Suzanne's Reviews > Cosmopolis

Cosmopolis by Don DeLillo
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May 31, 12

Read in March, 2011

Strangely this novel has received many negative reviews. Most of them compare this book against other Delillo works and feel it falls below his usual standard of excellence in prose. Having only read one, at this point, my view is very different.
The novel is based on a day in the life of its main character, Eric Packer, a 28 year old brilliant Wall Street currency trader who has made billions of dollars anticipating the market trends of worldwide currency. Not unlike Joyce's, "Ulysses" and Woolf's "Mrs. Dalloway" Delillo opens the story with Packer's decision that "we" need to get a haircut. And where he chooses to have that haircut is across town, on a busy day in NYC, complicated by a US presidential visit to the UN and the security that results in ultimate traffic gridlock. The time is April, in the year 2000, before the internet stock market bubble burst. It is within the shelter of Packer's uber-equipped limo that we are introduced to his life and his world.
Packer is brilliant, obsessive to the most minute detail flashed on the several plasma screens within his limo, but has become disconnected from his humanity. Think Alvin Toffler and "Future Shock" 1970. Using mathematical formulas of probability and scientific physical theories of natural repetition, often interpreted in economics as a market predictor, he has become a financial wunderkind, revered and hated simultaneously, all over the world. His power is enormous. There are those that worship him, and those that hate him, both beyond reason. His trade orders can shut down economies, countries and banks and he knows it. The making of money for him is abstract and unconnected with jobs and individual needs for survival. He could care less. To him, it is a game against himself. Nothing more. And when he wins, there is no pleasure, no sense of satisfaction. It is 24/7, 365 days a year. The markets never sleep.
Unable to interact socially and emotionally, Packer becomes hyperfocused on his health and mortality. His limo has EKG monitors and examining tables. And, very bizarrely, he has obsessed over an incidental observation made by a physician that he has an "asymmetrical prostate". This observation results in intolerable anxiety for Packer, to such a degree that he pays for daily visits by doctors for prostate and heart exams. An EKG is not a big deal but daily prostate exams? Unpleasant at the very least and his need for it is telling.
On this particular day the Japanese yen's value continues to rise. Packer is betting against it, and despite the strong recommendations of his advisors, he stays on course. There are interactions, observations and events that occur over the period of his morning stuck in traffic, that threaten his well-being, both literally and figuratively. His security people tell him that there is a "credible threat" to his safety. Other executives in finance have been assassinated, but he dismisses their recommendations and continues on course.
As the traffic inches forward he begins to thaw, his confidence wanes, and he ultimately realizes that he has misjudged the market and has brought about his own downfall. Somehow this pleases him and he ensures it by hacking into his new wife's online account and losing her several million dollar inheritance as well. He has no shame in bringing everything down upon him. Banks, corporations, world economies. This is Part 1.
The second part of the book takes place in the afternoon, when his journey cross town is interrupted again by the funeral of a Sufi rapper musician he admires. He becomes emotionally overwhelmed by the display of grief and respect shown to this man by those who care for him. He finds his limo within a massive anti-capitalist, anti-tech protest, bordering on a riot. His limo is pelted with rocks and in every window he sees raging individuals.
Experiencing body sobs he starts noticing storefronts and the minutiae of everyman's daily life and then reflects on the barber shop he is attempting to reach. It is where his late father took him as a little boy. He knows he has destroyed his life, and that of countless others, but there is no going back. Nihilistic, he expects to die and finds this freeing. In the course of the afternoon he kills his security guard while examining his weapon, his intentionality is unclear, but there is no remorse. And he finally meets the credible threat.
This is extraordinarily well-written and timely. This was published in 2003, well before the 2009 US financial meltdown. Prophetic but deep. Had to read it three times before I could put it all together.
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