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Cosmopolis

January 18, 2014

I must have read Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis not long after it came out in 2003. Unless I am forgetting something it was the sixth book by him that I read, to be followed by one more (Americana, his first) and then a long period of DeLillolessness that persist to this day. In my memory, now well washed by time, Cosmopolis stands out brightest of them all, my favorite. Which surprises me a little. I remember the reviews of the time were, for the most part, disapproving. The critics seemed to find it insufficiently serious, silly even, over the top. Some may have — I’m just going by memory here — accused DeLillo of falling into self-parody. But where they found weakness I found strength. DeLillo has suffered from an overly portentous critical reception. He has been too much celebrated as a thinker and a prophet rather than what he is at his best, a comic writer along the lines of P.G. Wodehouse, Damon Runyon, or Samuel Beckett. His genius is for stylized voice; he rides the vernacular, and neo- and post-vernaculars, right out of the frame of reality and into a funhouse mirror. You might, if you are a leaden-souled bore or have a paper to write, look into that reflection for Truths About the Modern American Condition, but it would be more reasonable to look for fun. And that is more easy to find in the slender romp of Cosmopolis than in the dark dense brick of Underworld.

But like I said, it has been a decade since I read it, more than that for Underworld, The Body Artist, Libra, White Noise (second favorite maybe, for same reason), and Mao II. The memory: well washed. Still it has stayed with me, and bloomed again when, just recently, I watched David Cronenberg’s film version, which I thought was quite good, though not in the same league as the other movie of 2012 (the year of the failed apocalypse) that featured a protagonist who used a white stretch limo as his office and home while moving through the city over the course of one day, Holy Motors. Cronenberg created his script very directly from the dialogue (and monologue) of the novel, so the movie has some of the feel of an adaptation of a play. It defers to the writer and his language. If you have never read any DeLillo, the movie is actually a pretty good introduction, better than most novelists ever get from film. That it is a Euro-Canadian production, maybe not so well financed, featuring only one US actor, of a story set entirely in Manhattan only helps in the creation of an appropriately uncanny sense of simulacrum and virtuality. Robert Pattinson does a good job as the lead.

Cosmopolis should not be confused with the “cosmopolitics” of Belgian philosopher Isabelle Stengers, which you will find often referred to by Subverbic hero Bruno Latour.

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