Cosmopolis by Don Delillo

★★☆☆☆ (2/5)

He wanted the car because it was not only oversized but aggressively and contemptuously so, metastasizingly so, a tremendous mutant thing that stood astride every argument against it.

“Cosmopolis” by Don Delillo is a stodgy account of a day in the life of stoic investment whiz-kid, Eric Packer, as he rides his limousine across Manhattan to get a haircut. His journey is interrupted by boisterous activity of the city: a presidential parade, an anti-globalisation protest and a funeral procession for a dead rapper. During his frustrating voyage, he also hosts a number of acquaintances and lovers in his limo, including his head of finance and various bodyguards, his wife and proctologist, his currency analyst and philosophical adviser. His ride is installed with modern gadgetry through which he observes and manipulates the market.

Money makes time. It used to be the other way around. Clock time accelerated the rise of capitalism. People stopped thinking about eternity. They began to concentrate on hours, measurable hours, man-hours, using labor more efficiently

Packer is seeped deep in hubris that leads to his eventual downfall. A man who “wants to be one civilization ahead of this one”. From the outset of the novel, there is a foreboding tone of self-destruction imminent in the story. The clunky, concrete jungle of New York with its grand illusions of Wall Street epitomise greed and capitalism and in Eric Packer we find these traits amalgamated with lust, callous indifference of others and a blatant disregard for morals and ethics of any sort. He may be a visionary but his actions are burning him and his business.

“What is the flaw of human rationality?” He said, “What?” “It pretends not to see the horror and death at the end of the schemes it builds. This is a protest against the future. They want to hold off the future. They want to normalize it, keep it from overwhelming the present

The horde of minor characters that make an appearance in and out of Packer’s limo add some colour to the otherwise cardboard-like, insubstantial plot premise. Despite thematic concerns regarding nature of violence, crowd mentality, counter-movements in culture, power and ever-increasing presence of technology in our midst, the book fails to make its mark. The narrative style is rebarbative to the point of utter annoyance. It feels choppy and stolid due to which the essence of the story gets diluted.

All in all, what could have been an exciting and compelling premise is entirely compromised owing to the style of narration. This was my first Delillo book, but its self-indulgence won’t discourage me from reading “White Noise.”


Favourite excerpts

  • He didn’t know what he wanted. Then he knew. He wanted to get a haircut.
  • The atrium had the tension and suspense of a towering space that requires pious silence in order to be seen and experienced properly
  • It was nine hundred feet high, the tallest residential tower in the world, a commonplace oblong whose only statement was its size. It had the kind of banality that reveals itself over time as being truly brutal. He liked it for this reason. He liked to stand and look at it when he felt this way.
  • he knew they would do it repeatedly into the night, our night, until the sensation drained out of it or everyone in the world had seen it, whichever came first
  • Sex finds us out. Sex sees through us. That’s why it’s so shattering. It strips us of appearances
  • It is what people think they see in another person that makes his reality. If they think he walks at a slant, then he walks at a slant, uncoordinated, because this is his role in the lives around him, and if they say his clothes don’t fit, he will learn to be neglectful of his wardrobe as a means of scorning them and inflicting punishment on himself.
  • What people discard could make a nation
  • I thought I would spend whatever number of years it takes to write ten thousand pages and then you would have the record, the literature of a life awake and asleep, because dreams too, and little stabs of memory, and all the pitiful habits and concealments, and all the things around me would be included
  • He felt the street around him, unremitting, people moving past each other in coded moments of gesture and dance. They tried to walk without breaking stride because breaking stride is well-meaning and weak but they were forced sometimes to sidestep and even pause and they almost always averted their eyes. Eye contact was a delicate matter. A quarter second of a shared glance was a violation of agreements that made the city operational. Who steps aside for whom, who looks or does not look at whom, what level of umbrage does a brush or a touch constitute? No one wanted to be touched. There was a pact of untouchability. Even here, in the huddle of old cultures, tactile and close-woven, with passersby mixed in, and security guards, and shoppers pressed to windows, and wandering fools, people did not touch each other.
  • We are not witnessing the flow of information so much as pure spectacle, or information made sacred, ritually unreadable
  • Computer power eliminates doubt. All doubt rises from past experience. But the past is disappearing. We used to know the past but not the future. This is changing
  • Things wear out impatiently in his hands. I know him in my mind. He “And you. You’re keeping well?” “You know me, kid. I could tell you I can’t complain. But I could definitely complain. The thing is I don’t want to. He leaned into the room, upper body only, the old stubbled head and pale eyes. “Because there isn’t time,” he said.
  • Power works best when there’s no memory attached…Power works best when it makes no distinctions
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