictable, anti-climactic. For all its flaws, one thing was for sure: DeLillo can write. He was particularly scintillating in capturing the New York vibe. Through his writing, he made the streets of Manhattan come alive, with all its sounds, beats, and tumult. The story’s accessibility was one of its redeeming qualities.

“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 inferences 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.”

~ Don DeLillo, Cosmopolis

While I was not a fan of the story, I must say that Cosmopolis was an interesting experience. My first novel by Don DeLillo, it was straightforward and clinical in its execution. It abounded with some of the staples of American literature, such as politics, power dynamics, and the consequences of capitalism. It also takes the reader deep into the complex mind of a complex character. However, I did find the main character unengaging. On the other hand, I do feel like the disengagement was deliberate. Nonetheless, I still appreciated Cosmopolis. It has some bright spots but more importantly, the novel also gave me vignettes of what to expect from DeLillo and his prose.

I did, however, note that many a reader has mentioned Cosmospolis as one of DeLillo’s lesser works. Some even mentioned it was a deviation from the typical DeLillo novel. This only fueled my curiosity about his prose. I can’t wait to read more of his works. I do have a copy of Underworld, deemed to be the best of his oeuvre but I am having second thoughts as the book is rather thick. I know I will eventually read it but it might have to wait longer. For now, happy reading!

Rating

62%

Characters (30%) – 20%
Plot (30%) – 
16%
Writing (25%) – 
17%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
9%

Book Specs

Author: Don DeLillo
Publisher: Picador
Publishing Date: 2004
Number of Pages: 209
Genre: Contemporary, Literary

Synopsis

It’s a stunningly eventful day in the life of Eric Packer, a multi-billionaire who owns a forty-eight-room apartment and a decommissioned nuclear bomber and who has recently married the heiress of a vast European fortune. Sitting in his stretch limousine as it moves across the middle of Manhattan, he finds the city at a virtual standstill because the President is visiting, a rapper’s funeral is proceeding through town, and a violent protest is being staged in Times Square by anti-globalist groups.

Eric’s bodyguards are worried that he is a target and indeed, he is – although the danger, as it turns out, is not from protesters or political assassins but from an anonymous man who lives in an abandoned building.

About the Author

Donald Richard DeLillo was born on November 20, 1936, in New York City, USA. He grew up in a working-class Italian Catholic family with ties to Molise, Italy, in an Italian-American neighborhood of the Bronx. After graduating from Cardinal Hayes High School in the Bronx in 1954, DeLillo attended Fordham University where he pursued a bachelor’s degree in communication arts, completing his degree in 1958. Post-university, DeLillo took a job in advertising. He then worked as a copywriter at Ogilvy & Mather for five years.

DeLillo was not originally interested in writing. Things changed after he spent a summer vacation working as a parking attendant. Hours of waiting and watching over vehicles led to a reading habit. In 1960, he finally published his first short story, “The River Jordan”, in Epoch, Cornell University’s literary magazine. It would take a decade but DeLillo finally published his first novel, Americana, in 1971; it was a book he had worked on since 1966. He followed it up with End Zone (1972) and Great Jones Street (1973). Ratner’s Star (1976). However, it was his eighth novel, White Noise (1985) that would elevate DeLillo to widespread recognition. It won him the National Book Award for Fiction. In addition to his novels, DeLillo has written several plays. He also wrote the screenplay for the independent film Game 6 (2005). Underworld (1997) is often regarded as his most successful work. It was shortlisted or was a finalist for several prestigious literary prizes such as the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, 1997 National Book Award finalist, 1997 National Book Critics Circle Award, and the 1999 International Dublin Literary Award. His most recent novel was The Silence (2020).

More critical and commercial success followed. DeLillo has twice been a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction finalist, the first one was for Mao II in 1992. Mao II also won the 1992 PEN/Faulkner Award. He received another PEN/Faulkner Award nomination for The Angel Esmeralda in 2012. Among the several accolades that DeLillo piled up during his prolific career include the 1999 Jerusalem Prize. In 2010, he was granted the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction, and in 2013, he won the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction. He also received the National Book Awards Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters in 2015. He was also the Guggenheim Fellow in 1979.

DeLillo currently resides in suburban New York.