Monday, 5 October 2015

Book Review - Cosmopolis by Don DeLillo

Cosmopolis by Don DeLillo

London: Picador, 2004                                                        ISBN 9780330412742

I've been brought back to this book via a discussion I had in a pub with a long-lost colleague, who has recently moved to my town. We were discussing American fiction and naturally turned to the work of Don DeLillo, and I was surprised in some ways that he agreed with my low opinion of White Noise, but praised Cosmopolis as a work greater than it's critics and popularity would suggest. I tend to agree.

For various reasons, this short (207 paperback pages) book took me three weeks to read this time around. Having to leave reading sometimes for days at a time, or reading only very short sections, added in some way to the surreal nature of this book - days went by but I came back into a split-second of time in the book. I almost recommend this as a way of reading Cosmopolis.

The book met with a mixed reception on publication, and in some ways it's easy to see why. The 28 year-old protagonist, Eric Packer, seems not only old beyond his years, but his character is a poor fit for a ruthless mega-rich money-market manipulator. However, as a vehicle for what DeLillo wants to say, he's conveniently blank where it counts.

Essentially this is a book about happiness. Packer has everything, including a preternatural ability to read the markets, and a visionary outlook on technology. As he traverses New York City in the back of his limousine, with his various advisors coming and going as his arrogance brings about his financial ruin, Packer closely observes many things, but is affected by nothing. He can appreciate aesthetically the beauty in the world, but cannot express it, as his interactions with his wife and lovers illustrate throughout the book. Packer's assassin, Benno (or Richard), mad as he is. has allowed working for Packer to take away any chance he had of being happy.

DeLillo is making a grand statement in this book about not only the capitalist system itself, but on the impossibility of achieving happiness by being successful in that system. With all that he has (47 room apartment, a shark, a Blackjack bomber), Packer still wants more (the Rothko Chapel), and he wants it for himself, not to share. He spent millions on the Blackjack bomber, to fly it only once.

In fact by the end Packer is not feeling anything, facing death but feeling dead already. The last section also builds on another little theme that recurs throughout the book, that not only is technology creating the future, but in many ways has begun to predict it (while the book is set in April 2000, the technology within is a combination of the familiar and the futuristic).

There are some who have compared this book to Ulysses, as the events in Cosmopolis cover one day, and there is a section at the end that could possibly, at a stretch, be compared to Molly Bloom's monologue, but I think these similarities are not fully intended, as DeLillo is not trying to write the all-encompasing novel.

DeLillo is the master of language that tends to distance the reader from what is happening in the book, and that is the case here - when Packer shoots his own security guard, we, like Packer feel little shock or is a future, or indeed a present, where so much happens (riots, murders, stock crashes) in a single day, but none of it has any meaning. It is a future, or a present, where love, empathy and feelings are replaced by algorithms, pattern finding and being first and taking it all. It is also a future, or a present, where the built environment, the world created by humans, is all-encompassing.

Needless to state that Cosmopolis is a bleak vision - Packer take advantage of and uses everyone, even as he heads to what seems to be self-inflicted ruin and death. No-one in this novel comes out a better person, or even a better-off person.

There is no doubt DeLillo is a complex man with a lot to say, some of which I don't agree with, but this, along with Underground, is worth reading. I'm not sure that this review does it any justice at all.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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