Tag Archives: Don DeLillo

Cosmopolis: Don DeLillo Goes to the Movies

DeLillo, Cronenberg, Pattinson--what could possibly go wrong?

DeLillo, Cronenberg, Pattinson–what could possibly go wrong?

For a writer whose first novel is about a filmmaker, whose most recent novel is a hybrid story and film criticism, who cites Godard as an influence, and whose magnum opus pays homage to Eisenstein, Don DeLillo has not gotten his due at the movies.  Cormac McCarthy gets the Coen brothers, Viggo Mortensen, and Matt Damon, but White Noise and Underworld elicit only confusion: students get excited to hear the books’ names, only to discover disappointedly they are entirely unrelated to the movies that share those titles.  DeLillo’s novels feature neither ghosts nor vampires.

Until 2012, of course—the movie, and the monsters.  Cosmopolis was released in theaters last fall and on DVD in January 2013, to the delight of DeLillo’s fans and apparent dismay of Robert Pattinson’s, according to these (typical) Amazon.com reviewers: “As much as I like Robert Pattinson, this was the worst movie I’ve ever watched. Wanted to throw away DVD afterward.” And this: “I love Robert Pattinson. … I loved all the Twilight movies… but Cosmopolis is … not a movie so much as a long nightmare in which every word is measured and every character represents something heavy…. Even Pattinson, who is very handsome in his business suit, isn’t enough to make me want to watch this again.”

Even for DeLillo’s readership, Cosmopolis is a strange first adaptation, a language-bound and seemingly unfilmable novel, especially compared with the black comedy of White Noise, which supposedly attracted director Barry Sonnenfeld before disappearing and being removed from IMDB, with only Wikipedia (!) aware that an adaptation was ever a possibility.  The eminently filmable Libra was famously optioned by Oliver Stone, who then shelved it in favor of that other JFK conspiracy book.  The less realistic one.

delillo_NYT_1998

On the other hand, the plot of Cosmopolis always struck me as similar to the one DeLillo film that did make it—Game 6, written by DeLillo and starring Michael Keaton, who was also in the non-DeLillo White Noise film.  (Everything is connected.)  At the time, Game 6 struck me as compressed DeLillo miscellany—Mao II’s author/reader dynamics, White Noise’s SIMUVAC, and of course Underworld’s mediation on the meaning of loss, in baseball as in life.  Now, though, Game 6 seems more of a blueprint for the future Cosmopolis than a retrospective.   I find myself returning to Game 6’s cross-town New York City long day’s journey into night, its Pinter-esque dialogue between driver and troubled passenger who happens to be toting a loaded gun, as so many of DeLillo’s protagonists do, less as Chekov’s symbol of narrative economy as much as DeLillo’s favored way of propelling the plot deathward.

Cosmopolis, though, the book and the movie, is a far greater achievement than Game 6. As Cornel Bonca begins in his brilliant essay “Contact With the Real: On Cosmopolis,” when the novel “first came out in 2003, it was regarded by most reviewers, myself included, as a disappointment,” but he rightly concludes that the film may give “renewed life and attention to a novel that tells us more about this culture’s hurl into the future than we want to know.”  And indeed, the film does tremendous justice to the novel’s ideas, criticisms, but especially, for me, its sub-zero sense of humor, including Kozmo on Brutha Fez’s death: “Hope you’re not disappointed…. That our man wasn’t shot. Hope he didn’t let you down. Natural causes. That’s a letdown” (132), or Vija Kinsky, on time, technology, and language: “Even the word computer sounds backward and dumb” (104).  Director and adapter David Cronenberg seems an obvious partner.  His concern with technology is pervasive, including films like Videodrome, but Cronenberg’s adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s Crash demonstrates that, like DeLillo, in too many scenes to name, Cronenberg has had a particular ambivalence toward the automobile.  Cosmopolis, then, coalesces the DeLillian—and maybe American—obsessive trinity of money, guns, and cars.

Unlike those Amazon.com reviewers, I loved the movie. I was riveted, and I laughed out loud in ways that embarrassed me in front of only myself. But for me the surprise, and brilliance, was in casting Robert Pattinson.  Bonca suggests that Christian Bale, “whose imposing physicality and cruel intelligence[,] would have been perfect for Eric Packer.” Of course.  But the American Psycho-era Bale that Bonca envisions has turned into Terminator Salvation-era, Dark Knight Rises-era Bale—an action hero, or anti-hero, but either way a method-acting master and big budget Leading Man, too physically imposing,  ironically too well cast, for the ethereal weirdness of DeLillo’s prose and Cronenberg’s vision.  Pattinson’s casting reminds me of David Fincher’s at-the-time risk of with Brad Pitt in Fight Club: Pitt, like Pattinson, seemed less in keeping with the adaptation’s social satire and more like the thing the film was satirizing.  Yet instead, like Pitt, Pattinson brings an artless, rather than method, quality to the part—his ready-to-wear materialism and superficiality are neither teeny bopper nor ironic, but rather, perfect.  He even seemed out of control and frightened by the end, which works better than Bale’s perpetual imperturbability or even DeLillo’s paper Packer, who never loses his icy cool.

Pattinson fans hoping for a love story, or even a story, certainly set themselves up for disappointment. What DeLillo, Cronenberg, and Pattinson deliver is film’s most scathing critique of techno-capitalism in decades.  And once again, DeLillo comes off as the most prescient guy in the room, forecasting the possibility that a single hubristic day trader could threaten the entire global financial system, or even that a grassroots 99% movement could occupy New York—ideas that seemed unlikely in the shadow of 9/11 when the novel came out.  With its references to Marx (“A specter is haunting the world—the specter of capitalism!” [89, 96]), Cosmopolis positions Packer as the uncanny embodiment of Marx’s infamous monster metaphor: “Capital is dead labor, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks.”  Pattinson/Packer is that ghost, and that vampire.  Awake all night, pacing his urban Gothic castle, perpetually prowling for food and sex, preternaturally smart, hiding behind sunglasses and in his cork-lined, hearse-like automobile, Pattinson carries his Twilight fame readymade into Packer.   As Vija Kinsky explains to Eric, “People will not die. Isn’t this the creed of the new culture? People will be absorbed in streams of information” (104).  And at the end of the film, as Paul Giamatti’s Benno Levin holds the gun to Packer’s head and the film abruptly cuts to black, Packer is left suspended between life and death, undead, the final moment of the murder never to arrive. 

Packer may not be Edward Cullen or sparkle in the sunlight, but I know a true vampire when I see one.  Cosmopolis may not be White Noise or Underworld (the movies, that is), but at last DeLillo has his ghost and vampire.

He's so sparklie!

He’s so sparklie!

Hourman Update: The blog is still on hiatus, but I wanted to crosspost this piece with the Don DeLillo Society Newsletter, Vol 7 no 1, March 2013. I expect Hourman to return, in slightly different form, in a few months. Thanks to everyone who has been interested.

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The Rock & Roll Novel: Where Great Jones Street Meets Telegraph Avenue; Or, Hi, Fidelity!

Part II of ALL PLACES EXCEPT HERE ARE IMAGINARY: HEARING MICHAEL CHABON’S TELEGRAPH AVENUE, PART I  

From Esquire's review

Image from Esquire’s review

Last month, I concluded by saying that “no other novel showcases Chabon’s prose powers better than Telegraph Avenue.”  It turns out that the New York Times later agreed (who knew they read my blog?), placing TA on the 100 Notable Books of 2012 list with this summary:  “Chabon’s rich comic novel about fathers and sons in Berkeley and Oakland, Calif., juggles multiple plots and mounds of pop culture references in astonishing prose.”

It’s the “astonishing prose” part that I want to analyze.  Here is a sentence on the opening page, the first appearance of the one of the novel’s main characters:

Moonfaced, mountainous, moderately stoned, Archie Stallings manned the front counter of Brokeland Records, holding a random baby, wearing a tan corduroy suit over a pumpkin-bright turtleneck that reinforced his noted yet not disadvantageous resemblance to Gamera, the giant mutant tortoise of Japanese cinema.

In this sentence, we can already see both the novel’s preoccupations and style: the alliterative opening, the juxtaposition of images, the mild surprise of “random” before “baby”; the low culture reference to Gamera; the interests in vinyl, threads, and film. But we can also see begin to hear its music: the record store is more than a setting.  It establishes that Chabon’s prose will be musical to match.

Telegraph Avenue

Telegraph Avenue also distinguishes itself from the novels I immediately thought of from reading its description.  One is Don DeLillo’s Great Jones Street—its title, like TA, uses a real-life street name as metaphor, with Chabon going for assonance and an overt communication message vs. DeLillo’s more subtle allusion to longing and drugs.  For all of its seeming preoccupation with music, though, GJS—an underrated early ‘70s novel about a rock star trying to escape the life—is not singing TA’s tune.  Contrast Chabon’s earlier first page (although not first paragraph) with DeLillo’s opening paragraph:

Fame requires every kind of excess.  I mean true fame, a devouring neon, not the somber renown of waning statesmen or chinless kings.  I mean long journeys across gray space.  I mean danger, the edge of every void, the circumstance of one man imparting an erotic terror to the dreams of the republic.  Understand the man who must inhabit these extreme regions, monstrous and vulval, damp with memories of violation.  Even if half-mad he is absorbed into the public’s total madness; even if fully rational, a bureaucrat in hell, a secret genius of survival, he is sure to be destroyed by the public’s contempt for survivors.  Fame, this special kind, feeds itself on outrage, on what the counselors of lesser men would consider bad publicity—hysteria in limousines, knife fights in the audience, bizarre litigation, treachery, pandemonium and drugs.  Perhaps the only natural law attaching to true fame is that the famous man is compelled, eventually, to commit suicide.

(Is it clear I was a hero of rock ’n’ roll?) (1)

great_jones_street_

It’s brilliant, but the rhythms and repetitions (“I mean”), to say nothing of DeLillo’s unique imagery (“chinless kings,” “vulval,” “bureaucrat in hell”), are nothing like Chabon’s gee-whiz sincerity.

The other obvious comparison is between TA and High Fidelity, another novel about another record store owner on the brink of economic and romantic collapse.  But again, the voice in Nick Hornby’s novel could not be more different from Chabon’s, or DeLillo’s. Here is Hornby’s opening:

My desert-island, all-time, top five most memorable split-ups, in chronological order:

  1. Alison Ashworth
  2. Penny Hardwick
  3. Jackie Allen
  4. Charlie Nichilson
  5. Sarah Kendrew.

Gone are Chabon’s—and DeLillo’s—meandering cadences. This is clipped prose that captures narrator Rob’s solipsistic and obsessive (a period at the end of a list?) yet engaging character.  Hornby’s use of hyphens, to say nothing of lists, makes Rob as different as possibly from laid-back, often dispassionate Archie and Sphinx-like, cipher-like Bucky in Great Jones Street.

High Fidelity

You can leaf through Telegraph Avenue and pick nearly any passage on nearly any of the book’s 465 pages and see the same superrealistic attention to detail, details that mostly do not accrue or foreshadow; they are like ornate, lovingly crafted background shots and costumes that the camera pans over closely to capture and create tone:

Page 176: The door to the office creaked open with its trademark creature-feature spookiness, a sound, impervious to old can and WD-40 alike, that had in turn haunted the practices of a Jungian analyst, a couples therapist, a specialist in neurolinguistic programming, a hypnotherapist, a shiatsu practitioner, and a life coach before settling on to lock the tenure of the Birth Partners in suite 202.

280: A last morning glad of summer, blue banded with gold and peach, unfurled slowly over the streets as the two wanderers, denizens of the hidden world know to rogues, gamblers, and swordsmen as “the Water Margin,” made their way along the Street of Blake toward the ancestral stronghold of the Jew-Tang Clan, its gables armored in cedar shakes faded to the color of dry August hills.

412: On the dilapidated sign of Steele’s Scuba, a ghostly diver confronted the lost submarine mysteries of Telegraph Avenue.

On each page, but especially in the longer sentences—and many of the sentences are very, very long, including a single-sentence tour de force chapter that runs over a dozen pages—we see the clauses balanced, sometimes Jenga-style, so that the reader is sure that the whole thing will fall apart or dissolve into run-on cacophony  (it never does), often phrased like a long jazz phrase, the reader almost hearing the horn player just make it to the end on a single breath.

Benjamin Percy in Esquire, however, doesn’t see it that way:

…Telegraph Avenue aligns itself more with [Chabon’s] earlier pre-Marvel novels — about real people in the real world, such as in the remarkable Wonder Boys — yet he’s stuck with his over-the-top hyperactive style of recent years. It’s the equivalent of Michael Bay directing a romantic comedy. It may be entertaining, and there may be a great story buried beneath the special effects and explosions, but it doesn’t track.

I think Percy is using the wrong metaphor.  Despite my earlier movie simile, I don’t see the sentences as “the equivalent of Michael Bay”—big, dumb, show-offy spectacle—at all.  Instead, I hear them, and, in keeping with the novel’s recurring use of real songs to provide a quasi-soundtrack to accompany the story, the sentences sound like Charlie Parker or early Miles Davis. (Percy compares them with Sergeant Pepper, which I can see, but that comparison contradicts what he also suggests about Chabon’s show-offy virtuosity.) Sometimes I hear Frank Zappa, when it gets far out.  And mostly Chabon sound like a hyperarticulate yet dreamy poet more than a realist novelist. Typed differently, the opening page passage (or again, really, any of them) begins to look and sound like Allen Ginsberg, except I suppose for the Gamera part, which I’ll excise:

Moonfaced, mountainous, moderately stoned,

Archie Stallings manned

The front counter of Brokeland Records,

 Holding a random baby,

 Wearing a tan corduroy suit over a pumpkin-bright turtleneck that reinforced his

Noted yet not

Disadvantageous resemblance …

Yet at the same time, despite the breathes, cadences, and musicality, the prose—or the neighborhood, or these characters—can exist only as words, as language.  Percy’s Bay analogy is doubly off base, and even my music is a metaphor.  It’s no surprise that William Grimes, also writing in the NY Times, declared the audiobook of TA a dud, despite what seems the obvious potential:

A prime example of a good book defeated by the format is TELEGRAPH AVENUE (Harper Audio, $44.99), Michael Chabon’s teeming novel about race, human relations and a lot of other stuff swirling around a vintage record store in Oakland, Calif. The language is dense, allusive, hip and sharp, which is to say, very difficult to perform. Clarke Peters, who played Detective Lester Freamon on the television series “The Wire” and Big Chief Lambreaux on “Treme,” picks his way carefully through this minefield, articulating painstakingly in the sonorous, low-pitched voice of a late-night D.J. on a progressive jazz station. It’s a swinging style, perfectly attuned to the novel’s setting and falls easily on the ear, but Chabon’s relentlessly brilliant prose style makes heavy demands on performer and listener alike. By the second disc in a marathon that goes on for more than 18 hours, the thought arises that some books simply need to be experienced in black type.

Despite seeming to be based on Oakland, despite the voluminous attention to real-life detail with occasional real-life people thrown in for good measure, Telegraph Avenue, is, in the end, a purely imaginary place, a fantasy that exists only on the pages of the book of the same name.  Chabon originally wanted TA to be a TV series, and plot- and character-wise, I can see it.  But no screen, or even spoken reading, can do what words alone on the page achieve.  Telegraph Avenue makes the case that the printed word can still do things that music, television, and even Michael Bay cannot.

Time: 90 minutes. Yes, this is a long entry even for going overtime, but I copied and pasted or retyped more than usual.  I still feel as though I’ve barely scratched the surface of this novel—what about race?—but I’m ready to move on.

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Don DeLillo is Not Dead

Also: Not Dead Yet

While it seems impossible to believe, some people don’t know who Don DeLillo is; or, as I say to students, he’s the most famous author they’ve never heard of.[i]   And many of those people, including my non-academic acquaintances—yes, I have some—presume that Don DeLillo is dead.  They’re surprised that he’s not.

Their assumption raises a few interesting problems for teachers and scholars of living authors.  The first is the notion that the only authors worth studying must come from a previous era, a line of reasoning that English Departments discarded decades ago but that the general public may not have.  Not that they don’t read, or even prefer, living authors themselves, but that living authors don’t produce Literature, only books, and ideally bestsellers.  We can’t, in this line of thinking, really know an author’s place, value, or contribution in his or her own lifetime, as though authorship were akin to sainthood.

The second is what I think of as the Back to School Problem.  If you’ve seen the movie (1986), Rodney Dangerfield (who is, in fact, now dead) plays his usual self-deprecating schlub.  In the words of IMDB’s tagline, “To help his discouraged son get through college, a funloving and obnoxious rich businessman decides to enter the school as a student himself.”   When Dangerfield’s character needs to write a paper on the novels of Kurt Vonnegut (who is also now dead), he hires Vonnegut himself to do the work.  The cameo alone is funny, but the punchline is that Dangerfield fails the paper, not just because the professor knows right away that someone else wrote it, but also because “whoever did write [this paper] doesn’t know the first thing about Kurt Vonnegut.” (Warning: offensive language)

The joke, as usual I suppose, is on the professor, who, we understand through dramatic irony, only thinks she is an authority on Vonnegut’s work.  Or worse, she (unknowingly) believes that she knows Vonnegut better than he knows himself.  Despite decades of reader response theory and deconstruction, despite cases where authors themselves have claimed not to have understood what at they wrote at the time, despite authors admitting only a hazy notion of how their work would be interpreted, in the popular mind, the author is still the best, and maybe only, authority on his or her work.  Shakespeare can’t tell you that your, say, Lacanian readings of Hamlet weren’t what he intended.  Well, how could they have been?  And contemporary critics understand that intentions are not the only point—if not beside the point entirely.  But Don DeLillo can still tell you that your, say, ecocritical reading of White Noise isn’t what he intended.  Or, as he has suggested in interviews, that he never reads critical or literary theory.  And, unlike, Back to School, it would not be a joke.  If students worry that they’re not entitled to form opinions on Shakespeare because his work is centuries old, endlessly discussed, and firmly canonical, they can feel equally constrained by the living author, because they can still be proven wrong, if the author only says so.

Which takes me to my final problem.  DeLillo, unlike, say JD Salinger (who died only recently), is not only alive but still prolific.  The last decade alone has produced The Body Artist, Cosmopolis, Falling Man, Point Omega, and the new collection of short stories, compiled from 1979-2011, The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories.  This work alone could be the envy of many authors—consider that in about the same time, Jonathan Franzen produced a single novel, Freedom; in only a little less time, Jeffery Eugenides wrote The Marriage Plot.[ii]  So in addition to what I see as the indisputably Great Novels—White Noise, Libra, and Underworld—such an output is astonishing.     

And these works can’t help but change how I read DeLillo now.  Point Omega is almost the anti-Underworld (Overworld?), so sparse and imagistic as to be nearly inscrutable.  If Underworld overwhelms readers, Point Omega underwhelms them, by design.  Libra is often read as speculative fiction, a conspiracy-minded counter-narrative to the prevailing Kennedy history.  But rather than taking on what could have been a similar approach to 9/11, DeLillo completely eschews paranoia in Falling Man, surrendering his anointment as chief shaman of the paranoid school of literature.  And Angel Esmeralda, for me, provides the greatest pause.  Perhaps I shouldn’t admit that I had never read the first story “Creation,” published in 1979, but reading it now reveals a writer interested in mixing breezy eroticism into his usual—and now, arguably since White Noise, semi-suspended—absurdist, black humor. 

Overall, what the collection—and the past decade’s work—demonstrates is an author who is unrepentantly alive, in all senses of the word:   animated, energetic, relevant, and changing.  It gives the reader a lot to live up to, and much to look forward to as well.

Time: OK, I have to admit that I forgot to pay attention to the clock today. I know, I know, that’s my whole schtick.  Maybe 60 minutes? Probably a little over.  Not too much, though.


[i] Chances are that this isn’t even true, since many have not heard of Joyce or Faulkner or even Austen, but I like the line.

[ii] Not that these aren’t great achievements, I hasten to add, since Franzen and Eugenides are alive and likely to get annoyed at such comparisons.

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