From the President
Cosmopolis: Don DeLillo Goes to the Movies
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.
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 a 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, Patinson 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 Pattison 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.
DeLillo, Don. Cosmopolis. New York: Scribner, 2003.
Bonca, Cornel. “Contact With The Real: On ‘Cosmopolis.’” Los Angeles Review of Books. 12 September 2012. Web. 1 March 2013
— Jesse Kavadlo
Call for Papers
“The Later DeLillo”: SAMLA, Atlanta, GA, Nov. 8-10, 2013
Since 2001, the distinguished American novelist Don DeLillo (b. 1936) has produced a series of compressed short works. Gone, for the most part, is the broad historical sweep of Libra and Underworld; in their place are brief, elliptical meditations on grief, mortality, trauma and alienation. DeLillo’s style has also undergone compression, as he has relinquished the antic intellectual playfulness of his earlier work in favor of a Beckettian terseness.
For this panel, I seek papers on the plays, novels and novellas DeLillo has published since 2001. The papers should work toward a definition of the Later DeLillo. How have his signature concerns changed in the past dozen years? Can we discern some unity among these later works? Is there a late DeLillo style? Send 250-work abstracts and one-page CV to Mark Osteen, email@example.com, by May 15th
“Very terrible thing but you have to look at it, I think.” “Yes, you have to look.”~ Don DeLillo, Underworld
Given his fascination with the twinned existence of the towers, it makes sense why Don DeLillo would be so drawn to the figure in Richard Drew’s September 11, 2001 photo, “Falling Man,” the titular image of DeLillo’s fifteenth novel. Tom Junod said of the unidentified man in the photo, “He splits them, bisects them: Everything to the left of him in the picture is the North Tower; everything to the right, the South. Though oblivious to the geometric balance he has achieved, he is the essential element in the creation of a new flag, a banner composed entirely of steel bars shining in the sun.” Junod’s elegy to the two towers resonates throughout DeLillo’s fiction, which has consistently come back to this detail. In Mao II, photographer Brita Nilsson comments on their twinned existence to the aging author, Bill Gray: “But having two of them is like a comment, it’s like a dialogue, only I don’t know what they’re saying” (40). For DeLillo, the towers speak of their own destruction, and continue to do so even after their collapse.
In White Noise, DeLillo references the “Law of Ruins,” the philosophy that underlay German architect Albert Speer’s desire to “build structures that would decay gloriously, impressively, like Roman ruins. No rusty hulks or gnarled steel slums” (246). First proposed by John Ruskin, the Law of Ruins holds that the final record of a civilization is its architecture, and thus the chief purpose behind a design was posterity. “The ruin is built into the creation . . . which shows a certain nostalgia behind the power principle, or a tendency to organize the longings of future generations.” For DeLillo, we build in the present with a mind toward the future’s vision of the past. And by controlling this future self-image, by allowing our ruins to speak of our glory, a civilization demonstrates its true power.
DeLillo expands on this sentiment in Underworld, a novel oft-discussed in the post-9/11 period for its ominous cover that features the WTC towers in a fog, a giant bird visible in the distance and a church cross bisecting the two towers. (The story goes that DeLillo selected the cover image but felt it too heavy-handed. When Scribner assigned the task to an independent researcher, they independently settled on the same image.) The novel is largely about building towers of waste, and DeLillo juxtaposes the Fresh Kills landfill with the Twin Towers (again, oddly forecasting the main site of the WTC detritus). Surveying the tower of refuse, waste manager Nick Shay finds “the sight inspiring. All this ingenuity and labor, this delicate effort to fit maximum waste into diminishing space. The towers of the World Trade Center were visible in the distance and he sensed a poetic balance between that idea and this one” (184). The nature of that balance seems to rest in the unseen relationship between what has been discarded, and what will be discarded, and how both speak to the nation’s glory.
The juxtaposition of the towers against the landfill speaks to the inevitability of their collapse. DeLillo says as much when he brings these disparate comments together in Falling Man where art critic Ernst Hechinger rhetorically asks,
But that’s why you built the towers, isn’t it? Weren’t the towers built as fantasies of wealth and power that would one day become fantasies of destruction? You build a thing like that so you can see it come down. The provocation is obvious. What other reason would there be to go so high and then to double it, do it twice? It’s a fantasy, so why not do it twice? You are saying, Here it is, bring it down. (116)
Again, the towers’ twinned existence resonates for DeLillo in terms of a conversation. The towers speak to one another, to New Yorkers, and to the world. What they speak of is their own inevitable destruction, and the glory attendant to that destruction. They flaunt their existence and invite disaster, welcome it, and even need it. They are built, Hechinger would probably say, according to the Law of Ruins, which stipulates glory takes shape not in their presence, but their absence. Hechinger’s later criticism of the United States’ post-9/11 diplomacy (or lack thereof) speaks to this brazen attitude born in what DeLillo elsewhere calls “the ruins of the future.”
Now that the towers are gone, DeLillo’s oracular powers once again ring true, as the ruins return to Ground Zero—the iconic pillared tridents now stand in the memorial’s on-site museum. The 9/11 memorial bespeaks a tragic loss, but in designing the memorial around the footprints of the towers, architect Michael Arad reifies a misplaced nostalgia for the ruins. That is, the loss of human life is clearly recognized, but the towers themselves are anthropomorphized, becoming victims themselves. However, long perceived as a blight on the New York skyline, the towers are commemorated not for what they were when they stood, but the glory their absence represents. As the first (and second) landmark(s) of the American empire to crumble under the Law of Ruins, the towers are certainly glorious in their destruction.
Brita was correct, the towers do speak to one another; now more than ever. The 110-story skyscrapers inverted to 30-foot waterfalls are specifically designed to generate white noise that drowns out the sounds of the city. And as much as the “Freedom Tower’s” 1,776 feet testifies to the United States’ continuing glory, Speer’s logic suggests it is the ruins on which our future will be shaped. Ruins. Laws of Ruins of the Future. This is not only how civilizations are remembered, DeLillo tells us, but how they are built.
DeLillo, Don. Falling Man. New York: Scribner, 2007.
—. Mao II. New York: Viking, 1991.
—. Underworld. New York: Scribner, 1997.
—. White Noise. 1985. New York: Penguin, 1999.
Junod, Tom. “The Falling Man.” Esquire (1 Sept. 2003): 176+.
My lounge-room colour scheme is green and white, so you know,
(I’m getting to the point: contextualising can be slow)
The bookshelves are alpha-ordered, which is no mean feat,
And the leather couches can be sweaty in the Aussie heat.
My DeLillo books are placed on the highest shelf above,
Haphazardly arranged, but dog-eared with much love,
Sometimes they dance the domino, and often one will fall,
Perhaps the work does not enjoy the ‘high-art’ position tall.
‘Who’s this guy?’, friends would ask at the novels set so high,
‘Just some guy’, I’d reply, and linger with a sigh.
‘He’s written lots of stuff,’ they’d say, and back away in fear,
‘I guess he has’, and there my bounded dissertation’d leer.
We’ve all come across the works in several different ways,
Through research, or teaching, or bookish wined soirees,
No doubt, though, our thoughts on barns can never be the same,
Nor toxic fumes, nor supermarkets, nor any live ballgame.
After reading good ol’ White Noise, and going to the shops,
My eyes were wide as platters, darting round non-stop,
Such luminosity! Deathlessness! The waxed nature of the apple!
And there, beside the lemons, with ontology I’d grapple.
What if this is, really, the contemporary church?
In you go on Saturday morn, and out again you’d lurch,
Replenished, rejuvenated, a bit lighter in the wallet,
But altogether somehow ‘more’, if that’s how you want to call it.
The postmodernists reconceptualise the hegemonic norm,
Beating out such things as Truth, and deconstructing form,
I never did conceive of Don as a postmodern hero figure,
Considering instead the human traits altogether bigger.
Please don’t think this a declaration of altruistic fondness:
Some of his work I’d rather forget, if I could be so honest.
The ballgame passages of Underworld I found terrrrribly long,
And often novels end just when they’re getting strong.
But the language DeLillo uses is sometimes, quite simply, magic;
The unmet desires and lived-out fears are so heartbreakingly tragic,
Independent thought, risky politics, fallible protagonists,
The quiet writers, the filmmakers, and the Wall Street hedonists.
I look around—there they are—papers piling in the corner,
The summer heat and windless air makes this room a sauna.
Enough procrastination, the day is running out of time,
And so here I put an end to my quick DeLillo rhyme.
— Rebecca Rey
Recent DeLillo News
A film version of The Body Artist, entitled Body Art, is reported to be in production, directed by Luca Guadagnino and starring Sigourney Weaver. According to reports, the director of Cosmopolis, David Cronenberg, will also appear in the movie.
The Word for Snow, DeLillo’s recent playabout climate change received its European premier at London’s Southbank Centre on 10 July 2012.
The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories was runner-up for the 2012 PEN/ Faulkner Award for fiction.
— Anne Longmuir
Don DeLillo Society News
We report with great sadness that Paul Giaimo, the Don DeLillo Society secretary, passed away from cancer in June 2012. His obituary can be found here: <http://www.journalstandard.com/obituaries/x2067831404/Obituary-Paul-S-Giaimo>. The Don DeLillo extends its condolences to his family.
In November 2012, Paul Petrovic (Northern Illinois University) was appointed as secretary to the Don DeLillo Society.
In February 2013, the Don DeLillo Society sponsored a panel at the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture:
“Private Politics in DeLillo After Underworld”
Chair and Organizer: Martina Sciolino, University of Southern Mississippi, Don DeLillo Society
- Ana Carolina dos Santos Marques, Sao Paulo State University, “Cosmopolis in an International Context”
- Paul Petrovic, University of Tulsa, “Children, Terrorists, and Cultural Resistance in Don DeLillo’s Falling Man”
- Charles Sumner, University of Southern Mississippi, “Taming the Political: Or Why DeLillo Domesticates 9/11”
- Rebecca Rey, University of Western Australia, “Point Omega: Don DeLillo’s converging vanishing point”
— Anne Longmuir
A Note from the Editor
I’d like to offer thanks to all those who contributed material to this issue of the newsletter.
If you’d like to send comments, reviews, or short articles for the next issue of the newsletter, please email them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org (deadline: September 7th, 2013).
— Anne Longmuir
Aaron DeRosa is an Assistant Professor of 20th and 21st Century American Literature at California State Polytechnic University Pomona. His work has appeared in Studies in the Novel, Modern Fiction Studies, and The Journal of Literary Theory. He has published on DeLillo’s fiction in an edited collection, Portraying 9/11, and has an article on Falling Man and Jess Walter’s The Zero forthcoming in Arizona Quarterly.His current manuscript, Evolving Wounds: Cultural Trauma, the Atomic Bomb, and 9/11, traces Cold War resonances in post-9/11 American culture.
Jesse Kavadlo is the President of the Don DeLillo Society and an Associate Professor of English at Maryville University in St. Louis. He received his Ph.D. in English from Fordham University in the Bronx (DeLillo’s alma mater) and has written a book, Don DeLillo: Balance at the Edge of Belief, as well as essays about DeLillo in Studies in Popular Culture, Academic Exchange Quarterly, Critique, and Don DeLillo (Bloom’s Major Novelists). He’s also written about Chuck Palahniuk, contemporary fiction, scholarship of teaching and learning, writing centers, and television and film. Read his blog, Hourman: Cultural analysis in 60 minutes or less.
Anne Longmuir (DDS Newsletter Editor) is an Associate Professor of English at Kansas State University. She completed a Ph.D. on the fiction of Don DeLillo at the University of Edinburgh in 2003 and has published articles on DeLillo’s work in Critique, Modern Fiction Studies, Journal of Narrative Theory, and Modern Language Studies.
Rebecca Rey is a PhD graduate from The University of Western Australia. Her dissertation, passed in 2012, is titled ‘Staging DeLillo’ and focuses on Don DeLillo’s little-known plays. She is also the editorial assistant for the Australasian Journal of Philosophy and has published in Cultural Studies Review, The Conversation and Limina.