Cosmopolis by Don DeLillo - review by John Dugdale

John Dugdale

Master Of The Universe



Picador 209pp £16.99 order from our bookshop

Don DeLillo’s first full-length novel since Underworld opens deceptively with the musings of an insomniac intellectual – on Freud, avant-garde art, the anatomy of gulls, the significance of towers and surfaces, whether the word ‘skyscraper’ is outmoded – as dawn breaks over Manhattan. Gradually, once he has begun a day-long crosstown journey in a chauffeured limousine, we learn that this penseur and poetry-lover is Eric Packer, a virtuoso trader in stocks and currencies who, at twenty-eight, is a multibillionaire.

Exotic details of his lifestyle are vouchsafed piecemeal as the car slowly edges westward, caught up in the gridlock caused by a presidential motorcade. His apartment cost $104m, and boasts forty-five rooms, a shark in a tank and a pack of borzois. As well as a sumptuous art colection, he owns a former Soviet nuclear bomber. The stretch limo has a floor made of Carrara marble, and has been ‘prousted’ with a cork lining to eliminate street noise. He was married twenty-two days ago to a poet and banking heiress, Elise Shifrin, although he doesn’t live with her, seems unsure of her nationality and has sex with three other women in the course of the day.

What also emerges, however, is that he faces a dual threat. His security chief believes his life is in danger, and the risk of assassination is underlined by the murders of two other business leaders during the day and by the journal of Benno Levin, an ex-employee who is bent on killing him, which punctuates his story. And, as meetings in the limousine with his heads of currency and finance make clear, he’s embarked on a gamble which could wipe out his company and fortune. Rejecting their advice, he bets that the yen’s value will stop rising; it relentlessly continues to rise, though, losing him ‘hundreds of millions’. Yet he seems oddly disengaged from this unfolding catastrophe, evincing more interest in getting his hair cut and in conducting abstruse discussions of the nature of genius and originality with Vija Kinski, his equally cerebral ‘head of theory’.

This, then, is hubris updated, and Cosmopolis mimics Greek and Shakespearean tragedy, obeying the classical unities of time and place. Hamlet-like in his philosophical forays, Packer resembles Julius Caesar in sleeping uneasily and being ‘spooked’ by health worries and the unfamiliar experience of self-doubt. Like his Roman counterpart, this Caesar of the markets defies a series of warnings and unfavourable omens, here taking the form of his subordinates’ spurned advice, three deaths (those of the two businessmen and a Muslim rap star he admires), and anti-capitalist protests. Both men seem almost complicit with their would be assassins.

Although he sets Cosmopolis in 2000, when the economy was still buoyant, DeLillo projects post-September 11 panic back into the millennial year, allowing it to anticipate Wall Street’s mood as stocks went into freefall after the terrorist attacks. ‘There were currencies tumbling everywhere, bank failures were spreading’; and there’s no reason to doubt Packer’s judgement that this is because ‘his actions regarding the yen were causing storms of disorder’. So linked is his sprawling portfolio to ‘key institutions’ that ‘the whole system [is] in danger’.

Such parallels between personal and external crises again echo Shakespearean tragedy, where disorder in nature foreshadows a hero’s death. But they also reflect how Cosmopolis advances Underworld‘s critical chronicle of postwar American capitalism into the age of ‘cybercapital’. The earlier novel, largely set in the Cold War era, showed how ‘global events may alter how we live in the smallest ways’; whereas now DeLillo focuses on a figure who himself shapes those global events, bringing out the craziness of an increasingly interlocked system where – as when a Japanese finance minister causes turmoil by seeming to hesitate in a statement – ‘the whole economy convulses because [a] man took a breath’.

Responses to the novel, however, are likely to be influenced more by its idiosyncratic style than by its ideas or literary echoes, and the following passage is not untypical. Packer, stripped while undergoing a medical examination, is talking to his female finance director, who is dressed for jogging.

‘I look at you and feel electric. Tell me you don’t feel it too. The minute you sat there in that tragic regalia of running. That whole sad business of Judeo-Christian jogging. You were not born to run. You are sloppy-bodied, smelly and wet . . . [If a woman] sees a man in a posture of rank humiliation, pants around his ankles, what are the questions that he asks himself from this position in the world? Large questions maybe. Questions such as science obsessively asks. Why something and not nothing? Why music and not noise?’

It’s possible to take various attitudes to writing of this sort, starting with instantly dismissing it as ludicrously pretentious. One can decide that the speaker is going mad (which, in this case, is probably true), but that offers no real justification because other characters (even the security chief) discourse in an only slightly modified version of the same baroque DeLillo-speak.

A more promising defence is to regard the language as knowingly artificial. Yet nothing else is stylised or fantastic – with the possible exception of Elise, who may be imaginary – in a novel which seems to hover between two modes: the freedom of drama or sci-fi, in either of which financial titans speaking like Derrida or Baudrillard would be unremarkable; and the journalistic satire of Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, which similarly traces the downfall of a Wall Street ‘master of the universe’.

Also suggestive of a desire on the author’s part to have his cake and eat it is the disconcerting sense the novel gives of taking place in dual time periods. Although ostensibly set in 2000, in other respects it seems to belong in an apocalyptic near future: the reader knows, after all, that in April of that year the President was not called ‘Mildwood’, the Nasdaq building was not stormed and bombed by anarchists, and no 28-year-old speculator came close to wrecking the world economy or murdered his own bodyguard in a Camus-esque acte gratuit.

In Underworld DeLillo devised a form that worked, using an omniscient narrative voice flexible enough to incorporate mesmerisingly eloquent mini-essays. Cosmopolis, in contrast, is formally an awkward hybrid – fantastic and realistic, retrospective and futuristic – and fails to find a persuasive way of integrating his verbal and intellectual pyrotechnics. The novel is nevertheless fascinating, complex and often very funny; and it seems churlish to carp when an author dares to try to incorporate e-commerce, information overload and the antiglobalisation movement into a single work of literary fiction.

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