WHEN THE NOVEL Cosmopolis first came out in 2003, it was regarded by most reviewers, myself included, as a disappointment. After the vaulting achievements of White Noise, Libra, and Underworld, Cosmopolis seemed like a return to the lesser DeLillo of Running Dog or Great Jones Street — as corrosive in its way as steam-punk, grimly absurdist, hopelessly nihilistic. It didn’t help that the novel, set in Manhattan, was published while the wounds of 9/11 were still fresh. Though the book (and the publicity materials at the time) made it clear the story takes place a year before the Twin Towers’ fall, a lot of us were picking through the book looking for pre-echoes of that tragedy. (His now-classic Harper’s essay of 2002, “In The Ruins of the Future,” had primed everyone for an extraordinary fictional treatment of the theme, though DeLillo didn’t get around to his 9/11 novel till 2008’s The Falling Man.) Re-reading Cosmopolis now, however, in the light of David Cronenberg’s new film adaptation, and given the context of the 2007 global economic meltdown and the Occupy Movement that followed, it appears to me that Don DeLillo has once again taken on the mantle of artist-prophet. Cosmopolis’s grimness — and it is hell-dark, a near Miltonic vision of greed, chaos, and soul-squandering — is, it turns out, an altogether apt reflection of its theme, which is the remorseless momentum of post-Berlin Wall capitalism, of a New World Order that has no symmetrical foe aside from “terrorism” and which is wedded inexorably to technologies of such seamless, speed-of-light efficiency that it promises the very transcendence of the physical, an escape from mortality itself into the dream-realm of the cybernetic. As Eric Packer, Cosmopolis’s dread anti-hero, would have it: “He’d always wanted to be quantum dust, transcending his body mass, the soft tissue over the bones, the muscle and fat. The idea was to live outside the given limits, in a chip, on a disk, as data, in whirl, in radiant spin, a consciousness saved from void.”
The promise of technological transcendence is, of course, bullshit. It’s the postmodern version of Icarus flying his feather-and-wax contraption toward the sun, and we all know how that ended. But the Icarus myth speaks to psychic ambitions that maybe no amount of historical failure can squelch, and the contemporary version of it is perhaps more powerful than ever. Cosmopolis gives full voice to a promise of life lived in the hubristic confidence that the human limits of time and death can be eluded through one’s ownership and manipulations of technology — in fact, it gives us a central character who is in thrall to that idea. At the same time, it supplies our literature with the most trenchant critique of the soul-sickness of such a belief since, probably, Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, a novel it in several ways piggybacks. And in Eric Packer, it gives us a character of truly tragic dimensions.
“For someone your age, with your gifts, there’s only one thing in the world worth pursuing professionally and intellectually,” Eric Packer tells Michael Chin, his “currency analyst,” as they inch their way west on traffic-packed 47th street on the way to the barbershop whe...read more