A Review of Cosmopolis by Tom LeClair

A shorter version of this review was first published in the March/April 2003 issue of Book magazine.

Cosmopolis is DeLillo's second and short enigmatic novel since the best-selling and lengthy Underworld. In The Body Artist, a recent widow becomes mysteriously obsessed with an aphasic man she finds in her rented house. In Cosmopolis, a New York billionaire currency trader initiates a self-destructive spiral for reasons that remain opaque. Think of this new book as DeLillo's "Bartleby, the Scrivener," Melville's story of a Wall Streeter who gave up on his life, an enigmatic story that has fascinated and resisted readers for 150 years.

DeLillo's 28-year-old financier is what Tom Wolfe in Bonfire of the Vanities called a "Master of the Universe." One April morning in 2000, Eric Packer leaves his 45-room apartment on the East Side of Manhattan, decides he wants a haircut, and orders his cork-lined and everything-equipped limousine to take him to his childhood barber in Hell's Kitchen on the West Side. Because of traffic snarls, an anti-globalization riot near Times Square, a funeral procession for a rap star, and Packer's departures from the limo to eat meals, talk with his wife, visit a bookstore, watch a rave, and have sex with two other women, the cross-town trip on 47th Street extends into the early morning hours. A native of New York, DeLillo carefully records the "worlds" through which Packer travels--Orthodox Jews in the diamond district, Broadway buildings sheathed with electronic data, the wastes of the far west.

Packer seems to be enjoying his escapes from the insulation of his wealth and limo. But he also intentionally loses most of his fortune in reckless speculation, engages in a gratuitous act of violence, bursts out of the barber's chair with only half a haircut, and places himself in mortal danger. Packer's motives are paradoxical, possibly pathological, by turns self-asserting and self-abasing.

DeLillo offers little about Packer's background, so psychology can't help explain character as it does in traditional realism. The plot is equally unrealistic and enigmatic, for it speeds along by chance meetings (four between Packer and his wife) and coincidence (Packer's running into an old friend on the street). After the dense layerings of novels such as Underworld and Libra, one wonders why DeLillo has chosen an almost cartoonish pop-up narrative.

The novel's title and its depiction of time and space do imply a social causality for Packer's actions. DeLillo takes his title from Greek history. The Classical "polis" or city-state was citizen-run and manageable. But in the Hellenistic age, the polis grew into the authoritarian and alienating world-city or "cosmo-polis"--contemporary multinational and gigantic New York City. Having worked daily with minute-to-minute analyses of currency fluctuations, Packer feels time is accelerated, compressed. Manhattan space in the novel is analogously narrowed, compacted. With his setting, perhaps DeLillo implies that Packer resembles the caged rats that anti-globalization protesters release in the streets. Like a rat on a speeded-up exercise wheel in a closely packed cage, Packer may be crazed by living in a "cosmopolis."

But Cosmopolis is ultimately more metaphysical than sociological. Packer uses high-powered computers and chaos theory to conquer irrationalities in the market. Emboldened by his success, he envisions a future when a human can become immortal by being encoded "in a chip, on a disk, as data." (206) But once Packer begins to doubt the transcendental power of data to solve everything and save him, he desires an Icarus-like crash and burn. Another character tells Packer he should accept "asymmetry"--the inexplicable "quirk" in any system, the "misshape" (200)--but Packer appears to have fallen victim to his pernicious belief that cybernetic systems could banish enigma from human existence.

Into the third-person narrative of Packer's progress, DeLillo twice inserts the first-person "Confessions" of one Benno Levin, a disgruntled former employee of Packer who threatens his former boss and confronts him at the novel's end. Although Levin plans to write thousands of pages explaining why he wants to kill Packer, the motives Levin does manage to articulate are murky. The homeless Levin predictably resents Packer's wealth, but Levin also wackily believes that he has physiologically "contracted" several soul-destroying viruses from other cultures while using the Internet. Levin quotes St. Augustine--"I have become an enigma to myself"--and about this Levin is correct.

DeLillo composes Levin's "Confessions" in a chaotic or "misshapen" style--words pregnantly full or mysteriously empty of meaning, sentences that jump from subject to subject, ideas that repeat. Levin's fourteen pages thus reflect both major characters, eccentricities, the narration's aberrations, and the novel's dense compression. But Cosmopolis is also strictly symmetrical in its form--two parts, each with a chapter preceding and following pages from the "Confessions"--and lucid in its style when describing Packer's exploits. By fusing the disorderly and the orderly, a combination that neither Packer nor Levin could tolerate, DeLillo creates a craftily profound novel that requires readers to tolerate the enigmatic.

While raising cosmic questions, Cosmopolis perpetrates well-aimed comic attacks. Like the character who hits celebrities in their faces with pies, DeLillo puts egg on the face of Packer's vapid, old-wealth wife and puts amusing blather into the mouths of Packer's toadies. Like the comically haunted professor-protagonist of White Noise, Packer spends considerable energy humorously trying to evade his mortality. But Cosmopolis is more mordant than DeLillo's recent fiction, more like his earlier work. When Packer thinks he may die, he regrets he can't take his borzois with him. This is the kind of thought that would have occurred to the world-abrading and self-cancelling protagonists of Americana and Great Jones Street, DeLillo's first and third novels--also set in New York.

In Mao II, DeLillo's 1990 novel about the diminished power of the writer in contemporary culture, a novelist gives up his life trying to rescue a hostage in Lebanon. The writer in Cosmopolis, Levin, plots to take a life. He says he refuses to "recite biography, parentage and education, features missing from the novel. Instead, Levin wants "to rise up from the words on the page and do something, hurt someone." (150) To "hurt" the grotesque concentration of wealth and power in America, DeLillo sacrifices the realism and emotional engagement of a novel like Underworld or even The Body Artist. Ever artful in his sentences and arrangements, DeLillo doesn't devolve to populist sentiment or luddite propaganda but may engage in wishful thinking when he has his financial pharaoh engineer his own downfall. If Cosmopolis is not one of DeLillo's very best novels, it is one of his best-intentioned and should be widely read, probably twice or more by those who believe they can solve enigmas.

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Last updated: 04-MAR-2003