#13 Leveraging the Void, part 3
The penultimate part of a series inspired by Don DeLillo's Cosmopolis.
..I heard, in my soul I suppose, where the acoustics are so bad..
Samuel Beckett, Molloy1
The way up and the way down are one and the same.
..It was slathered in red-and-black spray paint. There were dozens of bruises and punctures, long burrowing scrape marks, swaths of impact and discolor..
After its daytime encounter with the mob, those rat- and aerosol-wielding anticapitalists who brought explosive chaos to downtown Manhattan, Eric Packer’s white stretch rolls into the second, after-dark part of Cosmopolis in a still-roadworthy but disheveled state. The defacement of the limo heightens the sense of crossing a threshold. DeLillo is fond of his signs and portents. The first hint of trouble to come was the eccentric shape of Eric’s prostate, the second the ‘credible threat’; now we have the third—a spray-painted omen of the billionaire’s coming descent, from Randian hero as rich as Croesus3 to pauperised American Psycho.
Eric is worried about his prostate. His worries are heightened by his awareness of the circumstances of his father’s death4. That anxiety, maybe, goes some way toward explaining his behaviour in Part One—by which I mean his hubris, his recklessness. That lack of caution which leads him to make ruinous mistakes in the currency markets, errors whose consequences will extend to ‘shit’ poet Elise Shifrin (his wife, in case you need a reminder) and the unfortunate Torval (his chief of security). As Eric will later confess to his incompetent assassin:
“The yen eluded me. This had never happened. I became halfhearted.“
An asymmetrical prostate, an exercise bike missing a pedal, the driver Ibrahim’s collapsed eye, half a haircut, half a heart—it’s curious how asymmetry is a motif throughout the book. It seems to me this leitmotif is linked in a not-entirely-clear way5 to dissolution, fate and death, the foremost themes of the pair of chapters (three and four) that make up Part Two.
At this point it’s worth recalling Eric was already deceased in Part One. Let’s rewind to the relevant point: news of Packer’s death came in a text sandwiched between chapters one and two (of course, going back in time here also means going forward):
He is dead, word for word. I turned him over and looked at him. His eyes were mercifully closed. But what does mercy have to do with it? There was a brief sound in his throat that I could spend weeks trying to describe. But how can you make words out of sounds? These are two separate systems that we miserably try to link.
So begins the Night section of ‘The Confessions of Benno Levin’. It soon becomes clear there is something not quite right with this ‘confessor’, and that ‘he’ refers—to the reader’s natural surprise—to Eric Packer:
I made a phone threat that I didn't believe. They took the threat to be credible, which I knew they had to do, considering my knowledge of the firm and the personnel.
A bitter ex-employee of Packer Capital and an utter failure, at this early point in the book Levin comes across as something like Eric’s opposite. A Beckettian man: a wretch, a near-derelict. Yet by the time of the final confrontation in a ruined Hell’s Kitchen apartment, Packer’s assassin is someone the billionaire (in fact ex-billionaire) will in a way resemble, spiritually and materially. Benno Levin’s role in Cosmopolis is more than that of a side character. He’s almost a second—though secondary—protagonist6.
With his 1988 novel Libra, the central character of which is Lee Harvey Oswald, DeLillo had explored in depth the psychology of the kind of ‘man in a room’ Levin is a further example of. In a 2012 interview, the author explained how his preoccupation with this particular theme (one we might call Pascalian7) had its origins in his living circumstances in the 1960s and 70s:
Toward the end of Americana, I began to get the idea for the next novel, End Zone, but nothing beyond that. End Zone went quickly, and Great Jones Street, in a sense, was determined by my own circumstances, not that I was a famous person in hiding, but that I lived in one room for a long time and felt that there was something important about a man in a room and what it meant. Every so often, I end up with a man in a room. In the case of Great Jones Street, it had a particular context. In the case of Libra, it had a very different context. In Point Omega, there's a man in a screening room, watching a crime being committed.
In an interview from 2005, DeLillo dissected that ‘lonely assassin’ psychology that fascinates him (I recommend checking out his complete answer):
..there's something of Oswald's personality in Benno Levin, the killer in Cosmopolis. All of that comes from a motif which had always struck me: a man, in a small room, fomenting something. That motif is already there in my early books but I couldn't find a good way of formulating it until I was working on Libra, and constructing the Oswald character. I think Oswald spent his life trying to become someone, trying to give himself a place within the larger History.
The ‘Morning’ section of Benno Levin’s Confessions, which actually appear later in the book, reveal how, like Oswald, their author sees the assassination he has planned as an act that’ll redeem him and his failed existence:
But to take another person’s life? This is the vision of the new day. I am determined finally to act. It is the violent act that changes history and changes everything that came before.
And then later, in the part of chapter four that recounts the confrontation with Packer:
“I still need to shoot you. I’m willing to discuss it. But there’s no life for me unless I do this.”
Thus Packer winds up dead, or so it seems. Let’s remember DeLillo is considered—by most critics, though not all—a postmodernist8. Therefore nothing’s truly certain. It could be this ‘confessor’ is lying (“I used to try to tell the truth. But it’s hard not to lie. I lie to people because this is my language, how I talk.”), in the Night section at least, merely fantasising about having put to death the object of his morbid obsession. Yet if that’s the case, given how chapter four’s culiminating meeting between Eric and his ex-employee will play out, how is Levin at liberty to write his confessions? Where’s Packer? Wouldn’t a still-living Eric be intent on eliminating this threat to his life? DeLillo does not seem to go in for really extravagent postmodern tricks, so the idea that either Eric Packer or Benno Levin (aka Michael Sheets) exists only in the imagination of the other can probably be discarded.
Thus for me the possibility most likely and also most interesting is this: appearances on this occasion do not deceive; Packer has indeed met / will meet his end at the hands of Levin. That’s his likely fate—and I return to the themes of predestination and death further on in this piece and in part 4.
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