Wednesday, September 01, 2010


Postmodernity does strange things to time. We feel, for instance, that we live in a world in which everything is speeded up: it's hard to keep up with the pace of innovation, the ever-new updating of technology, the merry-go-round of fashion, the wildfire rapidity of the media, the voraciousness of the TV and blog-driven news cycle, the instantaneousness of email and the Internet, and so on.

And yet while some things speed up, others slow down. Above all, the literal transport of people and commodities is getting slower rather than faster. In the air, the mid-twentieth century vision of supersonic passenger travel is long tarnished and dusty: Concorde never became a going concern and was retired with nothing to replace it; most contemporary jets are flown at less than their top speeds, so as to conserve fuel. The same goes on the seas: as The Observer recently observed, modern cargo shipping is now geared towards "super-slow steaming," and trading vessels take longer to cross the oceans than did nineteenth-century sailing clippers. Meanwhile, on land, the density of traffic in contemporary cities means that road traffic has actually slowed as cars have replaced horses as the primary means of transportation: in London, for example, the average off-peak vehicle speed dropped from 12 to 10mph over the course of the twentieth century.

Don Delillo's Cosmopolis takes such paradoxes of speed and time and would run with them if only it could. Unfortunately, however, its tale is set in a stretch limo that takes all day to cross midtown Manhattan from East to West. So it crawls, instead, albeit very luxuriously, stuck in traffic. But there is plenty to distract us within. For this is a limo that is fully equipped with plasma screen TVs, a microwave oven, a toilet, marble floors, cork-lined walls to keep out the ambient noise, even a map of the solar system on the underside of the roof. It may be a slow ride, but there are plenty of distractions along the way. Indeed, if there is a cosmopolis here, it is not New York, however much the crosstown journey manages to take in a presidential motorcade, a rapper funeral, an anti-capitalist riot, and myriad other encounters in between. It is, rather, the wired automobile as a node for the receipt and transmission of information: some of its screens show the currency markets in real time; others display the news from across oceans and continents; still others are closed-circuit TVs that repeat (in fact, anticipate) what's happening in the car itself.

It's possible that the cosmopolis may become smaller still: at one point the limousine's owner, a twenty-something plutocrat by the name of Eric Packer, uses his wristwatch to hack into various financial systems and wipe out someone else's multi-million dollar wealth. This same watch has a camera that is "a device so microscopically refined it was almost pure information. It was almost pure metaphysics" (204). At the novel's end, it is on the watch screen that Packer sees or foresees his own death. It's perhaps a sign of the novel's (or the author's) slight datedness that this digital aleph is a watch rather than a smartphone. In any case, the idea remains the same: space and time can become so concentrated in one point that perhaps it doesn't matter how slowly we travel in physical space. Or equally, thanks to this instant availability of information, there's no longer anywhere to run in any case: the car can stand in for the office; there are ever-fewer in-between spaces where we might be out of range of the call of capital.

We might say that the limousine incarnates a smooth space of capital flows that is folded within a rather stickier space of midtown traffic jams and public disturbances, even if (as the novel suggests) these can be effects of the system itself: a turbulence that is innate to the market.

But still the body and its cloying materiality intrudes: the point of the whole lugubrious journey is that Eric is a billionaire in search of a haircut. En route, he also has regular meals as well as a prostate examination and at least three sexual encounters. Some of these diversions can be more or less easily accommodated within the vehicle's sedate progress along 47th Street: the doctor who examines Eric's prostate is picked up from the sidewalk and does his business in the car while his patient talks to one of his financial advisors. More generally, Eric's security detail, under the command of a terse man named Torval "whose head seemed removable for maintenance" (11), are trained to cover his every move and report on the latest warnings from a higher-level "complex" that studies possible threats and dangers to the slow-moving voyage.

Gradually his protection unravels, and Eric finds himself reduced to a naked body on a West Side street--though still as yet in the service of the image, for the occasion is a film shoot for which he has become an impromptu extra. The story doesn't end there, however, and in a derelict building even as he dreams about "the master thrust of cyber-capital" and its promise "to extend the human experience toward infinity as a medium for corporate growth and investment," Eric finds that "his pain interfered with his immortality" (207). His pain is "too vital to be bypassed and not susceptible, he didn't think, to computer emulation" (207).

Moreover, the past also intrudes. Packer's paid theorist has told him that "the past is disappearing. We used to know the past but not the future. This is changing" (86). And yet it turns out that Eric's slow march westward is towards the past, not the future. He has been heading towards one particular barbershop, bypassing many others that are more conveniently located, for reasons of nostalgia and familiarity. Despite all his obsession with change and his constant impatience at the fact that even language cannot keep up with the pace of technology, he chooses to return to the barber who has always cut his hair, and who cut his father's hair before him. He is drawn to the repetition and to the patina of age: "This is what he wanted from Anthony. The same words. The oil company calendar on the wall. The mirror that needed silvering" (161).

The body is not yet as far in the future as it wants to be, Delillo suggests. And yet it is precisely this temporal lag, this sluggardness, that provides comfort. It's only in the barber's chair, seeing himself in the mirror (rather than in the various CCTV screens that have surrounded him all day), that Eric finally "remember[s] who he was" (165). Here he can speak, confide in people and trust them: "It felt right to expose the matter in this particular place, where elapsed time hangs in the air, suffusing solid objects and men's faces. This is where he felt safe" (166).

Eric is wrong, of course. He is not safe in the past, which catches up with him in the form of a vengeful former employee that he himself has long forgotten (if he ever really knew him). But even Eric's sticky, all too corporeal end is a matter of putting things right. In the end, Cosmopolis is a paean to memory, and to the stickiness of both things and the language used to describe them.

But in a pitiless analysis of its language and style, James Wood excoriates this novel, and not without reason. He's right, for instance, to say that what he calls the story's "nineteenth-century heart" is never fully animated. In the end, we don't really care for or about Eric Packer and his fate. What stays with the reader is the surreal, postmodern shell, rather than the turn to humanism that Delillo wants us to take alongside his unfortunate but unlikeable protagonist. So be it. Some novels crawl along and never quite reach their destination, getting stuck along the way.

Still, Wood goes too far when he argues that "Cosmopolis, so eager to tell us about our age, to bring back the news, delivers a kind of information, and delivers it in such a way that finally it threatens the existence of the novel form." This book, and others like it that present us with what we might term a science fiction of the now (a vision of the future set firmly in the present day), supplement rather than compete with cultural theory or criticism. The attempt may not finally come off, but for all his techno-dystopianism what Delillo is offering is something along the lines of the plasma screens that line Eric Packer's limousine: a version of what is to come that is almost infinitesimally but (precisely for that reason) uncannily ahead of what we actually have to live through in our own lives and bodies. This is what science fiction does, and it can only do so as fiction (rather than as futurology), with the freedom to speculate and to invent, if also therefore to fail.