All Day in a Rich Guy’s Limo Makes for a Very Silly Novel

Cosmopolis , by Don DeLillo. Scribner, 209 pages, $25.

Soon after Sept. 11, editors began phoning novelists to commission essays, in the hope that literary writers could offer a better, deeper response to the attacks than mere journalists could. Don DeLillo’s name turned up at the top of everyone’s wish list. That’s how we think of him, as the novelist with a direct line on the weird, powerful yet slippery spectacles and paradoxes of contemporary life. Surely he could nail down for us the meaning of the images of those sleek, bland towers with their fiery wounds against the lurid perfection of the morning sky, and parse the queasy intersection of raw communal horror and great TV. But when Mr. DeLillo finally did publish his 9/11 piece, months later, in Harper’s Magazine , it was just like everyone else’s: a rote description of what happened and a half-hearted gesture in the direction of the unfathomable.

We badly want there to be a novelist who can pronounce on the Big Themes of our mediated world, and Mr. DeLillo has always been up for the job. For all his weaknesses (plot, character, dialogue), he writes terrific set pieces-critics and fellow novelists will forgive you anything if you deck it out in a glittering style-and he can work himself up into quite a state about the significance of it all. He’s not afraid to be grandiose; that, and his eloquence combines potently with our desire for an oracular voice to obscure the fact that for years almost everything Big he has had to say has been either 1) banal or 2) wrong.

Mr. DeLillo is a great writer going grievously off the rails as a result of not attending to his strengths. His last novel, The Body Artist , began with 20 pages of perfection, a description of a married couple having breakfast. It was followed by many more unexceptional pages of solemn, gnomic maunderings about grief and loss. Reading those first 20 pages, it’s possible to believe in miracles, or at least in the power of genius to transform something utterly ordinary into an intimation of the divine, to fill us with wonder at the texture of our lives. With the rest of the book, it’s what happened?

His newest novel, Cosmopolis , alas, is all what happened? Is the book supposed to be serious? Funny? A parody of Mr. DeLillo’s own writing, with its pompous pronouncements (“Money has lost its narrative quality the way painting did …. Money is talking to itself”), the apocalyptic posturing, surreal crowd scenes and brainy, numbed-out yet studly protagonist? It’s distressingly hard to tell. Nevertheless, this is a deeply silly book, and it’s hard to imagine that that could be intentional.

Cosmopolis relates a day in the life of Eric Packer, a monumentally rich assets manager who, at 28, has “made and lost sums that could colonize a planet.” He spends most of the day riding around the streets of Manhattan in a fantastically outfitted white stretch limo in search of a haircut and, along the way, encountering both the expected (a host of hirelings, including his currency analyst and his chiefs of security, technology, finance and theory), and not (his wife of 22 days, a riot in Times Square, a homeless assassin). The novel seems intended to be a dissection of digital man, his overreaching hubris and his yearning to become, as Eric puts it, “quantum dust, transcending his body mass, the soft tissue over the bones, the muscle and fat. The idea was to live outside the given limits, in a chip, on a disk, as data, in whirl, in radiant spin, a consciousness saved from void.”

It helps, when writing about such people and their world, to know more about the subject than you can pick up leafing through a 1995 issue of Wired magazine at a garage sale. Perhaps it’s not possible for an American man to write about an ostentatiously wealthy guy like Eric-who has a 48-room triplex at the top of the world’s tallest residential tower, complete with rotating bedroom, lap pool, screening room, borzoi pen, two elevators (one timed to Erik Satie and the other to Sufi rap) a shark tank and, if Eric gets around to it, shooting range-without sounding like he’s creating the alter ego of a comic-book superhero. Mr. DeLillo certainly hasn’t proven it’s possible here, that’s for sure. Eric is also a polymath (“he mastered the steepest matters in half an afternoon”) who studies Einstein’s special theory in both German and English, reads poetry, contemplates the Middle English roots of the word “hangnail” and works out faithfully (a universal trait of the protagonists of cheap thrillers). People, especially women, are forever feeding him observations about himself, like slave girls dispensing peeled grapes; these are flattery disguised as reproaches. “I think you’re dedicated to knowing,” his wife says. “I think you acquire information and turn it into something stupendous and awful.” He has sex with most of these women-and the less said about the sex scenes, the better.

Eric’s great problem is that right now he can’t figure out the valuation of the yen using his trademark method of comparing currency fluctuations with organic patterns. He’s bet all his money on the yen collapsing and yet it keeps going up, and eventually he comes to embrace the growing peril to his fortune. He’s being both self-destructive and vain, since he gets to take the whole world’s economy with him on the way down. “He knew they would figure it out eventually, how he’d made it happen, one man, bereaved and tired now,” he thinks while watching a broadcast of panicky economists addressed by the president of the World Bank. “You want to fail more, lose more, die more than others, stink more than others,” says his derelict nemesis.

Cosmopolis shows only the most superficial and cartoonish grasp of how people who work with technology think and live (as opposed to, say, Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon , a vastly smarter novel). Mr. DeLillo’s dialogue flickers between sub-Mamet choppiness (“You do this what.” “What. Every day.” “No matter.” “Wherever I am. That’s right. No matter”) and preposterous philosophizing. The moral of the story, should you choose to accept it, is that trying to transcend our fleshly existence is perverse and misguided because, as Eric finally realizes, our bodies are integral to ourselves: “The things that made him who he was could hardly be identified much less converted to data.” In other words, dehumanization is dehumanizing: Do not fold, spindle or mutilate.

Mr. DeLillo ought to take his own advice here. He doesn’t really have much that’s insightful or even persuasive to say about the acolytes of data or the lives of the very, very rich. Nothing, certainly, to match his acute observations about suburban life in White Noise or the domestic minuet from The Body Artist . Enough of the food for thought, thanks very much. We’d rather have breakfast.

Laura Miller is a senior writer at Salon .