Expectations for this were so high that it came as no surprise that critics railed on it for being written in DeLillos usual biting, perceptive yet distant style, as opposed to the wittier, warmer one he revealed, to great acclaim, in “Underworld. More than a few also took jabs at it for being set in the year 2000, which made it seem a step back in time, but these observations aside, “Cosmopolis“ reflects DeLillo in a new millennium state of mind. For the most part, this is a very moving account of the unexpected downfall of someone for whom failure was never an option.
The tale focuses on a day in the life of Eric Packer, a reclusive, angst-ridden, 28-year-old, New York, New Economy billionaire. He is described by a friend as wanting “to be one civilization ahead of this one,“ such is the scope and depth of his ambition. On a spring day in 2000, he sets out for the day in his customized white stretch limo with two bits of business on his mind - he wants to get at a haircut at Anthony‘s, his father‘s old barber, and he wants to place a cataclysmic bet against the yen, which is mounting.
“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.“
But, ah, the best laid plans... Erics missions seem simple, but he never counted on by derailed by a presidential visit, an attack by anarchists and the funeral of an iconic rap music star. A surprising amount of unpredictable action takes place in the limo, though the diversions and frequent pit stops expand the playing area. The whole trip quickly begins to feel like an odyssey. A colorful cast of characters are introduced to help keep the action lively, and as they are, a great range of topics are delved into, such as security, technology, currency, finance, theory, and sexuality. They all have their place in the greater storyline, and DeLillos observations on them seem razor-sharp and laser beam-focused at times.
The greatest issue with this work is whether readers will connect with Packer or not, and curiously, the sympathy factor for him seems to raise as his financial demise seems imminent. This is a man obsessed with data, numbers, control and the entire monetary system in general, and its easy to fall in the trap of turning the pages of his impending trainwreck of a day all because it makes us feel a little more smug about not being a master of the universe.
Still, DeLillo challenges the reader to care because we come to realize that Packer is a lost and soulless, a cog in a machine that grinds and then spits out heart as an unnecessary organ. Theres more than a bit that recalls “A Clockwork Orange“ by Anthony Burgess, even as one of Packers advisors tells him that what they really need is “a new theory of time.“ Were one step ahead of them all, though, if we realize, as the author wants us to, that what is really needed is a new way of seizing the moment, the hour and the day, something that only comes from the inside.