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Reading Cosmopolis between cosmopolii, in need of a haircut (but never getting 1)


While in NYC, we saw Cosmopolis. Really didn't know what to think after, suffice to say it intrigued, enough to want to know more. So we bought the book.

Started to read it in the city (after finishing The Street of Crocodiles). Read it on the subway on the way to the airport, below the same streets that Eric Packer inches along in his limousine. And then on the plane, to Madrid, since we couldn't get a direct flight.

Didn't leave the airport in Madrid, but regrasamos in a few months, for an event que no podemos revelar the details of yet, suffice to say es gigantesco, in the 6 figures. In the interim, aquí es our Madrid trip report from el año pasado, reading Heidegger & Carlos Fuentes (who since died).

And sí, this post continues the trend of not writing in 1st person, nor using the verb to be. In Cosmopolis, the protagonist Eric Packer often speaks in 1st person plural. I.e. «We need to get a haircut.»

An interesting premise—getting a haircut. Going to a barber. Beyond the obvious connotations—the barber being friends with his dad, his last link to his childhood & getting a haircut in financial terms means taking a loss, getting fleeced, losing your shirt—the barber pole symbolizes blood-letting, a service barbers used to offer back in the day. Bloodletting as a means to prevent or cure disease (Eric saw a doctor daily) or bloodletting to just give blood. Barber as blood-letter is an allegory that Sweeney Todd (which we only saw just recently) took to the extreme.

Biblical undercurrents also seem to run through Cosmoplis, most explicitly expressed in Eric shooting hisself in the hand (self-inflicted stigmata). (Guess we should've declared a «SPOLIER ALERT» by this point—for the book & the movie.) We bet if you analyzed all the stops he makes on his odyssey, you could draw parallels to the stations of the cross or some such thing.

Cosmopolis by Don Delillo

Also of interest—he travels east to west, something Delillo makes clear so probably means something, maybe something to do with eastern mysticism or capitalism or the convergence of both. Per the wikipedia entry on the history of globalization:

«Trade was widespread during that period, and it is the first time the idea of a cosmopolitan culture (from Greek "Cosmopolis", meaning "world city") emerged. Others have perceived an early form of globalization in the trade links between the Roman Empire, the Parthian Empire, and the Han Dynasty. The increasing articulation of commercial links between these powers inspired the development of the Silk Road, which started in western China, reached the boundaries of the Parthian empire, and continued onwards towards Rome.»

China to Rome, como Marco Polo. And of course, his investment in the yen leads to his financial ruin, his bleeding.

We felt compelled to read the book because we sensed more going on than a limo ride & the cathartic crash of a mega-billionaire. Not that we needed to know the meaning behind everything, have it spelled out, but we wanted to read it in the language Delillo uses, those lucid revelatory passages, these bursts of insight, that define Delillo.

«He looked past Chin toward streams of numbers running in opposite directions. He understood how much it meant to him, the roll and flip of data on a screen. He studied the figural diagrams that brought organic patterns into play, birdwing and chambered shell, it was shallow thinking to maintain that numbers and charts were the cold compression of unruly human energies, every sort of yearning and midnight sweat reduced to lucid units in the financial markets. In fact data itself was soulful and glowing, a dynamic aspect of the life process. This was the eloquence of alphabets and numeric systems, now fully realized in electronic form, in the zero-oneness of the world, the digital imperative that defined every breath of the planet's living billions. Here was the heave of the biosphere. Our bodies and oceans were here, knowable and whole.»

Delillo gets away with telling (rather than showing), of being expository. And having an omnipresent narrator. Things that normally don't appeal to us. But when Delillo reveals, he reveils—it's revelatory. Take the asymmetric prostate—Eric Packer's other stand-out feature (besides badly needing a haircut). Just the word must do in the movie, as revealed in dialogue, the summary of his doctor's verdict. And it does, it fires the imagination. But Delillo's expository revealing, and the language in which he tells, far exceeds any description you can mount in your head of what it means, with or without language.

«But there was something about the idea of asymmetry. It was intriguing in the world outside the body, a counterforce to balance a calm, the riddling little twist, subatomic, that made creation happen. There was the serpentine word itself, slightly off kilter, with the single additional letter that changes everything. But when he removed the word from its cosmological register and applied it to the body of a male mammal, his body, he began to feel pale and spooked. He felt a certain perverse reverence toward the word. A fear of, a distance from. When he heard the word spoken in a context of urine and semen and when he thought of the word in the shadow of pissed pants, one, and limp-dick desolation, two, he was haunted to the point of superstitious silence.»

Can't say it much better than that. Dialogue-wise, the movie follows the book virtually word for word.

The main differences between the movie & the book (again, consider yourself spoiler alerted)—for starters, Cronenberg leaves the ending of the movie ambiguous. You never know for sure whether he shoots him or not. Like Schrödinger's cat, you are left in a state of indeterminacy. And while in the book it eventually circles around to the same ambiguous conclusion (at least in the final sentence), a few times early on you are led to believe that he kills him. This comes in the form of two confessional chapters by Benno Levin, the Paul Giamatti character that, perhaps, kills him.

«I thought I would spend whatever number of years it takes to write ten thousand pages and then you would have the record, the literature of a life awake and asleep, because dreams too, and little stabs of memory, and all the pitiful habits and concealments, and all the things around me would be included, noises in the street, but I understand for the first time, now, this minute, that all the thinking and writing in the world will not describe what I felt in the awful moment when I fired the gun and saw him fall. So what is left that's worth the telling?»

Thing is, you can't be so sure as to his killer's reliability (& while Delillo wrote the rest of the book in 3rd person, these confessions he wrote in 1st person). And then at the end of the book, Eric Packer has a sort of out of body experience, where you are led to think he perhaps watches himself die... until the final line of the book you realize the trigger never gets pulled (yet), so the passage becomes more his thoughts induced on the brink of death, in those final moments (which Robert Pattinson nailed without saying anything). Though he explicitly specifies Richard Sheets (the real name of Benno Levin) as his killer. Whether he dies or not becomes irrelevant, but the expectation leading up to it is that his death is inevitable.

«His murderer, Richard Sheets, sits facing him. He has lost interest in the man. His hand contains the pain of his life, all of it, emotional and other, and he closes his eyes one more time. This is not the end. He is dead inside the crystal of his watch but still alive in original space, waiting for the shot to sound.»

The only major scene that gets omitted (from the movie) comes near end—just before they get to the garage at the end of the world they come across a film shoot with hundreds of dead bodies lying in the street. Eric gets out & joins them, taking off his clothes & lying down, though not sure of the context, whether to act dead or alive.

Spencer Tunick NYC

Spencer Tunick's take

Seems like a pretty important scene to omit, a scene that sort of ties Eric's death in with all his anonymous subjects (if you consider him a financial baron lording over his serfs)—taking off his clothes to put them on equal terms, circling back to his use of the pronoun «we». But perhaps Cronenberg left it out because it would've been hard to pull off, to amass hundreds of naked people in Spencer Tunick fashion. And also it would've required Pattinson to get naked.

Speaking of, the book's far more graphic & raunchy. You get details like, in his fling with his private security agent, she pours vodka on his balls—something presumably the squeamish Pattinson opted not to do on film. Oh, and in the book he gets shot with the stun gun. But interesting how Cronenberg also left this undetermined, to fit with the end.

We met someone once, a PhD student doing a thesis on Delillo. Can't remember his name or where we knew him from. Obviously he'd read everything Delillo had written multiple times & then some. Can't imagine. We've only read about half of his opus (talked about others here, here & here). If he wasn't so damned prolific, maybe we'd read them all.

The book came at a good time, as Delillo captures New York City well (even better than Paul Auster, who he dedicates the book to)—the Cosmopolis wherein we contemplated our future there (the outcome, to be determined).

«He felt the street around him, unremitting, people moving past each other in coded moments of gesture and dance. They tried to walk without breaking stride because breaking stride is well-meaning and weak but they were forced sometimes to sidestep and even pause and they almost always averted their eyes. Eye contact was a delicate matter. A quarter second of a shared glance was a violation of agreements that made the city operational.»

Only someone that has served time in NYC could write this. He captures it to a T. People ask us if we're excited about coming back & we can never quite say «excited». More than anything, you can get shit done in NYC. Especially comparata a Roma. Come abbiamo detto prima, è all about mobility, diversity & competition. Non è tanto la città so much as what it compels/allows you to do with your life.

And though Delillo wrote it in 2003, it felt like the NYC of 2011, during the occupy movement, a NYC we didn't know since vivevamo here, in Rome, in questo momento.

We need a haircut, but we're not getting one. Non abbiamo tagliato i capelli da quando siamo stati a Roma. We had planned on getting inked while in NYC, to get a tattoo to commemorate our two & a half years spent in Rome. Something we've been meaning to get (but felt we needed to put in our time 1st): Romulus & Remus suckling the she-wolf. Sulla mia tetta naturalmente. But our tattoo artist injured his arm (the one he draws with) so the S.P.Q.R. she-wolf will have to wait, o possiamo farlo qui, which perhaps makes more sense. This was the plan, comunque:

SPQR she-wolf

But as of today (September 6, 2012), our plans remains in a state of indeterminacy...

 >> next up: the upside-down garden to the Matterhorn


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