Homeless Doubles and Draughty Spaces
The vertical axis of the bourgeois body is primarily emphasized in the education of the child: as s/he grows up/is cleaned up, the lower bodily stratum is regulated or denied, as far as possible, by the correct posture (“stand up straight,” “don’t squat,” “don’t kneel on all fours”—the postures of servants and savages), and by the censoring of lower “bodily” references along with bodily wastes. But while the “low of the bourgeois body becomes unmentionable, we hear an ever increasing garrulity about the city’s low”—the slum, the rag-picker, the prostitute, the sewer—the “dirt” which is “down there.” In other words, the axis of the body is transcoded through the axis of the city, and while the bodily low is “forgotten,” the city’s low becomes a site of obsessive preoccupation, a preoccupation which is itself intimately conceptualized in terms of discourses of the body.
—Peter Stallybrass and Allon White, “The City: The Sewer, the Gaze, and the Contaminating Touch”
An urban wasteland, the junkspace of capitalism, awaits Packer at the last stop of his personal pilgrim’s progress. Car barrens, old junked-up garages and ratty storefronts, car repair shops, car washes, and used cars conform the cityscape. It is the last block before the river, the mythical liquid line that separates life from death. This is where Ibrahim bids adieu to Packer as the two men embrace. Packer is now utterly homeless. He is not the bearer of an ideological homelessness enjoying the pleasures of self-exemption, but the homeless body, another Francis Phelan situated in a similar wasteland. Like Kennedy’s character, Packer is socially dead, mere capitalistic residue ejected through his own agency. Not surprisingly, he sees himself surrounded by the same accumulation of junk and rubble that configured Francis’s geography. In his mock confession to Anthony’s gun, he admits that “never liked thinking back, going back in time, reviewing the day or the week or the life. To crush and gut. To eviscerate. Power works best when there’s no memory attached. Ramrod straight” (184). In the allegorically asymmetrical landscape of the novel, he is predator and prey, just another junked-up object lining the way to death. Not surprisingly, Packer’s thoughts revolve around his particular ubi sunt: where was the life he had always led? As if to fulfill his pilgrimage, he is immediately reckoned by his assassin and stalker, who unmistakably pronounces his full name, Eric Michael Packer, and through gunshots directs him to his makeshift abode, an abandoned building. From the abstract quality of the space of flows, Packer moves to a forsaken building, a literal place of flows, where the wind was blowing through upper floors, doors, and windows removed or gone. There is no separation between outside and inside, no screen separating the self from the Other, the past from the present, the present from the future.
As he breaks into what looks like a private abode and tries to spot the subject-assassin, he is overwhelmed by a sense of domesticity. His eyes rest upon a shredded sofa and a stationary asymmetrical bike, a portable orange toilet, a coffee table, and a gun. Abruptly, the toilet door opens and a man comes out. Packer has the feeling of invading his attacker’s privacy, for he comes out casually with a bath towel over his head and shoulders. The scene is only fitting, for the toilet is the most appropriate place for someone who has been remaindered from the system. Packer, like the squatter, is now part of that undifferentiated rubble that is pushed here and there, and is atopon. The occupier queries Packer as to what he is doing on his premises and extends the rituals of hospitality to this known stranger. Packer sits down. Quotes from Saint Augustine are strewn here and there, while Packer expands on the toilet waste and the idea of holes. It is a fitting counterpart to the “vulnerable point of entry” his aids mentioned during the ride. Now Packer is no longer buffered from attack and has entered the hole or passage that takes him to another version of the real, another spatiality, and another sense of time. The toilet waste becomes the objective correlative of his position, the unwanted residue that, like Francis Phelan, moves through the holes of the system. Victor Hugo argued that the sewer was “the conscience of the town where all things converge and clash” (quoted in Stal- lybrass and White 2007, 279), and DeLillo seems to refigure that “labyrinth below” and resituate it in the toilet and the downward movement of waste; a vector that, unsurprisingly, resembles Packer’s Icarian fall. The center of the world is thus transferred from the Tower of Babel at the beginning of the narrative to the bowels of the system and the depths of the human body stratum. Thus DeLillo takes the vertical pronouncement of the tandem power/tower to its logical Rabelaisian denouement: power/tower become indistinguishable from bowel.14 This abject verticality transcodes the fall of the financial system; the social ruin becomes indistinguishable from the waste matter going through the toilet mechanism.
Packer reviews his day, which seems to comprise his whole life, and thinks about his bodyguard, whom he murdered for no apparent reason, about the driver in Elise’s taxi, about his own driver, about the pastry stalker, Petrescu, about the burning man, and feels a remorseful awareness. His mock confession that he has an asymmetrical prostate makes him feel at ease, since Sheets shares the same condition. That is where, in Sheets’s opinion, he should have looked first in order to understand the yen, “in its tics and quirks” (200), in the body, in the physicality that escapes the virtual condensation of the screen. The confession reinstates the body, that relic from the past, into his present. At the same time, it turns Packer’s attention to the lower axis of his body. His prostate is thus transcoded through the lower axis of the city, through a West Side of empty lots and more specifically through its sewers, its pipes, and its holes. The city and the body coalesce once again when Packer shoots himself in the hand. The shooting recalls the burning man outside the NASDAQ building and the entrance of pain in Packer’s narrative. It also introduces another orifice, another hole or point of entry in what used to be a virtual and closed body. Packer’s “Prousted” identity turns humanly grotesque, according to Bakhtin’s definition of the grotesque body, where the orifices represent a point of transition and communication with the outside world ( 1984, 317-18).
The shot opens Packer’s consciousness to different discourses. He maintains the conversation about the asymmetrical prostate at the same time that his vision splits between the room and the electronic camera in his watch, showing in hysteron proteron the dead body on-screen in the habitual inversion of time, first the virtual, then the real. It is also a vision of his value in real time. He is just a nameless Male Z, an unknown body occupying the morgue, another form of nonhome in the novel. As far as the system he has contributed to creating is concerned, he is already dead, nameless, and historyless in the junkyard of the unclaimed. As if to follow the script of a morality play, there is a sense of repentance in Packer as he approaches his virtual/real end, and he repeatedly tries to convince Sheets he is no longer the man he wanted to kill in order to save himself. He is not the same man who left his tower in the morning. He is, in Sheet’s assessment, a fallen Icarus (201). His situation has changed and his thoughts have evolved, yet die he must, Sheet sentences. Physical pain marks his entrance into the real, but at the same time, it is that same body that interferes with his sense of cyber immortality and his desire to become “quantum dust” (206), a kind of antimatter that could actually transcend body mass, soft tissue, and his human limits. It is the body and the memories attached to it, from the taste of milk licked from his mother’s breast to the wart on his thigh, that prevent him from attaining cyber transcendence. Given his limited options, Packer fantasizes about being buried in his nuclear bomber, thus enacting a final Icarian ascent and fall into the desert. This “solarized” (209) Packer is finally a point of view that looks down from the empyrean before plunging into Daedalus’s spatiality, his final destination. It is his peculiar welcome to the desert of the real, where horizontality triumphs over verticality, and where reality is no longer virtual or anticipated in liquid glass.