Cosmopolis, by Don DeLillo
Cosmopolis is a deeply quotable novel. Perhaps that’s its biggest flaw. It’s full of beautifully realised sentences, arresting slabs of prose, but taken as a whole it’s alienating and distant. It prefers idea to character, concept to situation. It has no interest in realism. It’s my first DeLillo, and apparently one of his weaker novels. If it is a lesser DeLillo that’s impressive, because even flawed it’s more interesting than many author’s at their peak.
The story, such as there is, is wildly improbable both in its overall scope and in its particular details. Eric Packer, software entrepeneur and billionaire, wants to take his limo across town for a haircut. He’s advised that the president’s in town and traffic is expected to be gridlocked. He insists though, and is carried glacially across Manhattan as around him whirl anti-capitalist riots, a Sufi hip-hop star’s funeral and what his security people tell him is a credible threat to his own life.
Packer’s limo is where most of the novel’s action takes place. The year is ostensibly 2000, but it isn’t really. It’s the future, the near future, just around the corner. The future that’s always just around the corner so close that we can see its outlines but not yet quite in view.
Packer’s limo is filled with screens, information, the highest of high technology. When asked why he’s not working in his office it’s evident that the question is a non-sequitur. His office is wherever he is; the concept of office is no longer meaningful. His staff come to him through the day, Packer receiving them like the contemporary royalty that he is. Sherman McCoy has been replaced by the new masters of the universe, born of internet IPOs and pure market speculation.
Packer has bet heavily against the Yen. It should be a good bet, because the Yen is at an unsustainable high. The Yen though, against all expectations, continues to rise. Packer is losing millions, tens of millions, more, amounts so vast they become meaningless. His wealth is beyond spending. It’s virtual, imaginary yet very real.
I read an article once about the interest Bill Gates earns on his fortune and what he would need to do to spend faster than it accumulates. The answer was that practically he couldn’t. His wealth is now so vast it’s independent of him. It increases regardless of what he does. He is no longer necessary to it.
Conversations in the novel are far from naturalistic; thick with flat statements and answerless questions. This is a novel where the characters largely speak in monologues.
“There’s a rumor it seems involving the finance minister. He’s supposed to resign any time now,” she said. “Some kind of scandal about a misconstrued comment. He made a comment about the economy that may have been misconstrued. The whole country is analyzing the grammar and syntax of this comment. Or it wasn’t even what he said. It was when he paused. They are trying to construe the meaning of the pause. It could be deeper, even, than grammar. It could be breathing.”
Nobody of course speaks like that. That’s really not the point though. This is language as poetry, language as vehicle. Cosmopolis here is capturing that sense of a system become greater than its parts. Vast currents of capital and information eddy and flow around us, shaping our lives in ways that no single person is equipped to comprehend. Capital here is abstract, no longer a factory or farm but an algorithm spitting out trading strategies from a black box (and that’s not hyperbole, google black box trading).
By way of example, a scant few years ago I received an email at work that I didn’t understand. It talked about problems in the money markets, a sector I don’t personally work in and so only have a passing familiarity with. What it meant was unclear, but the sense of panic was palpable. I wouldn’t normally have received emails from that team, we did no business together, but this was firmwide.
Soon after the world faced fiscal armageddon. Five years on economies remain mired in recession. Youth unemployment in Greece and Spain exceeds 50%. What happened? No factories burned down (except in riots, but they were an effect, not a cause). There were no unexpected wars. Instead vast abstract forces failed to operate as they had been expected to, and millions of lives came crashing down.
Returning to Cosmopolis (not that I’ve actually left it of course), it’s noticeable that DeLillo doesn’t care to give Packer much by way of inner life, nor to make him remotely sympathetic. Packer is an emblem, a vision of distant corporate elites, a fantasy rather than a person. Packer lives in abstracts, reads Einstein’s Special Theory in English and German and poems composed mostly of spaces between the words. “He liked paintings that his guests did not know how to look at. The white paintings were unknowable to many, knife-applied slabs of mucoid color. The work was all the more dangerous for not being new. There’s no more danger in the new.”
Packer leaves the car mostly for sex, with his art-dealer lover, with one of his security team. Through the day he keeps coincidentally encountering his wife, equally rich but of old money (another strand of our new aristocracy, which has subsumed the old aristocracy).
She was in her mid-twenties, with an etched delicacy of feature and large and artless eyes. Her beauty had an element of remoteness. This was intriguing but maybe not. Her head rode slightly forward on a slender length of neck. She had an unexpected laugh, a little weary and experienced, and he liked the way she put a finger to her lips when she wanted to be thoughtful. Her poetry was shit.
Cosmopolis isn’t all high concept. There’s a comic strand running through it where after each of Packer’s extra-marital flings he runs by chance into his wife and has to explain why he smells as if he’s just had sex. The prose is frequently quite lovely as you’d expect of DeLillo, and while it’s not a true representation of what the world of finance is actually like nor does it set out to be. Like Ballard, DeLillo isn’t trying here to show how things actually are, but rather to show what the experience of them is like.
The concept though is never far away. Cosmopolis is, in a very real sense, a science fiction novel. Not just because it contains items of technology that don’t actually exist yet (a gun with built in voice operated security system is the most obvious example, or Packer’s screens which start showing events before they happen), but because of it’s desire to explore not who but where we are. If only though more science fiction had prose like this:
He saw a police lieutenant carrying a walkie-talkie. What entered his mind when he saw this? He wanted to ask the man why he was still using such a contraption, still calling it what he called it, carrying the nitwit rhyme out of the age of industrial glut into smart spaces built on beams of light.
In the end it’s the traditional elements of Cosmopolis that are it’s weakest (a point made by John Updike in his NYT review, which mostly I think misses the point of the book, but which does have the unnerringly accurate summation of Cosmopolis as “Nouveau roman meets Manhattan geography, under sci-fi moonlight.”). As the novel draws to its close Packer’s encounter with his would-be assassin gains importance, but of course I don’t care. Packer’s not real, what does it matter if he lives or dies? The book comes to focus on an existential sense of becoming oneself through a flensing away of the extraneous, but other books have said that and said it better. Here it risks becoming trite (“Now he could begin the business of living.”)
Pacing becomes a problem. For such a short novel this is a very slow book, and that’s fine until it comes near its destination. As Packer’s day begins to close there’s a sense that the novel’s already done. A violent encounter between Packer and one of his guards feels almost tacked on, physical violence almost tasteless in this context or in any event irrelevant. The action is abstract, the descent into the real almost trivial (which is likely the point, but even if it is that doesn’t mean it works).
The end result is a book that doesn’t entirely succeed, but one which despite its failures has stuck with me after reading it. It’s provocative not in a cheap way, but because it forces the reader to think. When Packer contemplates the foreign exchange markets he finds “… beauty and precision here, hidden rhythms in the fluctuations of a given currency.”
There’s a truth in that line about beauty and precision, because in a way the markets are beautiful in their summation of so many patterns of human effort and desire into a number or set of numbers, elegantly expressed. At the same time, it is not a human beauty. DeLillo shows us the language of the markets, which is the language of our time, and if it is alienating it is because the world it depicts is alienated.
“You know what anarchists have always believed.” “Yes.” “Tell me,” she said. “The urge to destroy is a creative urge.” “This is also the hallmark of capitalist thought. Enforced destruction. Old industries have to be harshly eliminated. New markets have to be forcibly claimed. Old markets have to be re-exploited. Destroy the past, make the future.”
I mentioned a John Updike review above, which I didn’t personally particularly like (criticising Cosmopolis for implausibility is a bit like criticising Revolutionary Road for not being funnier, it’s missing the point). A better review to my mind is Blake Morrison’s at The Guardian, which can be found here. I’ve not found reviews of this at my usual blog haunts, but if I’ve missed one please do let me know in the comments. Also, prior to this post I wrote a post about the state of contemporary Anglo-American literature. That post was inspired in part by my thoughts on Cosmopolis, and is here.
Finally, for the curious, the flaws of the film are the flaws of the book. It changes a few details, but by and large it’s incredibly faithful. Perhaps too much so. Robert Pattinson is actually very good as Eric Packer.