In Mao II (1991), the book in which he put forward the idea that novelists are no longer able to 'alter the inner life of the culture [...] because we're giving way to terror, to news of terror', Don DeLillo allowed his main character, a reclusive author called Bill Gray, to expand on what inspired his writing. 'When I was a kid,' he says, 'I used to announce ballgames to myself. I sat in a room and made up the games and described the play-by-play out loud. I was the players, the announcer, the crowd, the listening audience and the radio [...] And I've been trying to write toward that kind of innocence ever since.' The opening scene of Underworld (1997), with its hyper-omniscient description of a baseball game, does almost exactly that, but on the page. All of DeLillo's novels, in a more abstract way, play fast and loose with their themes - twisting, testing and hurling them around the metaphorical stadium.
You could see DeLillo as a rare example of a novelist fulfilling the role of what Arthur Miller once described as a 'psychic journalist'. He has an uncanny, if paranoid, knack of tapping into currents in American life that have gradually become depressingly relevant around the globe. Underworld cast its all-seeing eye over the Cold War and the last 50 years of US history, structurally glued together by odd thematic equations: weapons and waste; the city and the desert; art and graffiti; games and geopolitics. The Body Artist (2001), meditative and miniature, was an exquisite pause for breath. With Cosmopolis, his 13th book, DeLillo turns once again to more urgent contemporary matters: globalization, time, money, markets and technology. The story, such as it is, is wreathed in the figures of 'financial news, stock prices, currency markets [...] the hellbent sprint of numbers and symbols, the fractions, decimals [...] all too fleet to be absorbed'.
Like Saul Bellow's Seize the Day (1956), Cosmpolis takes place in New York, over just one day. While Bellow followed the fortunes of an ill-starred everyman, DeLillo's protagonist, Eric Packer, is a multi-billionaire currency trader who lives in a 48-room apartment in an 89-storey skyscraper in the 'world city'. Over several hours in April 2000 he takes a long ride across town in his stretch limo, ostensibly - and slightly bafflingly - to get a haircut. For the first half of the novel everything and nothing happens. As Packer moves at 'an inchworm creep' through gridlocked traffic, he talks business with his employees; keeps on bumping into his new wife, a poet ('Her poetry was shit'); brusquely sates his appetites for sex and food; thinks unkind thoughts about his bodyguard; contemplates buying the Rothko chapel; gets caught up in an anti-globalization protest; and loses millions speculating on the yen. Then he loses millions more.
Clearly it's going to be one of those days. Half a century earlier Bellow's protagonist Tommy Wilheim had an equally unsuccessful, if far less grandiose time on the New York markets with his falling stocks in lard, seeing it as 'a day of reckoning [...] on which, willing or not, he would take a good close look at the truth'. Before Cosmopolis' lurid final judgement, involving a random killing, an ex-employee assassin and bankruptcy on a world-shaking scale, DeLillo uses Packer's limo-bound vantage point to scroll slowly through the city at the dawn of the 21st century, drawing the present as if it were a long-exposure photograph. Things seem to be evaporating before his eyes; individual lives dissolve in a faceless blur. 'People hurried past, the others of the street, endless anonymous, twenty-one lives per second, race-walking in their faces and pigments.'
As Packer sits in his car, all the characters we do get to meet are wheeled on and off. And they chatter. All the best, most provocative lines - the ones that remind you that you're reading a Don DeLillo novel - go to his 'chief of theory', Vija Kinski: 'People will not die. Isn't this the creed of the new culture? People will be absorbed in streams of information. I know nothing about this.' Vija joins a long, fine tradition of DeLillo mavericks, crowned, perhaps, by Murray the supermarket visionary in White Noise (1984). Murray wanders the aisles riffing on the weird auras of the rows of products lined up along the shelves, praising their 'psychic data', 'incident radiation' and celestial gleam. Or should that prize go to Marvin Lundy in Underworld, who thinks that Gorbachev's birthmark predicted the demise of the Soviet system, because if you swivel it around 90 degrees, it's the same shape as the map of Latvia?
When they're not dishing out praise, critics in the past have bemoaned DeLillo's tendency to use ciphers rather than believable human beings. Here, it must be said that the characters, given little or no background, are much more sketch-like and 2-D than in his previous work. No doubt deliberate, this stubborn approach makes the book feel like a cross between a stilted essay in fiction and a cartoon, rather than a fully functioning novel. Packer, an all-too-obvious symbol of an immaterial, amnesiac future, 'never liked thinking back, going back in time, reviewing the day or the week or the life', since 'power works best when there's no memory attached'. But it's very hard to sustain a novel when there's no character attached. Usually in a DeLillo novel there's at least a crucial note of deranged dry humour - a wink. Sadly the voices of Cosmopolis just seem dry. So for all the beautifully sculpted sentences, the whole fails to take flight. Thankfully, though, there are still some riddles to solve.
Writing for Harper's after 11 September 2001, DeLillo remarked that 'we seem pressed for time, all of us. Time is scarcer now. There is a sense of compression, plans made hurriedly, time forced and distorted.' In Cosmopolis Packer keeps on seeing things on the screen on his watch moments before they happen in reality, as if the present isn't fast enough to keep up with the pace of the markets - or perhaps, as if history is being written by technology. It's impossible to tell. In Seize the Day Tommy Wilheim also finds time problematic: he can't shed the past and look ahead. ('The past is no good to us. The future is full of anxiety. Only the present is real - the here-and-now. Seize the day', urges the quack doctor Tamkin.) In DeLillo's new novel that situation is reversed. Packer's cataclysmic self-destruction is related, the author seems to be saying, to the way he has made himself into a man without a past. He's just another empty vessel, 'self-haunted and synthetic'.