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Don DeLillo: Cosmopolis

It may be one of his shorter novels – barely over 200 pages – but DeLillo packs a lot in, specifically a parable about the end of global capitalism. The novel is set in New York and is one day in the life of Eric Packer. Packer is spectacularly rich and, just to make sure he remains so, twenty-two days previously he married Elsie Shifrin, beautiful, intelligent, a poet and heiress to the largest banking fortune in the world. (To give an idea of their wealth, Packer discover she has more than $700 million in her bank account and considers that small change.) He lives in a forty-eight room apartment, complete with its own shark tank. Indeed, during the day he will attempt to buy the Rothko Chapel and have it installed in his apartment. His money has been made in finance, currently in trading in yens and using the money to buy stocks, on the assumption that the yens he will have to pay back will be worth less when he has to pay them back.

On the day during which the novel takes place, we will follow him as he is driven around Manhattan in his expensive, large, prousted (i.e. cork-lined) white limousine. It is not a good day for driving around Manhattan. Firstly, President Midwood, president of the USA, is in town and various streets are blocked off, not least because there is a rumour of an assassination attempt. Secondly, there is a major funeral for Brutha Fez, a Sufi rap star who died of a heart attack earlier that day. The funeral procession uses many key streets. Packer knew Brutha Fez and had been playing his music earlier. Thirdly, there is a large anti-capitalism demonstration, with a large number of participants, quite a few of them who come close to Packer’s car and spray paint it, hit it and urinate on it. Packer is exhilarated, rather than scared. Finally, Torval, Packer’s chief bodyguard, gets wind of a credible attempt on Packer’s life.

DeLillo skilfully fuses the outside action – the demonstrators, the traffic jams, the reaction of Packer’s security detail to threats, and various colourful New York passers-by – with both what happens inside the car – it is large enough for meetings, medical exams and to have its own toilet – and Packer’s occasional excursions from the car. Inside the car, he meets with his various staff, who have to find him. One is the chief technology officer who assures Packer that his systems are secure. Packer, who, we later learn, may have started out by hacking into systems, is not convinced. There is the currency expert who warns him about the risk of speculating on the yen. There is the chief finance officer who is annoyed that her day off has been interrupted and with whom Packer discusses the currency trading, while undergoing a full medical examination, including a prostate exam, with the doctor doing a digital rectal probe. This arouses both the (divorced) finance officer and Packer. The funniest of all is his chief expert on theory who discusses a variety of theories on different topics, arbitrarily raised by Packer.

But, to the chagrin of his security detail, he leaves the car on several occasions. Indeed, he manages to come across his wife on four separate occasions, eating with her on the first three (at very ordinary eating places) and finally having sex with her, when he finds her participating in a film shoot where all the actors (both sexes) are lying naked on the ground. In between he manages sex with two other women, including one of his security guards who has to keep wearing her body armour while they have sex. The ostensible purpose of the excursion was to get his haircut. Initially, it is not made clear why, as was suggested by others, he did not just summon a barber to his apartment. We learn why at the end.

However, what makes this novel is the overriding idea of a threat hanging over Packer and, by extension, over global capitalism. The demonstration, of course, is both an attack on capitalism but also on Packer. Two leading people in the financial world are brutally murdered – the Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, who is stabbed while doing an interview in North Korea, and a Russian oligarch, shot outside his dacha. But we also keep hearing about the threat to Packer personally from a possible assassin and we also read, briefly, the assassin telling his own story and his desire to kill Packer. Packer, like capitalism, shows himself to be reckless but also bold. He is protected and always on the move. Can he be found and can he be killed? By the same token, DeLillo raises the question as to whether capitalism, particularly global capitalism will survive. To raise this issue in the way he does in such a short book is no mean feat.

Publishing history

First published 2003 by Scribner