It wouldn’t be absurd to describe Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis as the most prescient American novel of the last fifteen years. Published in 2003, it’s a slim and strangely told story about capitalism, the thirteenth book of DeLillo’s career and—so far—the only one to have been made into a film. When it first appeared, critics chalked it up as a late-career curiosity or, more often, tore it apart for being pretentious and stale. In one of two acidic reviews published by the New York Times, Walter Kirn described it as “a numbing abacus calculation in prose,” while in the other Michiko Kakutani called it “a major dud” and “hopelessly clichéd.” In my own opinion, verdicts like these are a lot stupider than anything in DeLillo’s novel, but there’s no denying that Cosmopolis is an awkward book with some significant flaws. None of its characters are lifelike. The dialogue, which is heavily stylized, can be hard going at times and occasionally feels like it’s meant to be satire without actually being funny (an odd quality that comes out all the more in Cronenberg’s movie). There are a couple of embarrassing forays into rap music and nightclubbing, lead-footed jokes, unconvincing set pieces and a long-winded and very obscure final scene. Those problems don’t spoil the experience, but they do make Cosmopolis feel less substantial than, say, White Noise (1985) or Libra (1988), the heavyweight triumphs of DeLillo’s career.
For all of that, Cosmopolis is an authentically strange achievement: a mostly forgotten minor novel that’s also a suitably murky conclusion to the story DeLillo’s been telling about America for the last half-century. I’ve come to think that it is a deeply political book, one that raises a series of pertinent questions about what socially conscious writing can hope to achieve today. The most immediately interesting parts have to do with the knots Cosmopolis ties itself into around the ideas of anti-capitalism and countercultural art in an age where “there’s only one thing in the world worth pursuing professionally and intellectually … the interaction between technology and capital.” But beneath that puzzle lie some much more unsettling problems regarding what it is possible for us to think or imagine from within a society that seems almost superhumanly cruel.
The story depicts the last day in the life of Eric Packer, a 28-year-old asset-management billionaire living in New York in 2000. The plot is simple: in the morning, on a whim, Packer decides to take an eleven-block journey across Manhattan in his limo to get his hair cut at his favorite barbershop. En route he is waylaid by a series of symbolically loaded events, the most important of which is an enormous anti-capitalist riot in the middle of Times Square. After experiencing an epiphany at the sight of a protester setting himself on fire, Packer steadily loses or disposes of his assets. First he bankrupts himself; later he deliberately squanders his wife’s fortune, murders his own bodyguard and abandons his car, before finally being assassinated by a disaffected ex-employee named Richard Sheets. The atmosphere in which all of this takes place is heavy with harbingers of catastrophe. The day the young billionaire crosses town is also the occasion for a spate of violent anarchist attacks. Banks are subjected to coordinated bombings, the head of the International Monetary Fund is murdered live on the Money Channel, and revolutionary slogans are projected onto the feed of the Stock Exchange (A SPECTER IS HAUNTING THE WORLD—THE SPECTER OF CAPITALISM). New York itself, where the best apartments command nine-figure sums and long white limousines have become “the most unnoticed vehicles” on the streets, is cast in one of the archetypal roles of apocalypse mythology: the decadent city on the brink of an abyss.
DeLillo remarked in a 2003 interview with the Chicago Sun-Times that Cosmopolis is “set on the last day of an era … that interval between the end of the Cold War and the beginning of our current period of terror. It’s essentially the 1990s.” The manuscript was nearly finished when the 9/11 attacks took place, which meant that by the time the novel was published its moment had apparently already gone. All the signifiers the narrative is built around—the delirious market optimism of the Nineties, the digital boom, the newly unbridled capitalist expansionism and the mass protests against the G8 and the World Trade Organization—were supplanted in the general imagination by the twin specters of radical Islam and the War on Terror. But Cosmopolis had an uncanny afterlife. The story’s date—April 2000—is significant not only for its millenarian overtones but also because that was the year the Dow Jones Industrial Average hit its (then) all-time peak, after which it fell into a two-year slump. The main action in the background to Packer’s journey through New York is a massively leveraged bet he’s made against the Japanese yen, a gamble that ultimately sinks his own company along with the entire global economy as Cosmopolis ends. (Hence the none-too-subtle double meaning of Packer’s “getting a haircut”—business slang for accepting a loss on an investment.) In other words, the crisis the novel foretold was financial rather than terroristic. When the real crash arrived late in 2007 DeLillo’s little fable of apocalyptic banking disasters and speculative hubris suddenly felt a lot more insightful. The relic of the Nineties became an omen of the present.
The idea of temporal glitches and irregularities—of things behind, ahead or outside of time—recurs over and over again inside Cosmopolis, too. In one of the book’s recurring motifs, Packer’s hyper-attuned faculties seem to merge with the pristine technology that surrounds him, giving him disturbing glimpses of the future moments before it takes place. To the capitalist’s eyes, New York exists in a state of perpetual decay. No sooner does his gaze rest on some piece of technology—handheld phones, guns, cash registers, even the dazzling skyscrapers of the city’s post-industrial economy—than it seems to rot into obsolescence. Indeed, you can see epochs melting into one another in the structure of the story itself, which layers futuristic fantasies and pop-culture clichés over the bones of an ancient warning about idolatry and greed. Packer himself is an almost overwhelmingly symbolic figure: a cross between Steve Jobs and one of Ayn Rand’s titan capitalists, an all-purpose emblem of misbegotten utopianism, Faustian hubris and Babylonian wealth. Perhaps most conspicuously, he is also one of the latest in a long line of New York finance villains, the most famous of which belong to those late-Eighties spectacles of white-collar scandal and excess—Gordon Gekko in Wall Street, Sherman McCoy in The Bonfire of the Vanities, Patrick Bateman in American Psycho. DeLillo’s billionaire is their digitally enhanced spawn: a young, handsome super-genius who “mastered the steepest matters in half an afternoon” and owns the most expensive apartment in New York, buying high-end luxuries on impulse and regularly indulging his heroic appetite for sex. (In Cronenberg’s adaptation, the role is played by Robert Pattinson, an actor who owes his fame to the Twilight vampire films—a choice that neatly emphasizes the character’s otherworldly glamour and evokes one of the oldest anti-capitalist vilifications there is: the bloodsucking parasite that takes society’s product for its own.)