Cosmopolis by Don DeLillo
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I re-read this novel, before seeing David Cronenberg’s film (see Post 21).
This review reveals what I think about the fate of the protagonist at the end of the novel.
My views are based on my interpretation of material that starts at page 55 of the 209 page novel.
If this material or my interpretation is incorrect, then the novel leaves you hanging at the end.
As my views on the novel as a whole depend on an interpretation of the protagonist’s fate, please don’t read my review if you want to form your own views in isolation.
In 1992, Paul Auster dediciated “Leviathan” to Don DeLillo.
In 2003, DeLillo repaid the favour by dedicating “Cosmopolis” to Auster.
Here is a photo of the two of them [on the left] taken at the baseball with two employees of the Gotham Book Mart by the store’s owner:
The Name “Cosmopolis”
We are all used to the word “cosmopolitan”, but “cosmopolis” is less commonly used.
To the extent that the prefix “cosmo” suggests the world or the universe, it implies that the city is representative of the diversity of the world or the universe.
We can probably infer that the city is sophisticated and worldly, has an international rather than provincial character, and is home to many cosmopolitan people.
If so, the term would be a perfect description for New York City, where the novel is set.
It also applies to ancient Athens and Rome, perhaps the original “world-cities”.
The novel is largely set in a long white limo that drives its protagonist, 28 year old billionaire and hedge-fund manager Eric Packer, across Manhattan.
Most plot summaries describe the purpose of the journey as to enable Eric to get a haircut.
However, this misses much of the narrative and metaphorical significance of the journey, not to mention the haircut.
The journey is more or less the whole of the length of 47th Street, which runs one-way between 1st Ave and the West Side Highway (called the Joe DiMaggio Highway since just before the publication of the novel).
Climbing Down from A Cosmopolitan Triplex in the Heavens...
At the 1st Ave end, you’ll find the United Nations Headquarters, perhaps the centre of cosmopolitanism.
Eric lives in a triplex close to 1st Ave. The building is not named, but the triplex supposedly cost Eric $104M.
At the corner of 47th and 1st is the Trump World Tower, which was completed in 2001.
The duplex penthouse in this building failed to sell for $58M, and was eventually split into four units.
However, as at 2003, the highest price for an apartment in Manhattan was the $70M paid by hedge-fund manager Martin Zweig for a triplex at the Pierre Hotel owned by Lady Mary Fairfax (of the Australian family that published the Sydney Morning Herald and Age newspapers).
Eric’s purchase price represents a 50% increase on the highest price ever paid at the time. You can do that if you're a billionaire.
As you drive along 47th Street, you pass the Diamond District, a number of Broadway Theatres and Times Square.
Between 1963 and 1968, Andy Warhol’s Factory was on 47th Street between Second and Third Aves.
...and Descending into Hell’s Kitchen
On the West Side, the Street passes into Hell’s Kitchen, also known as Clinton (not named after Bill) or Midtown West (not named after Mae), the original home of Damon Runyon’s stories, Marvel Comics' "Daredevil", gang wars between migrants, and the musical "West Side Story".
The Wiki article on Hell’s Kitchen recounts a number of versions of the origin of the area’s name:
“…the most common version traces it to the story of Dutch Fred The Cop, a veteran policeman, who with his rookie partner, was watching a small riot on West 39th Street near 10th Avenue.
"The rookie is supposed to have said, ‘This place is hell itself,’ to which Fred replied, ‘Hell's a mild climate. This is Hell's Kitchen.’ "
Gail Wynand, the newspaper proprietor in Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead”, came from Hell’s Kitchen and in Rand’s novel is described as “Petronius from Hell’s Kitchen”, a description that might also apply to Eric Packer (except that he ends there, rather than originates from there).
Interestingly, the original Petronius, believed to be the author of “The Satyricon”, was described as the “elegantiae arbiter” (or the “arbiter elegantiarum”), "the judge of elegance" in the court of the Roman Emperor Nero.
West 47th Street has yet to be developed and still contains relatively disused and derelict buildings (including the building that features in the end of “Cosmopolis”), not to mention the homeless and mentally ill treated at “Fountain House” who featured in the documentary “West 47th Street”.
Mapping Eric’s Progress
I have included all of this detail (thanks, Wiki), so that I can argue that this journey isn’t just some trip to the barber.
It represents a journey along a street that defines the extremes of Manhattan, from the cosmopolitan East Side to the Hellish West Side.
Just to help you map Eric’s progress, here are the pages at which his limo passes each Avenue crossing 47th:
Lexington: 34 (the hair salon Filles et Garcon actually seems to be at 51st)
5th: 45 (The Presidential Cavalcade)
9th: 130 (the Sufi rap artist Brutha Fez's Funeral)
10th 158 (the barbershop)
12th: 179 (the derelict tenement)
This is no mere haircut, this is a low-key to subtle homage to James Joyce’s “Ulysses”, in which our hero leaves the Heaven of his triplex, heads west (young man) and confronts his destiny in a derelict building in Hell’s Kitchen.
Perhaps, our hero even meets his anti-hero.
Upstairs at Eric’s
Eric is 28 and has been married to Elise Schifrin for just 22 days.
The marriage, so far, is loveless and apparently unconsummated. It represents a symbolic marriage of new American money and traditional European wealth and style, though Elise (“Swiss or something”) is worth a cool $730M herself.
Eric has made his money gambling on movements in currencies. He takes immense risks with vast amounts of money and has generated commensurate profits.
He is so rich, beyond normal moral or mortal contemplation, some would think it’s indecent and obscene. In the words of his nemesis, Eric is “foully and berserkly rich”.
Yet, until recently, Eric has seen his ability as just an example of what the Greeks call “Chrimatistikos”, the art of money-making.
He has had talent and drive, which he has "utilised...consistently put to good use."
His reward is to live in "a tower that soars to heaven and goes unpunished by God", something that aspires to scraping the sky and meeting God, but now in a Godless era seems only to defy the very idea of God and moral virtue or goodness.
He contemplates the word "skyscraper":
"No recent structure ought to bear this word. It belonged to the olden soul of awe, to the arrowed towers that were a narrative long before he was born."
Just as skyscrapers have lost their narrative drive, so too have money and the art of money-making:
"...because money has taken a turn. All wealth has become wealth for its own sake. There's no other kind of enormous wealth. Money has lost its narrative quality the way painting did once upon a time. Money is talking to itself."
Money has turned in on itself, become introverted and meaningless. It no longer tells a story about something else, it does not relate to or measure some other achievement. [The novel echoes some of the concerns of William Gaddis' "The Recognitions", but then DeLillo has always mined similar veins.]
There’s a point at which you can have so much money that it becomes senseless, there are just no more narratives or stories you can spin with it, without repeating yourself. [I haven’t reached this point yet.]
Checking Eric’s Balance
Eric’s life so far has been dictated by balance.
He lives in a world “in which every force is balanced by another”. When there is another force, he is the equal and opposite reaction.
He takes positions and then waits for corrections to occur. The balancing process improves his bank balance.
It also dictates his aesthetic judgments.
Two private elevators rise to his triplex: in one the music is Satie, in the other Brutha Fez.
He gets artistic advice from 47-year old Didi Francher, an art consultant and one of his mistresses.
She’s "taught him how to look, how to feel enchantment damp on his face, the melt of pleasure inside a brushstroke or band of color."
In a way, she has created a balance to the crudeness and brutality of his occupation.
She has taught him how to reckon outside the world of money.
He now looks, he notices things, he gazes, he observes, he assesses, he judges.
Like Petronius, he has become an "arbiter elegantiarum", a "judge of elegance".
He is obsessed with acquiring a collection of 14 Rothko works housed in the Rothko Chapel:
He genuinely appreciates Rothko's art, but his principal motivation for the purchase is the fact that he can afford to.
Such is the power of money.
Consciously or not, Didi has also taught Eric how to flirt in an intellectually informed way.
In his limo, he metaphorically seduces his chief of finance, Jane Melman:
"My mood shifts and bends. But when I'm alive and heightened, I'm super-acute. Do you know what I see when I look at you? I see a woman who wants to live shamelessly in her body. Tell me this is not the truth. You want to follow your body into idleness and fleshiness. That's why you have to run, to escape the drift of your basic nature. ...What do I see? Something lazy, sexy and insatiable."
They "[reach] completion more or less together, touching neither each other nor themselves."
When she leaves the limo, Jane tells Eric that she “is a woman who would still be married to her husbands if they had looked at her the way you have looked at me here today."”
Catching Eric Off Balance
Despite, possibly because of, this transformation, Didi has noticed doubt creeping into Eric’s worldview.
"You're beginning to think it's more interesting to doubt than to act. It takes more courage to doubt."
When we meet Eric, he has gambled everything on the possibility that the Japanese Yen will fall.
He has also just been told that he has an asymmetrical prostate.
Without asking or knowing more about the medical significance of his diagnosis, he assumes the worst, that the cancer will soon take his life.
Even if it isn’t fatal, his prostate’s asymmetry challenges his idealization of balance.
He suffers pain. The pain undermines the foundations of his worldview. He starts to doubt both balance and himself. He starts to realise there is something in life apart from himself. He starts to recognise his own mortality.
Jane addresses him in the third person:
"He could think and speak of other things but only within the pain. He was living in the gland, in the scalding fact of his biology.
"Does he love himself or hate himself. I don’t think he knows. Or it changes minute by minute. Or the question is so implicit in everything he does that he can’t get outside it to answer."
Eric’s nemesis (who also happens to have an asymmetrical prostate) has worked for him before and has some insight into his personality:
"You should have listened to your prostate...You tried to predict movements in the yen by drawing on patterns from nature...You made this form of analysis horribly and sadistically precise.
"But you forgot something along the way...The importance of the lopsided, the thing that's skewed a little. You were looking for balance, beautiful balance, equal parts, equal sides...
"But you should have been tracking the yen in its tics and quirks. The little quirk. The mis-shape...
"That's where the answer was, in your body, in your prostate."
Living in the Shadow of a Doubt
So I argue that the purpose of Eric’s journey is to confront his own mortality, to deal with his doubt, not just to get a haircut.
Until today, he’s pursued business and wealth as a vehicle for achieving immortality.
Vija Kinski, his chief of theory, explains:
"Men think about immortality. Never mind what women think. We're too small and real to matter here…Great men historically expected to live forever even as they supervised construction of their monumental tombs on the far bank of the river, the west bank, where the sun goes down.
"There you sit, of large visions and prideful acts. Why die when you can live on disk? A disk, not a tomb. An idea beyond the body. A mind that's everything you ever were and will be, but never weary or confused or impaired.
"It's a mystery to me, how such a thing might happen. Will it happen someday? Sooner than we think because everything happens sooner than we think. Later today perhaps. Maybe today is the day when everything happens, for better or worse, ka-boom, like that."
However, having achieved as much as one man could ever achieve in a lifetime, Eric is not interested in trying to create an immortal digital replica of himself.
He is interested in his own death, because sooner or later, inevitably, we all have to accept our own mortality:
"He was alert, eager for action, for resolution. Something had to happen soon, a dispelling of doubt and the emergence of some design, the subject's plan of action, visible and distinct."
Ironically, on the way, Eric embraces the lopsided.
When he finally gets his haircut, it is asymmetrical.
However, it’s not the end of the journey. He resumes his trip before his haircut is finished.
His goal is beyond the haircut. It’s somewhere in Hell’s Kitchen. On the west bank, where the sun goes down.
The Threat of Death
Eric knows that somewhere on his trip, sometime today, he will die.
All along, he has been receiving death threats.
His journey across Manhattan is the date of reckoning with his own death, the date when death achieves a balance with life or knocks it off its axis.
He equips himself with a gun and abandons his security to deal with his nemesis Benno Levin single-handedly in a dilapidated building in Hell’s Kitchen.
By the time he arrives, he’s realised that even business embraces death and destruction:
"This is also the hallmark of capitalist thought. Enforced destruction. Old industries have to be harshly eliminated. New markets have to be forcibly claimed…Old markets have to be re-exploited. Destroy the past, make the future...The urge to destroy is a creative urge…The logical extension of business is murder."
Death is a natural part of life. He has to endure one last arm wrestle with fate, until he knows that he has died appropriately:
"...it was the threat of death at the brink of night that spoke to him most surely about some principle of fate he'd always known would come clear in time. Now he could begin the business of living."
He must know and embrace his fate. It does not matter that he might die on the same day. He has already lived life to the fullest:
"This was the day, was it not, for influential men to come to sudden messy ends."
There is also a sense in which his wealth might come to an end, that his investments will get their own haircut or at the very least, a trim.
In his time of dying, the whole of Eric's empire might return, not home, but to nothing.
Money might have resumed its narrative drive towards nothingness.
Ironically, as the Global Financial Crisis has shown, even billionaires can die with nothing.
Frames of Reference
“Cosmopolis” is short and easy to read. It occupies a discrete time and space.
Rather than being DeLillo-lite or a disappointment, it’s a precisely structured novel that lends itself to being filmed.
As with much of DeLillo’s work, it’s concerned with ways of looking and seeing and understanding.
If anything, I would call it a highly polished example of "abstracted realism".
It is especially informed by Art and Film.
Eric finds in Art a pathway into life’s mysteries, one of them being himself:
"Don't you see yourself in every picture you love? You feel a radiance wash through you. It's something you can't analyze or speak about clearly. What are you doing at that moment? You're looking at a picture on a wall. That's all. But it makes you feel alive in the world. It tells you yes, you're here. And yes, you have a range of being that's deeper and sweeter than you knew."
To the extent that a painting is one framed work, Film consists of multiple frames.
It allows us to explore the situations that we might one day find ourselves in, it creates a frame of reference, it creates frames of reference within which to express ourselves:
"I've seen a hundred situations like this. A man and a gun and a locked door. My mother used to take me to the movies."
"Cosmopolis" is best construed as a gallery of images or a film.
It is highly visual and filmic, even though it's effectively set within the confines of a limo.
As Eric passes along 47th Street, he witnesses a gallery of events and images and women and must gaze at and judge and react to them, so that ultimately he can determine his own importance in the true scheme of things.
My only concern with respect to the film is how the dialogue will come across.
How will it convey the abstracted, conceptual precision of DeLillo's language?
Will it sound natural?
In My State of Grace
The result of Eric's movie-going is that, when he is confronted by the situation ("a man and a gun and a locked door", but also his mortality, his death), he knows how to deal with it.
This comforts him. In his hour of need.
While some of his apparent attempts at self-defence are clumsy, they seem to be designed to fail.
Ultimately, what really matters is that he submits gracefully to the inevitability of his own death.
It is perhaps the most graceful act of his life. And the last day of his life might equally be the most complete.
There is something perfect and satisfying in this grace and completeness, even if it's a little perverse, even if it lacks symmetry, even if (unlike Leopold Bloom) Eric fails to return home to his triplex at the end of the day.
P.S. Lapse or Claps, Chaps?
While I love this novel, there are passages that I recognise will annoy or vindicate those who question DeLillo's talent or consistency.
I choose to excuse them or to laugh instead.
Here are a few examples for your reading pleasure:
"Hoisting his genitals in his hand."
"The minute you sat there in that whole tragic regalia of running. That whole sad business of Judeo-Christian jogging."
"I want to bottle-fuck you slowly with my sunglasses on."
"Her feet flew out from under her. She uttered a thing, a sound, herself, her soul in rapid rising inflection."
"Eric decided to admire this."
"The rain was fine. The rain was dramatically right."
"The rain had stopped. This was good. This was clearly what it should have done."
"It was the last techno-rave, the end of whatever it was the end of."
"He stood in the street. There was nothing to do. He hadn't realized this could happen to him."
Sceptics, laugh with me.
Jimi Hendrix - Crosstown Traffic
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