Friday, June 12, 2009
book review - Cosmopolis - Don De Lillo
The mistake with this book was to treat the story of the millionaire young executive obsessed with his own mortality and assuaging his desires as a literal one. When it was pointed out that this was science fiction then things improved dramatically.
Because although set in New York you weren’t looking for a date and time reference. This could be now or it could be in ten years but the fundamental questions will remain intact. Those questions evolve around the character of Eric Packer but are to do with the question of the morality of making large amounts of money without a regard for anyone or anything and to do with the fear of death. On the money front Packer spends the book destroying his company as he bets all against a fluctuation in the Yen that he is wrong about. He keeps backing his judgment dragging millions of value out of his empire until by the end he is worth almost nothing. He is determined to push everything including the line between right and wrong and life and death shooting one of his body guards for no apparent reason.
But as he tours round New York in the back of a limousine there are other questions about the distance between the rich and the poor. The odd and the normal. Packer has a daily check up from his doctor and as he sets out to get a haircut he is reminded of his humble origins, craving for sex and his loveless marriage. But as he starts to lose everything he starts to discover that he is not some sort of financial god. He also sobers up pretty quickly when faced with the threat that has been dogging him from the start, a bitter ex-employee who is out for revenge.
What makes this short story work is that De Lillo is packing a great deal in with anti-capitalism riots, thoughts about marriage and the big one a view about the consequences of the super rich using their money to change the universe. The patterns that Packer thinks he can see are just not there when it really matters and it is with some shock he has to acknowledge that things can be random, asymmetrical.
Reading this in the midst of the credit crunch is bizarre because it to a degree people like Packer got us into this mess. The belief that somehow individuals could master the entire economic system created some of the conditions we are now living with. In Packer that arrogance is taken to an extreme and not only does he believe he can control the fate and direction of national currencies but he can live as he wishes with impunity. When fear comes it is almost amusing to a man who has so lost touch with normal human emotions that he seems unable to register what is happening unless it comes through a ticker on a TV screen in his limousine.
Although he couldn’t have possibly known it De Lillo has created a book that has its moment right now and in Packer a figure for these times.