June 29, 2012

Cosmopolis, by Don Delillo

Cosmopolis is a strange bird. I was expecting a sprawling, big-cast realistic novel, the kind by Tom Wolfe, Jane Smiley, and Jonathan Franzen that I adore. And, boy, is that not Cosmopolis, which is more short story than novel, not at all a work of classic realism, and takes place within one car ride on one day with, essentially, only one character.

That character would be Eric Packer, a young, brilliant, extremely rich financier, who spends his days being chauffeured around Manhattan in a limo. He has an “asymmetrical prostate,” as the doctor who inspects it every morning tells him, and it’s a phrase, a condition, a fear, that shimmers in the background of Eric’s days, never far from his thoughts. He’s also invested heavily in the yen, which is not behaving as expected, a phenomenon that he can’t quite understand and his refusal of which to accept is bankrupting him minute by minute over the course of this particular day. Add to this continued threats from an anonymous, deranged ex-employee, an unconsummated marriage, and the repeated appearance of his young wife all over the city as his limo driver inches along the streets of Manhattan, seeking an out from the gridlock that has seized the city.

Did I mention the murder, the riot, the affair with a bodyguard, the mutual, hands-free masturbation with a co-executive, the rap star’s funeral, and the art “happening” that carpets the Lower East Side with naked bodies? No? You’d think Eric would just return home, but he really, really, really wants a haircut.

This is not my favorite type of novel. Set in a superficially recognizable world, that world tilts just odd enough to feel surreal rather than realistic. The characters’ actions seem nonsensical, again just outside the realm of the plausible. It reminds me of Murakami, in fact—that same mix of the mundane and the bizarre. The language can be exasperating: “Her beauty had an element of remoteness. This was intriguing but maybe not.” It’s the kind you can play Mad-Libs with: “Her beauty had an element of _______. This was _______ but maybe not.”

Cosmopolis simply isn’t the kind of novel that I like best. But if I turn from my platonic ideal of the novel and take it on its own terms, I see a work of art that is carefully structured, with a unique tone and thematic layers and riffs.

It’s a work that is essentially poetic in nature. Plot points and dialogue turn not on their likelihood or realism but on their evocativeness and their efficacy in carrying forward the themes of the novel. One central theme is that of understanding. We, like all generations, are born into a historical moment that we try to make sense of. And Eric Packer is obsessed with sense-making. He tries to understand the markets (why does the yen keep climbing?), his marriage (why won’t his wife sleep with him?), his self (why are his financial instincts failing him?), the shape of his prostate (does “asymmetrical” mean weird or fatal?), the alignment of planets at his birth, the nature of language, the messages from his would-be assassin, the news-ticker in Times Square, words uttered without context, the man on fire on the sidewalk, and everything else along the way.

Cosmopolis has that signature language of the 90s and aughts lit: a mix of high education and informality, casual but (natch) cosmopolitan, equally at home with Russian architecture, American advertising, sports metaphors, and tech talk. There are a few tour de force passages of some length, like the mutual masturbation scene and a funny riff on the rat as currency, and even a few bits of the kind of social and psychological insight more typical of the novel of realism:

On construction workers sitting and eating lunch on the street, watching the pedestrians: “The workers were alert for freakishness of any kind, people whose hair or clothing or manner of stride mock what the workers do, forty stories up, or schmucks with cell phones, who rankled them in general.”

On the social contract of walking the streets of New York: “Eye contact was a delicate matter. A quarter second of a shared glance was a violation of agreements that made the city operational.”

But most typical are passages of weird poetic sensibility, allusive and thematic, like this one that touches on Eric’s vacillating attraction to danger. He specially designed his limo to protect him from the outside world: it’s lined with cork to keep out noise, plated with bulletproof materials, and has unbreakable glass in the window, glass that begins to show fracture lines as the day wears on. This mobile office is spacious but he allows only one visitor at a time, parsing out his exposure to danger as well as his time and attention. Nonetheless he often stops the limo and jumps out before his bodyguards can stop him, and he has an ambivalent reaction to the noise that has begun to penetrate his Limo World:

“They sat in the swell of blowing horns. There was something about the noise that he did not choose to wish away. It was the tone of some fundamental ache, a lament so old it sounded aboriginal. He thought of men in shaggy bands bellowing ceremonially, social units established to kill and eat. Red meat. That was the call, the grievous need.”

Danger is linked to desire, and Delillo’s careful wording plays on yen as both the Japanese currency and the English sense of longing and desire:

“‘We’ve profited, we’ve flourished even as other funds have stumbled,’ she said. ‘Yes, the yen will fall. I don’t think the yen can go any higher. But in the meantime you have to draw back. Pull back. I am advising you in this matter not only as your chief of finance but as a woman who would still be married to her husbands if they had looked at her the way you have looked at me here today.’”

“He sat down long enough to take a web phone out of a slot and execute an order for more yen. He borrowed yen in dumbfounding amounts. He wanted all the yen there was.”

“‘You made this form of analysis horribly and sadistically precise. But you forgot something along the way.’ ‘What?’ ‘The importance of the lopsided, the thing that’s skewed a little. You were looking for balance, beautiful balance, equal parts, equal sides. I know this. I know you. But you should have been tracking the yen in its tics and quirks. The little quirk. The misshape.’ ‘The misweave.’ ‘That’s where the answer was, in your body, in your prostate.’”

Another theme, a kind of sub-theme of understanding, is that of language and its inadequacies. Language is littered with relics of the past that have no “saturation” or real meaning in the globalism, the “zero-oneness,” of the new world:

“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 inference 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.”

“There was a brief sound in his throat that I could spend weeks trying to describe. But how can you make words out of sounds? These are two separate systems that we miserably try to link. . . . This resembles something he would say. I must be mouthing his words again. Because I’m sure he said it once, walking past my workstation to the person who was with him, in reference to such and such. Mirrors and images. Or sex and love. These are two separate systems that we miserably try to link.”

The unrelatedness of language to the world applies to the art and tropes that make up our cultural language:

I’ve seen a hundred situations like this. A man and a gun and a locked door. My mother used to take me to the movies. . . . He stands the way I’m standing, back to the wall. He is ramrod straight and he holds the gun the way I’m holding the gun, pointed up. Then he turns and kicks open the door. The door is always locked and he always kicks it open. These were old movies and new movies. Didn’t matter. There was the door, there was the kick. . . . Whenever it happened as a parent and a child I used to tell her that whoever made this movie has no idea how hard it is to kick in a sturdy wooden door in real life.”

 Delillo packs his novel with philosophy and allusion: Eric’s attempts to shield himself from risk, the randomness of phenomena, the nature of time, the yen, the noise, the prostate, and it’s all artfully done. But is it good? The traditional binary of literary virtues is the mirror and the lamp: the mirror gives us self-insight, and the lamp exposes us to the minds of others. But Cosmopolis works more like the stun gun, the crème pie, the poem, all of which jolt us out of our everyday consciousness. Eric admires poetry, which “bare[s] the moment to things he was not normally prepared to notice,” and his asks his bodyguard (after having sex with her) to blast him with a literal stun gun, just to see how it feels.

And the crème pie. An experienced “crème pie assassin” has been after him for some time and finally catches up with him on this day. He tells Eric of his other conquests: “I crèmed Fidel three times in six days when he is in Bucharest last year. I am action painter of crème pies. . . . I quiche Sultan of fucking Brunei in his bath. They put me in black hole until I am screaming from my eyes.” This is the yen—for feeling, for fresh experience, fresh eyes, that drives the characters. And drives the novelist too, whose fresh weirdness makes for a memorable read.

June 28, 2012

Carl Sagan's Papers

Seth McFarlane (!) recently donated money to the Library of Congress to buy Carl Sagan's papers. Among them was this sketch Sagan did when he was a teenager. I'm drawn to it because it is more or less what every set of business meeting notes that Jay takes looks like:

Le Sigh

From today's paper:

"Dear Miss Manners: Though the question has arisen before, I am still uncertain regarding a host's obligation with respect to hand towels in the powder room."

June 27, 2012

Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn

Oh my goodness. This is one of those novels where you might as well put down your pen right away, or else you'll end up underlining the entire book. And where you resist mightily the notion that you do indeed need to  put down the book and get to sleep at some point. 

June 13, 2012

Timothy Leary Sez

“You’ve got to approach your dying the way you live your life, with curiosity, with hope, with fascination, with courage and with the help of your friends."

June 12, 2012

Vampires in Havana

I saw this quirky film on Netflix and was, overall, charmed. I wouldn't recommend it to any but hard-core animation fans, though.

June 9, 2012

Princesses Rule

The Great Visual Directors . . . and Their Not-So-Great Scripts

We're blessed with some truly visionary film directors working right now: Ridley Scott, James Cameron, Steven Spielberg. All three of these have created movies with visual grandeur and innovation. James Cameron's Titanic was unforgettable for its sinking behemoth, and his Avatar was one of the most beautiful films of all time. Likewise Steven Spielberg with the opening invasion scene in Saving Private Ryan and the terrible imagery of Schindler's List. Ridley Scott's futuristic work, like his just-released Prometheus, puts him in their company for sure.

These are great filmmakers because they are visual artists of the highest rank. When you recall their films, you see images: the soldier picking up his own severed arm in the shallow waters of Normandy, the one child highlighted in color in the otherwise black-and-white Schindler's List, the dank, dripping menace of Aliens. 

But another thing unites these films: their terrible scripts. At best, they are forgettable: It would be hard to recall a single line from any of the movies mentioned above. At worst, they have sappy dialogue, cliched characters, and plot developments that can only be characterized as stupid. Would any scientist in the 21st century have the wide-eyed optimism of Prometheus's Shaw and Holloway? Would any technician, finding himself stranded in an extraterrestrial underground cavern suddenly squirming with snakelike life forms, bend his face right down to it and say, "What a cute little fella!"?

The film was full of these little sillinesses, but even more damaging was the passivity of the characters. For this type of movie to work, the characters have to resist the threat, whatever it is, with brawn and brains. Think of John McClane taking down the European terrorists one by one in the original Die Hard, with nothing more than a walkie-talkie and street smarts. Or Aliens' Ripley bending over blueprints and planning the monster's take-down. The point isn't even that they succeed but that they try, that they demonstrate agency within their situation. (See my review of Reamde for more on this type of character-based resistance.)

The characters in Prometheus, however, are victimized time and again by their naivete and stupidity. They are amazingly unconnected from each other, with intruders walking the halls and  terrible sicknesses ravaging them completely unbeknownst to the other characters. There are only 17 people on the ship, and you think, "Where IS everyone?" No one seems to have any sense that a shipmate who is sweating profusely with bloodshot eyes might be in danger.

The only two scenes in which a character rallies to action are when Charlize Theron's character grabs her flamer and goes down to stop an infected crew member from reboarding. As the others urge her to let him on board ("we can still help him!"), she pulls out that sucker and blasts him. So frustrating were these characters that I inwardly cheered at his death. The other scene was when Noomi Rapace's Dr. Shaw, making a terrible realization under great physical stress, makes her way to the surgery and . . . well, I'll leave it at that. It's a fairly long sequence, and one that should have served as a template for the rest of the film, combining horror, drama, action, and intelligence in a way that had you rooting for the character rather than rolling your eyes at her. More of that, please.

June 6, 2012


Another great French comedy. Romain Duris plays a guy who breaks up bad relationships for a living. Vanessa Paradis plays the target he falls in love with. Funny and moving, and who knew Vanessa Paradis was such a good actor?

June 5, 2012

Mon Meilleur Ami

I'm not a big fan of French dramas, which always seem very mannered, but I'm a huge fan of French comedies. My Best Friend is a perfect example: funny, interesting, and insightful. A narcissistic antiques dealer goes on a search for a best friend after his business colleagues accuse him of having none. He's driven around from potential candidate to candidate by a trivia-loving cab driver, who gives him lessons in being sympathique and tries to steer him toward the true meaning of friendship.

The star, Daniel Auteuil, is the French Robert DeNiro. Besides looking a bit like DeNiro, he has the same talent for being equally brilliant at drama and comedy.

June 4, 2012

Bel Ami, by Guy de Maupassant

Bel Ami is Maupassant's novella about a young man's rise in Parisian society. Maupassant wrote in the realist tradition, and this is an indictment of practically every sector of French society of his time: the lower classes, the upper classes, the intellectuals, the church. The central character is Georges Duroy, a man who climbs the social ladder of Parisian society on nothing more than good looks, charm, and luck, yet appreciates none of it. Maupassant has a nice way with irony, showing Georges, for example, walking down the street determined to pay back the money his lover gave him and then being sidetracked by a shiny new watch in a shop window. Maupassant also has a deft hand with mediocrity, showing Georges struggling to get past the first line of his newspaper article on Africa.

My favorite part of the novella was Georges's marriage to the beautiful and talented Madeleine, which for a time makes them both extremely happy. Georges begins to resent the jibes of his colleagues about his wife's contributions to his work and comes home one day to quarrel with her. In the space of one conversation, you see the marriage take a fatal turn that sets them off in different directions. It reminds me of Ian McEwan's novella On Chesil Beach, which is essentially a close re-telling of a half hour during a honeymoon that ruins a marriage.

Maupassant has that trait of great writers of writing on many levels: the personal, the sociological, and the political. His exposure of the true nature of politics—a manipulation of public resources for private monetary gain—is the secret spine of the novella and is incorporated perfectly with the other themes.

June 3, 2012

Let Me Tell You Something

He is a hell of an actor. And if a critic can't see it because of a stupid prejudice, then that is just sad for them.

This is available on demand now in an unusual pre-theatrical release arrangement. And read the novella by Maupassant if you get the chance.

Robert Pattinson in Bel Ami.