West Side Story


Don DeLillo reads Zbigniew Herbert, but does he watch Conan O’Brien? Cosmopolis, his 13th novel, begins with a line from Herbert’s dead-zone meditation “Report From the Besieged City” (“a rat became the unit of currency”) and the inadvertently Late Night-redolent time stamp “In the Year 2000.” Laying the scene in ostensibly prelapsarian Manhattan only heightens the perceptual frisson. Disastrously wanting “all the yen there was,” master of the universe Eric Packer is a self-consciously young 28, the same age as David Bell, the narrating Narcissus of DeLillo’s 1971 debut, Americana. He leaves his parody of paradise ($104M PH, 48 rms, w/shark tank) for a ride in his cork-lined (“prousted”) limo, a long day’s journey into night, westbound on 47th, a single calendar page fed from the high modernist vein of Joyce’s Ulysses and steeped in violence both casual and multinationally inspired. The hilariously slow crosstown traffic reaches the condition of a dream, punctuated by en route visitations of Packer’s advisers (he has a Sontag-‘do’d “chief of theory”) and assorted copulations. He beds one bodyguard, kills another, and keeps seeing things before they happen in various high-tech visual displays.

His own death is not the least of these incidents. The “confessions” of his assassin, a rageful ex-employee, provides the counter-narrative. He is Benno Levin, or Richard Sheets, an invisible man who siphons utilities from the mainstream and writes a 10,000-page tract to explain his withered life for the ages. Though the overall linear schema—Apollonian chariot bisecting Gotham—is brilliant, the inclusion of the confessions generates hybrid vigor. And so the Packeriad slips the moorings of story; its antihero moves toward the womb (his childhood barber on Eleventh Avenue; an impromptu birthday-suit film shoot that leads to a possible primal scene with his as yet unconsummatable wife), and muses on his cinematic surroundings with a three-page monologue to his handgun about his cinematic surroundings.

It’s not important, this rumor I heard—that the author finished the book before 9-11. But if he did, how do we read this? “They were made to be the last tall things, made empty, designed to hasten the future. . . . They weren’t here, exactly. They were in the future, a time beyond geography and touchable money and the people who stack and count it.” In the year of the rat, in the ruins of the future, all the plasma screens convey, and Cosmopolis averts, the ineluctable mortality of the visible.