High finance, terrorism and paranoia, and various new technologies, all are targets in DeLillo’s darkly satirical latest: a bleakly funny footnote to such earlier anatomies of contemporary malaise as The Names (1982), White Noise (1985), and Mao II (1991).
The story surveys a single April day in the year 2000 as experienced by 28-year-old billionaire financier Eric Packer, a risk-taking epicurean who might be the considerably more jaded elder brother of William Gaddis’s eponymous preadolescent corporate mogul “J.R.” We first encounter Eric in his customized stretch limousine, where he “visits” with such functionaries as his sullen Czech security chief Torval, young-geek technical consultant Michael Chin, chief of finance Jane Melman, and sonorous “chief of theory” (actually an abstracted efficiency expert) Vija Kinski, among others. We learn that he’s playing a dangerous investment game, “betting” on fluctuations in the value of the yen; that sexual encounters with his middle-aged mistress and Amazonian personal trainer don’t ease a seemingly un-consummateable fixation on his wife, poet and heiress Elise Shifrin; and, in interpolated chapters, that a stalker plans to assassinate him. Meanwhile, the limo’s progress is slowed by a presidential motorcade, violent protest demonstrations, a rap star’s funeral procession, and a film crew at work in the streets. DeLillo assembles these quirky particulars expertly—and he still writes better sentences than any other contemporary author. The tale is ingenious and amusing, and there’s a chilling logic to its eloquent climax, in which Eric encounters his would-be killer and learns why he has apparently been “engineering . . . [his] own downfall.” Unfortunately, though, Cosmopolis is laden with abrupt, arbitrarily off-putting gnomic utterances (e.g., after Elise orders a restaurant salad, “She dug right in, treating it as food and not some extrusion of matter that science could not explain”).
The crystalline metaphysician-ironist is only sporadically present in this distorted, frustratingly opaque world.