The Short Version: On a day in April in the year 2000, Eric Packer – a brilliant young businessman – sets off across Manhattan to get a haircut. A trip that wouldn’t take but a few hours at most consumes the whole day and, coincidentally, every aspect of Eric’s life.
The Review: So I picked this up solely because the movie looks fascinating to me. Not a huge Robert Pattinson fan, at all, but I’ve been intrigued by the movie since I saw the first trailer and so I thought “well, I ought to know the source first” and so here we are. Plus, it’s a pretty great cover (thanks, Picador!) as opposed to the other versions floating around – so I picked it up on my first day in England and set to it.
Perhaps it was the dichotomy of location and setting (being in London while reading a distinctly New York book) but I had this feeling that was distinctly pre-move-to-New-York about the book. I don’t know how else to describe it. Anymore, when I read a book about New York, I experience it from the point of view of someone who lives here – and I can’t tell you when, exactly, that happened, except that it happened sometime after I moved here. It’s one of those benchmarks that suddenly exists and you don’t quite realize when the change occurred.
The language of the book is poetic but also simplistic. Clean, you might say. The beginning of the book, dawn from the crazy penthouse apartment of Packer, actually does dawn – you can feel the sun come up and begin to color the language. It feels drawn and thin and peaceful, like the dawn often does. Then as the day progresses, it gets grittier and dissolves a little – although never losing that elevated tone, even in the two interludes penned by a mysterious figure who seems to be writing from after the conclusion of the present-tense action of the novel.
Those interludes, I have to say, were perhaps the one part of the book I didn’t like. They were unnecessary, I thought, simply because they revealed things that could’ve been kept more secret. But even as I thought about how I didn’t like those segments as much as the rest of the book, I realized that they were necessary. Otherwise the ending would’ve lacked focus and clarity – it would’ve been an incomprehensible twist, out of left field. Instead, we realize that DeLillo was providing us every angle on the scene, much like the myriad of screens that populate the inside of Eric’s limo.
The world DeLillo has created is dropped specifically in the year 2000 – pre-9/11 is the rationale – but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t seem exactly like the world we live in today. Cronenberg’s film apparently moves the action up to 2008, which I’d argue makes as much if not more sense than the 2000 setting… which is pretty damn scary because DeLillo wrote the book in 2003. There’s a recurring vaguely sci-fi riff where Eric is able to see the future on the screens in his car: there’s a live video feed that streams him across the world but also plays back to him and instead of being the slight lag between reality and the screen, the lag goes the other way round. He sees something happen and then realizes that’s what’s about to happen. It isn’t constant and he doesn’t seem to understand if it’s in his head or in reality – but there’s clearly something going on here.
The book’s whole idea seems to be about fate vs. control, but in a subtle way. Eric ‘seeing’ the future on the screens and feeling as though he’s being controlled somehow directly correlates to his attempts to short the yen, which responds in an unpredictable and uncontrollable manner. The lessons are plentiful: on the personal level, we can’t control destiny – and on the economic level, the market will eventually perform irrationally because human beings are irrational. One of the many advisors who hops into the car with Eric is Vija Kinski, his “chief of theory”, and she tells him at one point:
“[You want] to believe there are foreseeable trends and forces. When it fact it’s all random phenomena. You apply mathematics and other disciplines, yes. But in the end you’re dealing with a system that’s out of control. Hysteria at high speeds, day to day, minute to minute… We creates our own frenzy, our own mass convulsions, driven by thinking machines that we have no final authority over. The frenzy is barely noticeable most of the time. It’s simply how we live”
And that, to me, is the moral of the book. It’s an examination of how random phenomena can, when viewed through a specific lens, coalesce to form patterns and signs. I mean, (a warning: SPOILERS may be imminent) there are two ways to interpret the end sequence of the novel: either Eric was fated to appear in that apartment… or it was purely by chance. And there’s a strong argument for fate, because why the hell else would he’ve done what he did? It’s all vaguely illogical and this is a relatively logical man. But his logic has been defeating him at every turn all day: the yen continues to climb despite the repeat assurances from everyone that it can’t. This is a man who finds himself driven by whims and appetites more often than he’d like to realize: he gives his protection detail conniptions when he hops out of the car, hops into a cab or hotel or restaurant. But when his wife pulls up in a cab alongside his car, can that really just be chance? Could it be chance that he runs into her several more times throughout the day, including at a strange naked-people-film-shoot? Eric sees patterns and signs, all leading towards an inexorable end – but the question is whether or not he’s the one controlling that path.
The world of this novel is also, like in Super Sad True Love Story, an eerie predictor of the world we currently live in. Crazy protestors with rats are all over the place and they have an eerie Tea Party echo, even though they’re more communist based than conservative. Eric keeps seeing how the devices he uses (even his smartphone) are mere seconds from obsolescence. One really cool quirk of the character is that he consistently sees something and thinks “why do we still call it that?” when it has clearly moved on from that original purpose. I mean, our cellphones are not really cellphones anymore. They aren’t smartphones, either. Hell, your iPhone isn’t really a phone – it just happens to be able to make calls. Why, then, are we tethered to an obsolete word to describe it? DeLillo/Eric doesn’t come to a conclusion about it but the seed is planted. It’s food for thought.
Rating: 5+ out of 5. This book was begging to be filmed and I hope Cronenberg – a strange and twisted director for sure – pulls it off in the way it’s meant to be done. But more importantly, although it is short and definitely a niche novel, it’s brilliant. The cold clean prose that feels like an autumn day. The prescience of it all. The inexorable push forward, across the island, as the world of Eric Packer disintegrates avenue by avenue. That final moment, left alive and breathing in your memory, is beautifully complex. This dissection of this modern world, even pushing ten years old, is smart and scary and memorable. Read it now, read it this fall. It’s short and feels not unlike a prose poem – impact greater than you ever anticipated.