If the standard rap against Don DeLillo’s prose has been that it’s cold, well, warmth – which in book reviews is usually code for sentimentality or moral uplift – is overrated. In icily brilliant novels like ”White Noise” (1985), ”Libra” (1988), and ”Mao II” (1991), DeLillo’s achievement is a chill detachment that reveals the complex, often contradictory, and confusing ways we live and think: sometimes with crystalline clarity, sometimes with ice-cube cloudiness. Cosmopolis is another of the author’s shivery wonders. It offers ”in the year 2000, a day in April” spent with Eric Packer, a 28-year-old billionaire asset manager, a glib slickster who believes ”there’s only one thing in the world worth pursuing professionally and intellectually…the interaction between technology and capital.” Accordingly, he has been ”borrowing yen at extremely low interest rates and using this money to speculate heavily in stocks that would yield potentially high returns.”
Eric is traveling across Manhattan in a limo that’s cork-lined to seal out the distracting noise of the city’s rabble (think Proust as a character in a Tom Wolfe fever dream); he gets caught in a traffic jam caused by a visit from the President of the United States. Hearing of an assassination threat against the President, our protagonist processes this news primarily as a threat to his own safety. A serene paranoid, he employs a bodyguard and has a poet wife who says things like ”You acquire information and turn it into something stupendous and awful. You are a dangerous person – a visionary.”
Eric is also philandering with a ”scorched blonde” and has just become aware that his time – that is, his fortune and perhaps his life – is running out. His high-tech car, while stalled in midtown Manhattan, displays ”medleys of data” informing Eric that his yen-leveraging scheme is catching up with him. DeLillo invests his man with opposing traits that render him far more than a trite soulless-businessman character. Eric may be self-absorbed (one of the running themes of ”Cosmopolis” is whether or not immaculate Eric has time to get the haircut he desires) but he’s also acutely sensitive to the nomenclature of his environment. He muses with piquant crankiness about the ”anachronistic quality of the word ‘skyscraper”’; about the ”nitwit rhyme” of a policeman’s ”walkie-talkie”; about the ”aged” quality of automated teller machines (”even the acronym seemed dated”). Eric is not without heart. He feels more compassion than frustration over yet another impediment to his crosstown odyssey, the funeral cortege for a slain hip-hopper whom Eric actually admires: Brutha Fez, a Sufi rapper ”who mixed languages, tempos and themes.” Of his songs, Eric thinks, ”even the ones that were not good were good.” Like Philip Roth, DeLillo is an aging dynamo who seems totally in synch with contemporary culture, its instant pleasures, and its profound discontents. ”Cosmopolis” is not cold; it’s cool.
The book eventually ekes out a kind of thriller plot: A disaffected employee seeks to kill Eric – no surprise, really, since this financier himself believes ”the logical extension of business is murder.” But the pleasure of this novel isn’t in its actions; it’s in the free-market play of Eric’s imagination. With this satire of the market boom and bust, featuring a hero with a 48-room apartment and nowhere to go, DeLillo has crossed Bret Easton Ellis with J.G. Ballard (”Cosmopolis” could have been called ”An American Psycho’s Crash”) and come up with his own genre: recent-past futurism, in which, for example, Eric’s wristwatch is also a hacking device to illegally transfer his wife’s assets to his own Packer Capital company.
I don’t think too many of the New Economy adventurists of 2000 (”We’re all young and smart and were raised by wolves”) had such timepieces. But in DeLillo’s cosmopolis – think of that title, with an entire cosmos of greed, desire, and revenge crowded into one city – anything is possible, even wit and pathos, among the ”foully and berserkly rich.”