Thursday, September 20, 2012

Not a review of Don DeLillo's Cosmopolis

I hate having to do a spoiler alert because readers should be able to work it out themselves. But let me hold your hand... don't read if you don't want to know what happens, 'kay?


I'd like to start by saying I didn't realise this was a movie with R-Pat in it. Not that it would have made any difference to the reading of the book but I might have tried to find a copy of the book with a different cover.



It's a good cover, perfectly fitting but knowing it's R-Pat somehow diminishes it?

Now that I've read the book I'm confused about whether to see the movie. You see, I loved this book and seeing the movie will risk a shift in my feelings. It's rare that a movie complements a book properly. Hell, they're not meant to complement; a movie is meant to stand separately to the book and sometimes the book is devoured by the existence of a film version. But R-Pat is a bit cute if a little too skinny. Maybe it's a good film, maybe it's sexy and sharp and true to the book? Dilemma.

DeLillo is such a skilled writer I now want to read his oeuvre. I'm going to look up what he wrote, research his best and read them. I have heard him referenced, along with Thomas Pynchon, as one of those seminal American contemporary writers whose spheres of influence are enormous. Influence in terms of other writers, I mean. I think David Foster Wallace dug DeLillo big time. Or was it Bret Easton Ellis? Both? I forget.

Cosmopolis was the perfect entree into DeLillo's writing. It is deliciously-sized; packed full of action and interior 'idea-scapes' - it's a genius work. To have the limo as a mobile office. To have Eric Packer (the protagonist) hopping in and out of his limo as it inches its way through Manhattan, driving him to get a haircut.

I read the first few pages then put the book down for a few days. When I went back to it, I started again from the beginning. And this is what I wrote note-wise:

- cancer? the haircut and sleep failing him (p1)
- he's dying. Missed it the first time I read 1st 4 pages.

As it turned out, he wasn't literally dying from cancer - he just has an asymmetrical prostate - however he is dying (as we all are) throughout the novel. The ending is ambiguous; the reader doesn't find out whether the kindly assassin Richard Sheets pulls the trigger or not.

As Packer careens like a pinball through the streets of New York - having sex here, having sex there (but not with his wife of 22 days); eating, talking and methodically buying more and more Yen that will perversely lead to his financial ruin - there is much 'outside' action going on. The US President is in the vicinity (thus accounting for road blocks and even worse traffic conditions); there is some bizarre rat protest unfolding and there are credible threats to Packer's security (he has bodyguards, one of whom he himself kills).

Reading this book was electrifying; I found myself uttering exclamations of 'wow' and 'fuck'. I also found myself reaching for scraps of paper to write down the small 'literary' surprises, that in such a dynamic, action-packed story were like manna and balanced the reading beautifully for me:

He liked paintings that his guests did not know.

He'd thought about surfaces in the shower once.

... masturbatory crouch

Her poetry was shit (big LOL at that one)

Packer is like a modern-tech flรขneur, wandering the streets, travelling along, seeing 'what happens' on his way to a haircut, but the pace is not that of a typical wanderer; it's edgy and sharp and there are things around the corner on the next page that will make you jump. At times I wondered where we were. Were we in the limo? Were we on the street? I had to concentrate to keep up - this is no idle read - but at the same time, it's not a hard read. You don't have to concentrate and keep yourself in the action, you go there naturally.

I loved the set up of this novel (novella? I reckon the wordage is around 53K); there is no back-story it just begins. Slowly, more characters are layered in, some staying for a while, others just popping in and out, but the question that makes him an interesting character is introduced very early. What's wrong with him, why isn't he having sex with his wife. Why doesn't she know that his eyes are blue?

The car-as-office is a clever device as is the setting of New York City. Anything can happen in New York and the pace is fast. I had to keep up, noting the line breaks which indicated a shift in scene and possibly location. There wasn't always a 'he got out of the car' indicator to inform the dullard reader of a change in location and this added to the pace; there was no extra stuff padding the prose and therefore slowing it down.

I've noted the scene on page 49-50 as being 'very interesting.' It's an erotic scene between Eric and one of the women-not-his-wife  who he has a sexual encounter with. This is where the cover image of Edward Vampire got into my head a little. I couldn't imagine Rob Pattinson talking about his erection and bondage:

This is the woman you are inside the life. Looking at you, what? I'm more excited than I've been since the first burning nights of adolescent frenzy. Excited and confused. I look at you and feel an erection stirring even as the situation argues strenuously against it...

All the same. Days like this. I look at you and feel electric. Tell me you don't feel it too. The minute you sat there in that whole tragic regalia of running. That whole sad business of Judeo-Christian jogging. You were not born to run. I look at you. I know what you are. You are sloppy-bodies, smelly and wet. A woman who was born to sit strapped in a chair while a man tells her how much she excites him.

And Judeo-Christian jogging? Snort.

I have some criticisms but there are only two (and one of them I feel dissolving, though, as I've processed the novel in the day since finishing it).

Towards the end of the reading I made this note: Eric is too young for all this wisdom and awareness. Why have him young?

I can probably answer my own question. Having a young man in this context with this story is more compelling than an older man. The idea that youth is not the answer to everything; that a large life can be lived in a short time; possibly the idea that money and power do corrupt so absolutely. But you never get the impression that Eric is superficial. He is a deep thinker and he's working it all out.

My other problem, and it was tiny, insignificant amongst all the wonderfulness: on page 206 I felt De Lillo was flawless until he explains the reference to Male Z. He has already mentioned all the accoutrements of a morgue: the sliding compartments, the sterile room, the bodies with tags and one of these tags is 'Male Z'. It's all fantastic up until he writes: He knew that Male Z was the designation for the bodies of unidentified men in hospital morgues.

Oh Don, why? You have written until now,  until page 206, refusing to explain, refusing to indulge a less-evolved reader by spelling things out. You have written bravely, putting the words on the page, catering only to yourself, not pandering to a reader. Why these words? Why explain? If the reader can't work out it's a morgue they don't deserve the explanation. You have lowered yourself and it stings me.

Oh, there is another criticism. There is a section where the point of view shifts from close 3rd person to a first person voice for a total of about six pages towards the end of the book. This is 'Benno Levin' ('real name' Richard Sheet)  the man who is preparing to kill Eric. I see and accept the purpose of having his POV inserted in the narrative in this way but it is jarring and is not a seamless addition. Perhaps this jolt in the narrative 'works' alongside the other jolts the reader experiences. Certainly, those six pages are densely packed with personal information, the life of a man who is getting ready to kill another man. The mind of the disgruntled assassin. Perhaps I should re-read those pages, they would make more sense now because at the time I wasn't sure who it was.

The final scene is brilliant, particularly the dialogue, and there are still a few more jolts for the reader. When a work is unpredictable it is an achievement these days. There is so much that is banal and ordinary in writing and in life; to have a scene with two men discussing the reasons why one of them wants to kill the other one, and the intended victim - Eric - is calm and measured which unsettles the 'baddie', a self-confessed 'violent smoker'.

The man fired a shot into the ceiling. It startled him. Not Eric; the other, the subject.

It's writing like this that makes me admire DeLillo. It says so much with so little.

When Eric shoots a hole in his own hand, Sheets bandages it up for him and stops the bleeding. He still intends to kill him, but he helps him. It's details like this that make this book so real. That detail reminded me of a story about Ned Kelly walking to be hanged, and even though he was going to his death, he made sure the hood on his head (piled up, ready to be pulled down over his eyes) was be neatly arranged and wouldn't fall off as he walked. This is what's beautiful about fiction. I don't remember where I read that Kelly snippet and I can't remember if it's true or whether I made it up based on something I read.

So, goody goody gumdrops. This is DeLillo's 13th book and you know what, I read somewhere there are 14 books in total. I canner wait to get my hands on another one. Wonder whether I should read chronologically. I think I shall.

2 comments:

Alex said...

It does sound like a decent read.

Now that I've read the book I'm confused about whether to see the movie. You see, I loved this book and seeing the movie will risk a shift in my feelings. It's rare that a movie complements a book properly. Hell, they're not meant to complement; a movie is meant to stand separately to the book and sometimes the book is devoured by the existence of a film version. But R-Pat is a bit cute if a little too skinny. Maybe it's a good film, maybe it's sexy and sharp and true to the book? Dilemma.

I haven't seen Cosmopolis, but I've heard from people who have. To a person, none of them said they enjoyed it much. Mostly, they were undecided about whether it was a work of genius that was pitched above their heads or just an indulgent wank. I suppose the line can be a bit blurry at times.

I believe it's directed by Cronenberg, if that helps.

My views on movie adaptations are kind of complicated. On the one hand, I think there's a lot of good movie fodder in books and a lot of movies I like have taken advantage of that. On the other hand, I don't think taking a book and trying to edit it into a script is a particularly good recipe for movie-making. After all, it's a completely different medium, right? Mostly, I think it's better to take the elements you reckon would make a good movie and mould them into your own original vision. Of course, if you do that, but keep all the characters names the same, and title your movie after the book, and promote it as an adaptation, you really are inviting unfavourable comparison and criticism. Also, there's going to be that temptation to squeeze shit into the movie that doesn't belong there because you think it's more "true" to the source or it'll appeal to the fans or whatnot. So basically, at the end of the day, I tend to be more in favour of work "inspired" by other work than I am of direct adaptation, if that makes sense.

Melba said...

Hmm Alex yes I don't know. I haven't been to see it and I think I won't. I want to just leave the book experience as is, unspoiled. I do want to look up earlier works of DeLillo and do some more reading.

On movie adaptions of books etc I remember really enjoying Adaptation. Might look it up again, I remember enjoying the irony immensely.