In Cosmopolis, Don DeLillo operates on a level of dread and alienation so deep and unrelenting that it’s a challenge to one’s own seriousness. Dispensing almost altogether with the metaphysical lyricism that graces other novels of his, such as The Names, White Noise, Underworld and The Body Artist, Cosmopolis is a kind of return to the punk corrosion of DeLillo’s 1970s novels.
When DeLillo ended Underworld, his pained meditation on the maelstrom of the American century, and then followed it with the palpable spiritual yearnings of The Body Artist two years later, I thought he had turned away from the dark night of the soul that seems the final reward for the lucky few American writers who survive the via negative. But Cosmopolis is a plunge right back into a darkness so fierce and plagued that it’s as if DeLillo—who had begun the novel long before September 11—picked up on those pre-disaster terrorist-cell-phone murmurings that the FBI apparently missed, and reseeded his imagination with their menace and horror.
Cosmopolis takes place in New York on a single day in April 2000, largely on a single street, 47th Street, as a 28-year-old billionaire asset manager named Eric Packer slices across Manhattan in his limousine. Packer has a 48-room apartment; a Russian strategic nuclear bomber he bought for kicks; and a penchant for abstract art, poetry, big meals and highly unusual sex with just about every woman with whom he comes into contact. One of those women is his wife of 22 days, Elise.
Packer really craves a world that’s denuded of history—stripped of all physical residue. He longs to live by the “digital imperative,” in which life gets morphed into a serenely smooth array of information waiting to be manipulated—profits streaming across the hyperreal by hypercapitalists like himself.
His limousine is elaborately equipped not just with surveillance machines meant to ease Packer’s paranoia but also with super-tech, voice-activated gadgetry that keeps Packer abreast of world events and second-by-second financial-markets data. It is on these screens that he watches, live, the assassination of a high official of the International Monetary Fund in North Korea and an anti-corporate riot erupting on New York’s streets. He learns that the yen continues to rise, but, throughout the day, in a growing ecstasy of self-destruction, he bets millions and then perhaps billions on it falling. He learns that a threat has been made on the president’s life and also on his own.
Early in the novel, Packer tells one of his advisers, “There’s only one thing in the world worth pursuing professionally and intellectually: the interaction between technology and capital. The inseparability.” This inseparability is the novel’s major subject, and DeLillo explores it partially through his characters’ speculations. Packer’s advisers are forever getting into his limo to chat about matters globally postmodern and to declare, for instance, that the essence of capitalism is “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.” But the symbol of all this inseparability is Packer himself, who can’t begin to extricate himself from the sense that everything is virtual and that nothing matters.
The final scene of this book brings Packer and his killer together in a scenario that plays out in a mind-jarringly eerie way. This is the new death, DeLillo seems to be telling us, death that is mediated until the end, televised, speculative—the final joke on a culture that has been using technology and money to escape death all along.