by Don DeLillo
209 pages,
ISBN: 0743244249

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Prousting the Prostate: A Day in the Life of Eric Parker
by Michael Greenstein

In the beginning of fiction was the picaresque novel: Don Quixote, the comic conquistador of La Mancha, ventures forth in search of Spain and self. Three centuries later, in the modernist hands of Virginia Woolf and James Joyce the voyage out would turn inward towards the discovery of the psyche and its languages. Postmodernism turns the screw yet again, to the extent that the lines between interior and exterior blur: the horse through the countryside becomes a horse-powered limousine in New York City, a vehicle spacious enough to incorporate not only metropolitan traffic but a good deal of cosmopolitanism as well. After Fritz Lang's Metropolis, Don DeLillo's Cosmopolis takes its turns through the streets of Manhattan. How fitting that all of the events take place within a cork-lined stretch limo, roomy enough to accommodate Cervantes, Flaubert, Proust, Joyce, Paul Auster, and other exemplars of the genre.
Accompanying the stretched limo is a stretch in time: "a day in April" is subsumed within "the year 2000," and the millennial quality of the novel sides with a stretch of the imagination.Within the post-modern parameters of this novel, one of the distancing devices is the third-person narrator in the comfort of his luxurious penthouse high above the city where "he" (Eric Packer) cannot sleep. "There was no friend he loved enough to harrow with a call. . . . It was a matter of silences, not words." Yet the novel is literally and figuratively about words.
Ostensibly Eric's odyssey across Manhattan is to get a haircut, as if to shape and clear his brilliant mind, so overwrought with financial figures and theories. En route to his barber, he bets heavily against the Japanese yen, that currency being a pun on his various whims and desires.
Eric's prostate is asymmetrical, one of the discoveries of his daily medical check-up. His prostate forms part of a larger asymmetry in Cosmopolisłthe asymmetric episodes in the symmetric streets of Manhattan: "there was something about the idea of asymmetryą the riddling little twistąthat made creation happen. There was the serpentine word itself, slightly off kilter." Eric palpates the word, much as his doctors palpate his cosmological prostate. If the prostate gland is one root of sexuality, then Eric's marital life is also asymmetrical: he rarely spends much time with his new wife, Elise Shifrin, a wealthy poet whom he encounters during various episodes throughout the day. All of this asymmetry serves to distance the reader from Eric, who comes across as a brilliant but less than warm protagonist.
Eric's ride runs counterpoint to a presidential procession, which disrupts traffic. Self-sufficient in his shatterproof luxury vehicle, the post-modern flGneur studies the empty skyscrapers he passes: "They were made to be the last tall things, made empty, designed to hasten the future. They were the end of the outside world." This apocalyptic note refers to the twin towers, and Schadenfreude results from the millennial setting described in 2003 after their destruction. New York's vulnerability appears in almost every episode where violence erupts in one strange form or another.
"The Confessions of Benno Levin," an inset digression, further highlights the novel's asymmetric structure. These "confessions" begin with a "Night" section, and alternate between first- and third-person pronouns. "He is dead, word for word." This obsession with "words" connects the sections: "These are two separate systems that we miserably try to link." Post-modern, meta-fictional talk distances the reader from emotional involvement and identification with the characters, while engaging him intellectually. "World is supposed to mean something that's self-contained. But nothing is self-contained. Everything enters something elseą. I didn't know it was me that was writing so much as someone I want to sound like." Benno Levin ends this ventriloquism with, "So what is left that's worth the telling?"
What is left is Eric Packer's limo story. One of his female financial advisors tells him the Greek word for money-making. "But we have to give the word a little leewayą.Money has lost its narrative qualityą. Money is talking to itself." In Cosmopolis word and world are self-contained and self-reflexive, not unlike the limousine's mirrors that reflect, refract, and distort reality. In his aesthetics of interaction, Eric wants to understand, to separate one thing from another through detailed observation. In the chaos of street demonstrations, runners emerge, "some pausing when they saw the car. The car made them pause." This chiasmus or syntactic reversal underscores the chaotic crossover between Eric's vehicle and the surrounding cityscape. Narrator and reader also pause to reflect.
By the time he crosses Eighth Avenue, "Traffic was scant but the car kept to the daylong draggy pace." At times, the Proustian pace drags. One of Eric's bodyguards comments, "Whoever it is, that's who it is." Eric agrees with this, "whatever it meant." Cosmopolis drains meaning from Manhattan where individual identity can be meaningless.
By the end of the novel Benno Levin and Eric Packer meet to discuss linkage, enigma, self-contradiction, and cross-harmonies. Benno reminds Eric of the connection between the yen and his asymmetrical prostate: "The importance of the lopsided, the thing that's skewed a little. You were looking for balanceą. But you should have been tracking the yen in its tics and quirks. The little quirk. The misshape. The misweave." The misweave of Eric's haircut is a little quirky but we explore the postmodern avenues of New York, the lopsidedness of the Big Apple, for Eric is an exaggerated character in an equally hyperbolic city. In Cosmopolis, DeLillo takes us for a ride and a worthwhile read. ņ

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