Don DeLillo's Cosmopolis did turn out to be perfect airplane-reading length--just long enough to last the whole flight and to provide a few more satisfying pages as I settled in.
DeLillo is one of those novelists who makes me want to immediately drop whatever else it is I'm doing and write a novel. (David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest had that effect on me too but I've soured on him a bit--though it was in part his take on White Noise that turned me on to DeLillo.) DeLillo's probably the contemporary novelist who it's easiest (and maybe most dangerous) to imitate or parody; his style's often called stilted, unnatural, perhaps because the narration is often a jarringly baroque contrast to the mannered flatness of the dialogue.
For instance, some of the opening lines of Cosmopolis: "He did not take long walks into the scrolling dawn. There was no friend he loved enough to harrow with a call." Scrolling? Harrow? A million workshop instructors are waiting with pens of all shades: "Overwritten." "Pretentious." "Show don't tell." On the other hand, DeLillo's characters often seem to be saying nothing, their favorite utterance--"What."--not a question but a mere punctuation mark.
The NY Times review I read took Cosmopolis to task for lacking narrative coherence and character development. What century are we living in? DeLillo's characters don't develop; that's the point. They're hardly even characters--more like projections, constellations, complexes. Some critics think this is because DeLillo's read too much lit theory, but it's most likely that most reviewers have read too little; anyway, DeLillo's pontificators are usually set up for parody or an ironic fall.
What's most interesting about this book, though, is that it's about a poem. In fact, one might even say that it's an enactment or expansion of a poem. In an age when it's said that no one reads or cares about poetry, it's striking that one of our best-known novelists would create a protagonist--one on the cutting edge of wealth and technology, no less--who reads it. Here's the book's second paragraph:
He tried to read his way into sleep but only grew more wakeful. He read science and poetry. He liked spare poems sited minutely in white space, ranks of alphabetic strokes burnt into paper. Poems made him conscious of his breathing. A poem bared the moment to things he was not normally prepared to notice. This was the nuance of every poem, at least for him, at night, these long weeks, one breath after another, in the rotating room at the top of the triplex.
DeLillo riffs effortlessly on some of our conceptions of contemporary poetry: the material text, the breath-based line, poetry as meditation. And yet we don't know how seriously to take this, as it seems to appear only as fodder for the protagonist's self-absorption. Later in the book:
He stood in the poetry alcove at the Gotham Book Mart, leafing through chapbooks. He browsed lean books always, half a fingerbreadth or less, choosing poems to read based on length and width. He looked for poems of four, five, six lines. He scrutinzed such poems, thinking into every intimation, and his feelings seemed to float in the white space around the lines. There were marks on the page and there was the page. The white was vital to the soul of the poem.
Did your high school English teacher talk to you about the white space? Mine did.
The role of poetry is much broader than this in the book, though. The book carries an epigraph from Zbigniew Herbert's "Report from the Besieged City": "a rat became the unit of currency." Herbert's poetry has never done that much for me, personally, but I can see why DeLillo picked this poem: it's an apocalyptic collage, spoken by a reluctant chronicler in an unknown place, in a strange combination of the specific and the abstract:
I write as I can in the rhythm of interminable weeks
monday: empty storehouses a rat became the unit of currency
tuesday: the mayor murdered by unknown assailants
wednesday: negotiations for a cease-fire the enemy has imprisoned our messengers
we don't know where they are held that is the place of torture
thursday: after a stormy meeting a majority of voices rejected
the motion of the spice merchants for unconditional surrender
friday: the beginning of the plague saturday: our invincible defender
N.N. committed suicide sunday: no more water we drove back
an attack at the eastern gate called the Gate of the Alliance
all of this is monotonous I know it can't move anyone
Cosmopolis is a kind of prose version of this poem; DeLillo literalizes the allusion by inserting into the narrative a group of guerilla performance artists who roam the city in rat costumes, release rats into exclusive restaurants, and finally mount an attack in Times Square, where they project Herbert's line onto the electronic ticker-tape boards. It's as if DeLillo were bringing to life all of the demands for poetry as political action, injecting it into the heart of media discourse. But it's left an open question as to whether poetry connects or disconnects, whether it foments revolution or simply becomes more discourse, more media pleasure:
It was exhilirating, his head in the fumes, to see the struggle and ruin around him, the gassed men and women in their defiance, waving looted Nasdaq T-shirts, and to realize they'd been reading the same poetry he'd been reading.