Stendahl once remarked that a novel is a mirror walking along a road. 1 This quote offers an apt metaphor since, of all the forms of literature, the novel often most closely reflects the society and movements of the times in which it is written. But in Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis, either the mirror or the landscape it captures have shattered.
Cosmopolis offers readers a day-in-the-life vignette from the top one percent of our society. Eric Packer, a self-made billionaire, begins his day by deciding he needs a haircut. He rejects the suggestions made by his security guard to choose a fashionable salon nearby, opting instead for a family barbershop in his old neighborhood. A presidential motorcade and anti-capitalist protest complicate this route. During the demonstration, DeLillo gives us ironic commentary on his protagonist’s profession, as masked agitators hack the stock exchange marquee to display a text from Das Kapital, “a specter is haunting the world, and the specter is capitalism!” 2
DeLillo’s intentions, however, seem to run deeper than this Marxist critique might imply. As Packer’s limousine rolls through the streets of New York, his journey takes on ever more surreal and symbolic overtones. The city through which he travels becomes an emblem of every city in our frenetic global economy and, as the title suggests, perhaps becomes a microcosm of the moral universe itself.
Television and other media play a significant role in DeLillo’s text. Packer’s limousine carries state-of-the-art screens to inform him of the market and the news of the world. He even chooses to watch the protest, which occurs outside the bulletproof glass windows, on television, rather than viewing the events with his own eyes. Increasingly throughout Packer’s day, he witnesses events on his closed-circuit monitors before they occur in real-time as if DeLillo is suggesting that our media is now creating the world in which we live.
Packer himself is perhaps the least likable character in American letters. He is smart and driven but ego-centric to the point of relishing the sight of a rival’s death. As the novel progresses, we realize he is on a self-destructive downward spiral, sabotaging his company, his marriage, and his personal fortunes. Ultimately he will even court death at the hands of a disgruntled former employee.
Packer’s breath-taking plunge from the heights of fortune to utter destitution reminds us of another famous tycoon in American literature. But unlike Fitzgerald’s jazz age Gatsby, Packer has no great love to ennoble him, and no green light beckons the reader of Cosmopolis toward transcendence or fond remembrance.
Many aspects of the novel also suggest DeLillo wishes us to read Eric Packer as a failed messianic figure. In his final confrontation with Benno Levin, the crazed former employee says, “‘I wanted you to heal me, to save me.’ His eyes shone beneath the hem of the towel. They were fixed on Eric devastatingly. But it wasn’t an accusation he encountered. There was a plea in the eyes, retroactive, a hope and need in ruins.” 3 Later, the financier shoots himself in the hand during a moment of meaningless self-crucifixion. Packer, then, is an ironic Christ of capitalism whose sacrifice redeems no one and changes nothing.
Despite its flaws, the novel is an important text of the twenty-first century. It raises many issues, from globalism to the way in which televised news has made the entire world into a movie set. Its nervy and sinuous style pulls us into Packer’s world in a neoteric blur. “He sat in the club chair at the rear of the cabin looking into the array of visual display units. There were medleys of data on every screen, all the flowing symbols and alpine charts, the polychrome numbers pulsing.” 4 And the novel’s taut pacing and punchy dialogue keep us turning pages until the bitter end.
But returning to the aphorism with which we began, if Cosmopolis is a mirror walking or perhaps driving down a road, does it accurately reflect the landscape through which it travels?
Certainly, there are people in our world as narcissistic as Eric Packer. And we would expect to find these hollow men at the apex of global capitalism. And clearly, DeLillo is right in drawing our attention to the ways in which the flow of information can affect the entire world. In one darkly satiric passage, the moment at which someone paused for breath during a speech is subjected to endless analysis and critical commentary. So we might justly view the novel in the light of social critique as the Vanity Fair of our day.
But the despair and perhaps nihilism of Cosmopolis runs deeper than that of Thackery’s great tale. If DeLillo’s vision of our world is correct, then the landscape through which the novel moves has exploded, and there is no hope. Television and movie sets have become reality, and reality has become a series of disconnected jump-cuts to a future without meaning. A specter is truly haunting our world, but it is more than just capitalism.
However, it seems to me that in narrowing his focus, DeLillo presents us with a distorted perspective. The world of Eric Packer is not my world, and it is doubtful that it represents the world in which most of his readers actually live; the world of ordinary people who love and strive and fail and try once more. It is as if someone had photographed a crack in the Sistine chapel’s ceiling and presented it as Michaelangelo’s work.
But perhaps more poignant than the distorted perspective on our society is DeLillo’s fractured understanding of the human heart. There is an ineffable and holistic quality to human experience, which is always greater than the sum of its parts. It is present, at least in potential, with the migrant farmworker as much as the CEO, the mystic, and the profligate. Perhaps DeLillo attempts this when he portrays Packer as weeping at the funeral of his favorite rap star, Brutha Fez. “He began to weep as the follow-up security detail went past, a police van and several unmarked cars. He wept violently, pummeled himself, crossing his arms and beating his fists on his chest…He wept for Fez and everyone here and for himself, of course, yielding completely to enormous body sobs.” 5 But we sense that the tears are theatrical, the catharsis unreal, and Packer kills a man in cold blood a few pages later.
The story arc of Cosmopolis strikes us as a missed opportunity. If a man such as Eric Packer had lost all, could he not reexamine his life and the choices he has made? Could he not reckon up the balance sheet of his career or grow as a person? Even if such a reckoning were to come to nothing, it seems that the novelist could give us a deeper glimpse into and a more true-to-life reflection of the human soul.
But DeLillo’s text refuses to admit such a possibility. Like the protagonist it portrays, it is flashy, driven, but ultimately heartless. It seems to me then that it is not the world that has shattered but the mirror that DeLillo carries. Its cold, hard, disconnected surfaces offer a distorted image of the world and ourselves, and its jagged satire can only cut and not heal.
- Stendahl, The Red and the Black, Random House, p. 71
- DeLillo, Cosmopolis, Scribner, A Division of Simon & Schuster p. 96
- DeLillo, p. 204
- DeLillo, p. 13
- DeLillo, p. 139
The Mirror That Exploded, copyright 2021, Jonathan Golding. All rights reserved.
Cover art: Courtesy of Absolutely-Free-Images-of-New-York, Public Domain