A review of DeLillo’s Cosmopolis

It is possible that under the poor structure and pretty prose lies a deeper truth – some vision about the world and what matters. Or perhaps we are to read into the book that nothing matters – that in the end nothing makes sense – that life is already over – that, like Packer, we are already dead.

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

By Don DeLillo
209pp, $37.95

Eric Packer is a young, well endowed, perpetually hungry rich stock magnate New Yorker. Using the royal we, he decides that he must have a haircut on the same day that the President of the United States is in town, a rap star has his public funeral parade, a former employee is stalking him, and rat wielding anti-globalists are protesting. The forward motion of the story is provided by Packer’s cork lined white limo as it moves very slowly through the gridlocked streets. While sitting in his limo, Packer has his daily medical exam, including a prostrate check, and continues to buy Yen against his financial director’s advice. He also has pitstops where he has lunch with his wife of 21 days whom he hardly knows, gets involved in and even cries at the Rapper’s funeral, gets hit by a cream pie from a famous pie attacker, joins in a nude mass death scene of a film, kills his bodyguard with his own gun, and gets killed himself. None of these revelations are really spoilers, because the plot is so distorted and subservient to Packer’s musing that it almost seems beside the point.

Unfortunately, the characterisation is unbelievable and also besides the point. Packer himself is conceited, unlikeable, and so pseudo-erudite that he might almost work as an anti-hero if he weren’t the only character in the book developed beyond a few sketchy outlines. His musings are so inwardly focused and he seems so self-centred that it is hard to do anything other than dismiss him. He thinks and feels in a kind of hyperbolic poetry which could be mythological if it weren’t so pretentious:

He studied the figural diagrams that brought organic patterns into play, birdwing and chambered shell. It was shallow thinking to maintain that numbers and charts with the cold compression of unruly human energies, every sort of yearning and midnight sweat reduced to units in the financial markets. In fact data itself was soulful and glowing, a dynamic aspect of the life process. This was the eloquence of alphabets and numeric systems, now fully realized in electronic form, in the zero-oneness of the world, the digital imperative that defined every breath of the planet’s living bilions. Here was the heave of the biosphere. Our bodies and oceans were here, knowable and whole. (24)

The writing itself is actually lovely, and set out in couplets, might make for a moving poem. However, it not only doesn’t fit the young stock magnate, but coupled with his constant yearning for a haircut, fornication, a hefty meal, and his ‘stop and listen to my gorgeous pronouncements on life’ prose make him unbearable. He floats in and out of his car while having a series of odd quickies – one involving copulation with one of his bodyguards, one involving sex with his wife, and one involving a kind of thought sex with his Finance Minister. All the characters who briefly slip into the scene speak in almost the same mannered musings as Packer. Take his Chief of Theory, Vija Kinski, who materialises in his limo at one point for their weekly meeting, and begins to wax:

But you know how shameless I am in the presence of anything that calls itself an idea. The idea is time. Living in the future. Look at those numbers running. Money makes time….(78-9)

Packer leads her out of the car where they stop to watch an electronic display of market information:

Never mind the speed that makes it hard to follow what passes before the eye. The speed is the point. Never mind the urgent and endless replenishments, the way data dissolves at one end of the series just as it takes shape at the other. This is the point, the thrust, the future. We are not witnessing the flow of information as much as pure spectacle, or information made sacred, ritually unreadable. (80)

His Finance Director Jane, jogs in to the car for a meeting where he tells her that his: “mood shifts and bends. But when I’m alive and heightened, I’m super-acute” (48) and then proves it by having another interior monologue on the nature of his own strengths: “He felt these things. He felt the pain. It travelled the pathways. It informed the ganglion and spinal cord. It was here in his body, the structure he wanted to dismiss in theory even when he was shaping it under the measured effect of barbells and weights. He wanted to judge it redundant and transferable. It was convertible to wave arrays of information. It was the thing he watched on the oval screen when he wasn’t watching Jane.” (48)

The only other narrator in the story is Packer’s murderer, and perhaps the antagonist of the story, Benno Levin aka Richard Sheets. There are two chapters devoted to his first person confessions, which also have the same heightened pronouncements as Packers’:

“People think about who they are in the stillest hour of the night. I carry this thought, the child’s mystery and terror of this thought, I feel this immensity in my soul every second of my life.” (155)

Aside from his ponderous confessions, Benno hardly seems like a different person to Packer, and we know little more about him than any of the other characters. His confessions appear random, and the way Packer finds him is odd, and overly convenient. Aside from the power and thrust of the linguistics throughout the many monologues, conversation, where it occurs, is stilted and strange – following events like a riot that nearly tore Packers’ limo apart with a Godot like:

“He said, “Did you see that?”
“Yes I did. What was it?”
He said, “I’m sitting. We’re talking. I look at the screen. Then suddenly.”
“You recoil in shock.”
“Then the blast”
“Has this happened, I wonder, before?”(94)

The parallels between Benno and Packer are probably deliberate, as are those between Packer and his “wife” Elise Shiflin, with whom he shares the odd bits of conversation, a meal, and a drop in part in a film shoot followed by a kind of faceless sex. Nothing seems to come together though – the characters seem disjointed, and their conversation and relationships fractals – a kalidoscope of pretty colours without symbiosis.

The setting is also problematic. While set in a “modern day” 2000 year, Cosmopolis hints at being futuristic, and there are references to the obsolete ATMs, PDAs, spycams, and voice activated guns. Televisions and medical instruments are all old fashioned tools of the past as Packer makes his pronouncements on the demise of technology:

“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. Computers will die. They’re dying in their present form. They’re just about dead as distinct units. A box, a screen, a keyboard. They’re melting into the texture of everyday life. This is true or not?”
“Even the word computer.”
“Even the word computer sounds backward and dumb.”(104)

One imagines that the cosmopolis from which the book is named is its setting – New York City, but it comes across as cold and impersonal as a batman like Gothem City. We have no sense of the life within it, of the people going about their everyday jobs – of the beauty in everyday life. Instead everything is magnified until it has become utterly unreal. DeLillo’s New York is the setting for a nameless film about mass death. It is the background for billboards. It is the place for performance art – the setting for the grand scale of a rappers funeral, a big protest against a global world or the meaningless flash of numbers across a stock market display. Everything that makes New York City evocative is gone and replaced by a kind of mythological emptiness – the people are gone replaced by actors, by showmen, by limos and their drivers.

With poor plot, poor characterisation, and a poorly managed setting, one begins to wonder what the point of this novel is at all. Certainly this is not a pleasant book to read. It is possible that under the poor structure and pretty prose lies a deeper truth – some vision about the world and what matters. Or perhaps we are to read into the book that nothing matters – that in the end nothing makes sense – that life is already over – that, like Packer, we are already dead: “How do we know anything? How do we know the wall we’re looking at is white? What is white?” (206) There are plenty of beautiful sentences and deep reflections in moments, but in the end, this is a disjointed and difficult to read novel which appears to have no centre. Despite his consistently cold, nihilistic view of the world, DeLillo’s oeuvre is considerable, and one would hope that this is simply a blip. Certainly he is capable of much more than this pretentious eye candy.

For more information visit: Cosmopolis