Don DeLillo's 'Cosmopolis' -- entropy, greed

March 30, 2003|By JOAN MELLEN | JOAN MELLEN,Special to the Sun

Cosmopolis, by Don DeLillo. Scribner. 224 pages. $25.

In Cosmopolis, Don DeLillo's brilliant new novel, his 13th, Eric Packer, a 28-year-old ruthlessly amoral billionaire, spends a single day in his heavily loaded limousine, lurching through New York City. Computer screens project the currency market as he trades dangerously in yen, while his chief of security, Torval, watches for the assassin who has already announced Eric as his prey.

The tone is futuristic, the time is the year 2000.

The world is that of DeLillo's "Libra," where CIA operatives plot the murder of the head of state with impunity, the paranoid universe of "Underworld" where multiple screens play as entertainment the Zapruder film chronicling that assassination. The partygoers who ignore the film are forerunners of Eric Packer, a Darwinian survivor for whom money and power are the last goals left standing. Sex is a persistent bodily function, and love and community are no longer even distant memories.

"Do people still shoot at Presidents?" Eric asks.

Anarchy soon breaks loose, as beligerents "protest against the future."

Meanwhile, Eric trades in currencies from "modern democratic nations," "dusty sultanates," "paranoid people's republics" and "hellhole rebel states run by stoned boys," alike. On this day, the president fears being killed, while the managing director of the International Monetary Fund is assassinated -- on television. So is Eric's friend Nikolai Kaganovich, a shady Russian speculator. Eric feels -- euphoria.

The voice of Cosmopolis is as coldly dispassionate as Eric deserves, Eric who believes that "when he died he would not end. The world would end." Selfishness and narcissism have created a monster. When Eric willfully loses his entire fortune, he moves on to losing his wife's holdings as well.

The values by which he lives are those of his generation: money without end, 6 percent body fat and instant gratification, since time is measured in hours and minutes. The moment that Eric consummates his marriage, weeks after the event, it ends. With a nod to George Orwell, DeLillo has the rat becoming the unit of currency. The landscape of Cosmopolis is even more chilling than that of 1984: There is only the dimmest memory of human connection.

Cosmopolis is a small book, barely more than 200 pages, yet epic in its vision. Nor does it abandon the reader to the detritus of a world without remedy. In Eric's return to the decaying neighborhood where his father grew up, DeLillo foresees the coming demise of a society driven by those with "frozen hearts." DeLillo locates, as he had in his astonishing New Yorker story of last April, "Baader-Meinhof," a need for purpose without which life cannot continue.

At the end, Eric faces his assassin, his double.

Each possesses an asymmetric prostate; each, victim and executioner, is caught in the paralysis of late-day capitalism. DeLillo's own focus is on the reader, subject of his incantation. Eric, whose limousine "displaces the air that people need to breathe in Bangladesh," belongs to an entropy that might be halted along with the "predatory impulse" and the endless greed which will destroy inevitably those most richly successful in navigating the valueless interstices "between technology and capital." Darkly chronicling a fall of empire, DeLillo projects simultaneously a better world to come.

Joan Mellen teaches in the graduate program in creative writing at Temple University in Philadelphia. Her latest book, A Farewell To Justice, an account of Jim Garrison's investigation into the murder of President Kennedy, will be published next autumn.

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