Cosmopolis by Don DeLillo
9 September 2003

 

Strategically set in Manhattan in the year 2000, Cosmopolis follows multibillionaire Eric Packer through one day's quest for one of the most important things in modern life - a haircut. As his custom-made white stretch limousine crawls through gridlock traffic hemeets with each of his senior officials in turn - currency advisor, chief of finance, chief of theory - dines with his new wife and watches the yen in slack periods. He sees the President in a neighbouring limo. He gets caught in an anti-capitalist protest. He attends a rappers funeral. He keeps getting premonitions of death. Towards midnight he dines in his barber's premesis before walking out halfway through the trim. What happens after that? Who knows? If DeLillo knows, he's not telling.

A hopelessly dysfunctional intellectual, Packer undergoes the great trifecta of calamity during the day - he loses his fortune, his wife and his life. Or does he? It's very hard to tell whether these things actually happen, or are merely in the offing. The book ends unexpectedly with Packer witnessing his own death - while still gazing placidly up the barrel of the gun.

This leaves hanging every possible question, except for "Who is Eric Packer?". Having started the book in total darkness with "When he died he would not end. The world would end," we are brought slowly into intimate knowledge of Packer's motives and personality through "I'm trying to make contact... to notice your mood" and finally "a person becomes the reflection he sees in a dusty window". As a character study alone, Cosmopolis excels.

However it fails to make any concrete statement about modern life or bring any new illumination to capitalist philosophy. It's mostly a character story, plotless and brilliant. The whole book, the whole day, draws Packer towards a new reality: "Free to... go broke and die." It draws the reader disinterestedly towards a tense conclusive standoff which doesn't happen, and leaves them feeling relaxed and dissatistfied.

 

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