By Don DeLillo
Cosmopolis is a modern fantasy, a Harry Potter kind of story for highbrows. Most of it deals with a day in the life, the last day in the life, of financial wizard Eric Packer. Packer is on the road, being chauffeured around New York City in a fabulous stretch limousine while he speculates on the value of the yen. The limo is armour plated and lined with cork to be soundproof. Inside it is filled with such amenities as computers, surveillance cameras, and even a foldout toilet.
In other words, Eric Packer is a Player. He is someone set apart from life by his unimaginable wealth and superhuman intelligence. He is an observer, a manipulator, a Philosopher King slumming as Master of the Universe.
This makes him quite a fanciful creation. None of the satiric realism of Tom Wolfe or Bret Easton Ellis touches him. DeLillo imagines a boy billionaire living in New York in the year 2000 as being like a very rich Don DeLillo. That he is a mathematical genius tuned into the financial zeitgeist goes without saying. But he is also a student of culture, collecting modern art (he wants to buy the Rothko chapel), listening to classical music as well as rap in his private elevator, and keeping up on today’s poetry. He is familiar with many languages, ancient and modern. His bedtime reading is Einstein’s Special Theory (“in English and German”), and when he notices a hangnail he instantly thinks of that word’s Middle and Old English roots. Somewhere along the line he has also learned something about the natural world. Entering an apartment lobby he finds himself mentally naming “the shade-happy euonymus and lobelia, the dark-star coleus, the honey locust with its pinnate leaves and unsplit pods.” But what, he wonders, is the Latin name for honey locust? For a while he is stumped, but it comes to him later.
Cosmopolis is DeLillo in abstract mode, withdrawn from reality. Packer’s world is the world apart, the closed world of the limousine or 48-room apartment (complete with shark tank). Even the dialogue is several removes from the rhythms of speech. This is the high-flying, imaginary Overworld, towering above the subconscious, mythic underworld of his last good novel. But it comes too late, much of the time reading like a replay of better books written in the 1980s. And the point, that there is no transcending the physical and material, a human condition symbolized by Packer’s asymmetrical prostate, is hardly news.
When finally confronted by his Underworldly alter ego/nemesis, Packer dreams of being translated into a small screen digital afterlife. But this is a lie, just as his excuse for owning such a big car – that it represents a “platonic replica . . . less an object than an idea” – is a lie. In fact, he likes having a big car because it’s so damn big, “aggressively and contemptuously so.” More is more. Love, art, technology avail not. But this Overworld of trash culture, sex, handguns, big cars, and the Way of the Tiger is unredeemable. Being human is not only disappointing; it’s something vulgar. The Cosmopolis is Rome, not the City of God.
Cosmopolis is a rejection of the world, almost a rejection of the novel. Its dated air may be the result of DeLillo’s lack of engagement with a culture he now plainly despises. Following on the footsteps of last year’s disastrous The Body Artist, he appears to be a writer not so much in decline as withdrawal. And it’s unlikely he’ll be coming back.
Reviews first published April 26, 2003.