Cosmopolisby Don DeLillo
It is an April day in the year 2000 and an era is about to end. The booming times of market optimism—when the culture boiled with money and corporations seemed more vital and influential than governments— are poised to crash. Eric Packer, a billionaire asset manager at age twenty-eight, emerges from his penthouse triplex and settles into his lavishly… See more details below
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It is an April day in the year 2000 and an era is about to end. The booming times of market optimism—when the culture boiled with money and corporations seemed more vital and influential than governments— are poised to crash. Eric Packer, a billionaire asset manager at age twenty-eight, emerges from his penthouse triplex and settles into his lavishly customized white stretch limousine. Today he is a man with two missions: to pursue a cataclysmic bet against the yen and to get a haircut across town. Stalled in traffic by a presidential motorcade, a music idol’s funeral and a violent political demonstration, Eric receives a string of visitors—experts on security, technology, currency, finance and a few sexual partners—as the limo sputters toward an increasingly uncertain future.
Cosmopolis, Don DeLillo's thirteenth novel, is both intimate and global, a vivid and moving account of the spectacular downfall of one man, and of an era.
The story concerns a billionaire New York asset manager named Eric Packer who initiates a self-destructive spiral for reasons the book never makes clear. On an April morning in 2000, Packer leaves his forty-eight-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 across town to his childhood barber in Hell's Kitchen. 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 trip extends into the early morning hours.
Packer spends much of his day escaping the insulation of his wealth and attempting to enjoy common pleasures outside the limo. But he also intentionally loses money 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. DeLillo offers little about Packer's background, so psychology can't help explain character as it does in traditional realism. Packer's motives are paradoxical, possibly pathological, by turns self-asserting and self-abasing.
Emboldened by his financial success, Packer envisions a future when a human being can become immortal by being encoded "in a chip, on a disk, as data." He appears to havefallen victim to a pernicious belief that cybernetic systems could banish enigma from existence, and once he begins to doubt the transcendental power of data, Packer desires an Icarus-like crash and burn.
Into the third-person narrative of Packer's progress, DeLillo inserts pages of the first-person "confessions" of one Benno Levin, a disgruntled former employee of Packer who threatens his one-time boss and confronts him at the novel's end. Although Levin plans to write thousands of pages explaining why he wants to destroy Packer, the motives Levin does manage to articulate are murky. DeLillo composes Levin's confessions in a chaotic or "misshapen" style—words full or mysteriously empty of meaning, sentences that jump from subject to subject, ideas that repeat. In Mao II, DeLillo's 1991 novel about the diminished power of the writer in contemporary culture, a novelist puts his life on the line trying to rescue a hostage in Lebanon. In Cosmopolis, the writer Levin plots to take a life, saying that he wants "to rise up from the words on the page and do something, hurt someone."
In telling Packer and Levin's story, DeLillo sacrifices the realism and emotional engagement of a novel like Underworld or even The Body Artist. Ever artful in his sentences and arrangements, he doesn't devolve to populist sentiment or propaganda but may engage in wishful thinking when he has his financial pharaoh engineer his own downfall. Cosmopolis is not one of DeLillo's best novels, but it is one of his best intentioned and should be widely read, probably twice or more by those who enjoy contemplating life's enigmas.
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Read an Excerpt
from Part 1
Sleep failed him more often now, not once or twice a week but four times, five. What did he do when this happened? He did not take long walks into the scrolling dawn. There was no friend he loved enough to harrow with a call. What was there to say? It was a matter of silences, not words.
He tried to read his way into sleep but only grew more wakeful. He read science and poetry. He liked spare poems sited minutely in white space, ranks of alphabetic strokes burnt into paper. Poems made him conscious of his breathing. A poem bared the moment to things he was not normally prepared to notice. This was the nuance of every poem, at least for him, at night, these long weeks, one breath after another, in the rotating room at the top of the triplex.
He tried to sleep standing up one night, in his meditation cell, but wasn't nearly adept enough, monk enough to manage this. He bypassed sleep and rounded into counterpoise, a moonless calm in which every force is balanced by another. This was the briefest of easings, a small pause in the stir of restless identities.
There was no answer to the question. He tried sedatives and hypnotics but they made him dependent, sending him inward in tight spirals. Every act he performed was self-haunted and synthetic. The palest thought carried an anxious shadow. What did he do? He did not consult an analyst in a tall leather chair. Freud is finished, Einstein's next. He was reading the Special Theory tonight, in English and German, but put the book aside, finally, and lay completely still, trying to summon the will to speak the single word that would turn off the lights. Nothing existed around him. There was only the noise in his head, the mind in time.
When he died he would not end. The world would end.
He stood at the window and watched the great day dawn. The view was across bridges, narrows and sounds and out past the boroughs and toothpaste suburbs into measures of landmass and sky that could only be called the deep distance. He didn't know what he wanted. It was still nighttime down on the river, half night, and ashy vapors wavered above the smokestacks on the far bank. He imagined the whores were all fled from the lamplit corners by now, duck butts shaking, other kinds of archaic business just beginning to stir, produce trucks rolling out of the markets, news trucks out of the loading docks. The bread vans would be crossing the city and a few stray cars out of bedlam weaving down the avenues, speakers pumping heavy sound.
The noblest thing, a bridge across a river, with the sun beginning to roar behind it.
He watched a hundred gulls trail a wobbling scow downriver. They had large strong hearts. He knew this, disproportionate to body size. He'd been interested once and had mastered the teeming details of bird anatomy. Birds have hollow bones. He mastered the steepest matters in half an afternoon.
He didn't know what he wanted. Then he knew. He wanted to get a haircut.
He stood a while longer, watching a single gull lift and ripple in a furl of air, admiring the bird, thinking into it, trying to know the bird, feeling the sturdy earnest beat of its scavenger's ravenous heart.
He wore a suit and tie. A suit subdued the camber of his overdeveloped chest. He liked to work out at night, pulling weighted metal sleds, doing curls and bench presses in stoic repetitions that ate away the day's tumults and compulsions.
He walked through the apartment, forty-eight rooms. He did this when he felt hesitant and depressed, striding past the lap pool, the card parlor, the gymnasium, past the shark tank and screening room. He stopped at the borzoi pen and talked to his dogs. Then he went to the annex, where there were currencies to track and research reports to examine.
The yen rose overnight against expectations.
He went back up to the living quarters, walking slowly now, and paused in every room, absorbing what was there, deeply seeing, retaining every fleck of energy in rays and waves.
The art that hung was mainly color-field and geometric, large canvases that dominated rooms and placed a prayerful hush on the atrium, skylighted, with its high white paintings and trickle fountain. The atrium had the tension and suspense of a towering space that requires pious silence in order to be seen and experienced properly, the mosque of soft footfall and rock doves murmurous in the vaulting.
He liked paintings that his guests did not know how to look at. The white paintings were unknowable to many, knife-applied slabs of mucoid color. The work was all the more dangerous for not being new. There's no more danger in the new.
He rode to the marble lobby in the elevator that played Satie. His prostate was asymmetrical. He went outside and crossed the avenue, then turned and faced the building where he lived. He felt contiguous with it. It was eighty-nine stories, a prime number, in an undistinguished sheath of hazy bronze glass. They shared an edge or boundary, skyscraper and man. It was nine hundred feet high, the tallest residential tower in the world, a commonplace oblong whose only statement was its size. It had the kind of banality that reveals itself over time as being truly brutal. He liked it for this reason. He liked to stand and look at it when he felt this way. He felt wary, drowsy and insubstantial.
The wind came cutting off the river. He took out his hand organizer and poked a note to himself about the anachronistic quality of the word skyscraper. No recent structure ought to bear this word. It belonged to the olden soul of awe, to the arrowed towers that were a narrative long before he was born.
The hand device itself was an object whose original culture had just about disappeared. He knew he'd have to junk it.
The tower gave him strength and depth. He knew what he wanted, a haircut, but stood a while longer in the soaring noise of the street and studied the mass and scale of the tower. The one virtue of its surface was to skim and bend the river light and mime the tides of open sky. There was an aura of texture and reflection. He scanned its length and felt connected to it, sharing the surface and the environment that came into contact with the surface, from both sides. A surface separates inside from out and belongs no less to one than the other. He'd thought about surfaces in the shower once.
He put on his sunglasses. Then he walked back across the avenue and approached the lines of white limousines. There were ten cars, five in a curbside row in front of the tower, on First Avenue, and five lined up on the cross street, facing west. The cars were identical at a glance. Some may have been a foot or two longer than others depending on details of the stretch work and the particular owner's requirements.
The drivers smoked and talked on the sidewalk, hatless in dark suits, sharing an alertness that would be evident only in retrospect when their eyes went hot in their heads and they shed their cigarettes and vacated their unstudied stances, having spotted the objects of their regard.
For now they talked, in accented voices, some of them, or first languages, others, and they waited for the investment banker, the land developer, the venture capitalist, for the software entrepreneur, the global overlord of satellite and cable, the discount broker, the beaked media chief, for the exiled head of state of some smashed landscape of famine and war.
In the park across the street there were stylized ironwork arbors and bronze fountains with iridescent pennies scattershot at the bottom. A man in women's clothing walked seven elegant dogs.
He liked the fact that the cars were indistinguishable from each other. He wanted such a car because he thought it was a platonic replica, weightless for all its size, less an object than an idea. But he knew this wasn't true. This was something he said for effect and he didn't believe it for an instant. He believed it for an instant but only just. He wanted the car because it was not only oversized but aggressively and contemptuously so, metastasizingly so, a tremendous mutant thing that stood astride every argument against it.
His chief of security liked the car for its anonymity. Long white limousines had become the most unnoticed vehicles in the city. He was waiting on the sidewalk now, Torval, bald and no-necked, a man whose head seemed removable for maintenance.
"Where?" he said.
"I want a haircut."
"The president's in town."
"We don't care. We need a haircut. We need to go crosstown."
"You will hit traffic that speaks in quarter inches."
"Just so I know. Which president are we talking about?"
"United States. Barriers will be set up," he said. "Entire streets deleted from the map."
"Show me my car," he told the man.
The driver held the door open, ready to jog around the rear of the car and down to his own door, thirty-five feet away. Where the file of white limousines ended, parallel to the entrance of the Japan Society, another line of cars commenced, the town cars, black or indigo, and the drivers waited for members of diplomatic missions, for the delegates, consuls and sunglassed attachés.
Torval sat with the driver up front, where there were dashboard computer screens and a night-vision display on the lower windshield, a product of the infrared camera situated in the grille.
Shiner was waiting inside the car, his chief of technology, small and boy-faced. He did not look at Shiner anymore. He hadn't looked in three years. Once you'd looked, there was nothing else to know. You'd know his bone marrow in a beaker. He wore his faded shirt and jeans and sat in his masturbatory crouch.
"What have we learned then?"
"Our system's secure. We're impenetrable. There's no rogue program," Shiner said.
"It would seem, however."
"Eric, no. We ran every test. Nobody's overloading the system or manipulating our sites."
"When did we do all this?"
"Yesterday. At the complex. Our rapid-response team. There's no vulnerable point of entry. Our insurer did a threat analysis. We're buffered from attack."
"Including the car."
"Including, absolutely, yes."
"My car. This car."
"Eric, yes, please."
"We've been together, you and I, since the little bitty start-up. I want you to tell me that you still have the stamina to do this job. The single-mindedness."
"This car. Your car."
"The relentless will. Because I keep hearing about our legend. We're all young and smart and were raised by wolves. But the phenomenon of reputation is a delicate thing. A person rises on a word and falls on a syllable. I know I'm asking the wrong man."
"Where was the car last night after we ran our tests?"
"I don't know."
"Where do all these limos go at night?"
Shiner slumped hopelessly into the depths of this question.
"I know I'm changing the subject. I haven't been sleeping much. I look at books and drink brandy. But what happens to all the stretch limousines that prowl the throbbing city all day long? Where do they spend the night?"
The car ran into stalled traffic before it reached Second Avenue. He sat in the club chair at the rear of the cabin looking into the array of visual display units. There were medleys of data on every screen, all the flowing symbols and alpine charts, the polychrome numbers pulsing. He absorbed this material in a couple of long still seconds, ignoring the speech sounds that issued from lacquered heads. There was a microwave and a heart monitor. He looked at the spycam on a swivel and it looked back at him. He used to sit here in hand-held space but that was finished now. The context was nearly touchless. He could talk most systems into operation or wave a hand at a screen and make it go blank.
A cab squeezed in alongside, the driver pressing his horn. This set off a hundred other horns.
Shiner stirred in the jump seat near the liquor cabinet, facing rearward. He was drinking fresh orange juice through a plastic straw that extended from the glass at an obtuse angle. He seemed to be whistling something into the shaft of the straw between intakes of liquid.
Eric said, "What?"
Shiner raised his head.
"Do you get the feeling sometimes that you don't know what's going on?" he said.
"Do I want to ask what you mean by that?"
Shiner spoke into his straw as if it were an onboard implement of transmission.
"All this optimism, all this booming and soaring. Things happen like bang. This and that simultaneous. I put out my hand and what do I feel? I know there's a thousand things you analyze every ten minutes. Patterns, ratios, indexes, whole maps of information. I love information. This is our sweetness and light. It's a fuckall wonder. And we have meaning in the world. People eat and sleep in the shadow of what we do. But at the same time, what?"
There was a long pause. He looked at Shiner finally. What did he say to the man? He did not direct a remark that was hard and sharp. He said nothing at all in fact.
They sat in the swell of blowing horns. There was something about the noise that he did not choose to wish away. It was the tone of some fundamental ache, a lament so old it sounded aboriginal. He thought of men in shaggy bands bellowing ceremonially, social units established to kill and eat. Red meat. That was the call, the grievous need. The cooler carried beverages today. There was nothing solid for the microwave.
Shiner said, "Any special reason we're in the car instead of the office?"
"How do you know we're in the car instead of the office?"
"If I answer that question."
"Based on what premise?"
"I know I'll say something that's halfway clever but mostly shallow and probably inaccurate on some level. Then you'll pity me for having been born."
"We're in the car because I need a haircut."
"Have the barber go to the office. Get your haircut there. Or have the barber come to the car. Get your haircut and go to the office."
"A haircut has what. Associations. Calendar on the wall. Mirrors everywhere. There's no barber chair here. Nothing swivels but the spycam."
He shifted position in his chair and watched the surveillance camera adjust. His image used to be accessible nearly all the time, videostreamed worldwide from the car, the plane, the office and selected sites in his apartment. But there were security issues to address and now the camera operated on a closed circuit. A nurse and two armed guards were on constant watch at three monitors in a windowless room at the office. The word office was outdated now. It had zero saturation.
He glanced out the one-way window to his left. It took him a moment to understand that he knew the woman in the rear seat of the taxi that lay adjacent. She was his wife of twenty-two days, Elise Shifrin, a poet who had right of blood to the fabulous Shifrin banking fortune of Europe and the world.
He coded a word to Torval up front. Then he stepped into the street and tapped on the taxi window. She smiled up at him, surprised. She was in her mid-twenties, with an etched delicacy of feature and large and artless eyes. Her beauty had an element of remoteness. This was intriguing but maybe not. Her head rode slightly forward on a slender length of neck. She had an unexpected laugh, a little weary and experienced, and he liked the way she put a finger to her lips when she wanted to be thoughtful. Her poetry was shit.
She slid over and he got in next to her. The horns subsided and resumed in ritualistic cycles. Then the taxi shot diagonally across the intersection to a point just west of Second Avenue, where it reached another impasse, with Torval jogging hot behind.
"Where's your car?"
"We can't seem to find it," she said.
"I'd offer you a ride."
"I couldn't. Absolutely. I know you work en route. And I like taxis. I was never good at geography and I learn things by asking the drivers where they come from."
"They come from horror and despair."
"Yes, exactly. One learns about the countries where unrest is occurring by riding the taxis here."
"I haven't seen you in a while. I looked for you this morning."
He took off his sunglasses, for effect. She gazed into his face. She looked steadily, with fixed attention.
"Your eyes are blue," she said.
He lifted her hand and held it to his face, smelling and licking. The Sikh at the wheel was missing a finger. Eric regarded the stub, impressive, a serious thing, a body ruin that carried history and pain.
"Eat breakfast yet?"
"No," she said.
"Good. I'm hungry for something thick and chewy."
"You never told me you were blue-eyed."
He heard the static in her laugh. He bit her thumb knuckle and opened the door and they stepped across the sidewalk to the coffee shop near the corner.
Copyright © 2003 by Don DeLillo
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