The Story

Cosmopolis is Don DeLillo‘s thirteenth novel. It was published by Scribner on 14 April 2003.

Cosmopolis is the story of Eric Packer, a 28 year old multi-billionaire asset manager who makes an odyssey across midtown Manhattan in order to get a haircut. The stretch limo which adorns the cover of the book is richly described as highly technical and very luxurious, filled with television screens and computer monitors, bulletproofed and floored with Carrara marble. It is also cork lined to eliminate (though unsuccessfully, Packer notes) the intrusion of street noise.


An excerpt from a critique of Cosmopolis


“You live in a tower that soars to heaven and goes unpunished by God,” one of his advisers tells Eric Packer, twenty-eight-year-old self-made stocks billionaire and the novel’s doomed but curiously inert protagonist. As the verb form indicates, it is the tower, and not Packer, that has unaccountably evaded divine retribution. As always with DeLillo, the urban landscape is as much a character as any of the people in the novel, like a living organism, shivering with pent-up energy and violent desires, and as deserving as they are of praise or punishment.

The adviser, Vija Kinski, Packer’s “chief of theory” and genius ideas woman, finds funny the thought of Packer and his inviolate $104 million penthouse, and, not for the first time in the course of this dystopian work, the reader wonders if perhaps it is to be read as a comedy before anything else. Certainly the things that happen, horrendous as they are, at one point a man burns himself to death on the sidewalk, Vietnamese-monk style, in the midst of an anticapitalist protest, hint at a muffled, hectic hilarity. Like the drifting cloud of toxic chemicals in White Noise, the self-immolation and the riot happening around it occur in an atmosphere suggestive of Bakhtinian carnival.

Packer is traveling across town in his custom-built white stretch limo, on his way, we are told, to get a haircut. The car is equipped with every conceivable, and many inconceivable, devices for the comfort and care of its owner; in one of the book’s small, inspired jokes, the vehicle’s interior has been “prousted,” that is, cork-lined. As the limo moves at an “inchworm creep” through the daylong gridlock, the president’s motorcade is in town, and there is a bomb explosion, a water-main break, and lavish anarchist violence, not to mention a “credible threat” to Packer’s life, he is visited in the backseat by several of his advisers and carers, who simply step off the street and into the gridlocked car. As well as Vija Kinski (Packer’s chief of theory), there are his currency analyst, Michael Chin; his chief of finance, Jane Melman, whom, incidentally, he causes to have an orgasm merely by talking dirty; and his doctor. Packer has been speculating massively in the yen and stands to lose his entire fortune if it does not stop rising. Melman tells him he should ease off, retrench, but he is as far gone as any Old World gambler betting everything on one last throw as dawn comes up over the Côte d’Azur, and with the same inevitable result.

The end of the book is, as one would expect, apocalyptic. Packer, having casually lost his money and as casually killed a man, comes at dead of night upon an outdoor film set on which hundreds of naked extras are lying in the street under the arc lamps, pretending to be corpses. Packer, who by now has come to see himself as one of the walking dead, takes off his clothes and joins them. Beside him, her face pressed into the asphalt, is, you guessed it, his wife, to whom, after the cameras have stopped rolling, he makes highly gratifying love, for the first time in their marriage, as it happens. Then she wanders off into the night, and he goes to meet his nemesis. Just another ordinary urban disaster.

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