Readers will likely understand after reading only a few pages of Cosmopolis why the novel, published almost 10 years ago, has just recently been turned into a movie. The novel by Don DeLillo tells the story of a single day (an April day in the year 2000) in which Eric Packer, a multi-billionaire living in New York City, takes a limo ride from his home on 1st Avenue across town to 11th Avenue because he wants a hair cut. The story features a strong undercurrent of the tension between the rich and powerful and the “everyman”, which gives this 10 year old novel an uncomfortably prophetic feel.
Packer’s wealth allows him to live to excess. In his home he has multiple elevators, 48 rooms, a pool, a shooting range, and a shark tank. Towards the beginning of the novel, he discusses with one of his employees a Rothko painting, valued in the millions, that has just gone on sale. He is not content with just the painting, however.
“If they sell me the [Rothko] chapel, I’ll keep it intact. Tell them.”
“Keep it intact where?”
“In my apartment. There’s sufficient space.”
The while limousine he takes across town is full of high tech equipment that allows him to monitor currencies around the globe, enabling him to conduct his enormous financial transactions that have earned him his billions. On this day, however, Packer has made a bet against the rise of the yen, and the yen is rising. The bet is so large, that if it fails, it could ruin him.
The drive across town occupies almost the entire novel. The President of the United States is in New York, causing “traffic that speaks in quarter inches” which allows for this drive to be drawn out over 200+ pages. During his trip, Eric is attacked by a pastry assassin with a pie, encounters a rapper’s funeral, a movie being filmed, and a violent anti-capitalist riot in Times Square.
These riots and the climactic confrontation at the novel’s end bring to mind the Occupy movement that has gained so much momentum in the wake of the financial crisis. Packer’s words occasionally even seem ripped from the 2011 op-ed section. Packer tells a disgruntled former employee at one point “You’re not against the rich. Nobody’s against the rich. Everybody’s ten seconds from being rich.”
Much of the novel is concerned with how technology and culture have reached a point in this century where individuals and people have importance. “People are a fantasy generated by the market. They don’t exist outside the market. There is nowhere they can go to be on the outside. There is no outside,” claims Packer’s “chief of theory”. This dehumanization extends not only to the masses, but to Packer himself.
Packer’s wealth and intense work habits have resulted in him becoming divorced from reality. At one point he reflects on his journey to the present. “He thought of the people who used to visit his website back in the days when he was forecasting stocks, when forecasting was pure power, when he’d tout a technology stock or bless an entire sector and automatically cause doublings in share price…when he was making history, before history became monotonous and slobbering.”
And even though there are people he meets throughout the day who try to pull him back to reality, he catapults towards his own financial demise and has nothing he cares enough about to make him afraid. His CFO says to him after he asks to buy the Rothko chapel “I think you want this Rothko. Pricey. But yes. You totally need to have it. It will remind you that you’re alive. You have something in you that’s receptive to the mysteries.” This has no effect on him, though. He doesn’t want the painting for its beauty, he wants the entire chapel for its opulence.
There are few, if any, moments of hope or redemption in the novel. Towards the end we see Packer trying to give money to a homeless person he just had thrown from his limo. “He searched his pocket for money, feeling a little foolish, a little chagrined, having made and lost sums that could colonize a planet…and there were no bills or coins in any case to find inside his pants.” Typically one would read this and expect the character to have a moment of reflection, but there is no such moment here. Packer continues to face his demise with indifference.
The novel’s prose is often incredible. DeLillo is a master of setting scene, writing dialogue, and building suspense. However, when the novel ends, with a vague and abrupt final scene, it’s hard not to think that the author left a lot on the field. His prescience to set a novel in a world that, at the time, likely seemed apocalyptic and now feels all too real is impressive, but Packer’s story leaves us with little more than confusion and sadness. John Updike once said to never criticize a novel for not doing something it wasn’t trying to do, but in this case, in a world so lacking in hope, the hopelessness feels like more of a disservice.
There is a temptation for the Christian, upon completing a novel like this that so accurately depicts our world in such an unsettling and dire way, to over-embrace 1 Peter 2:11, which identifies us as “foreigners and exiles” in this world. This often leads to separatism and/or a superiority complex. However, we must remember the verse that immediately follows “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” Though we are “foreigners and exiles,” the scriptures assume that we are living in the world, displaying the grace of God in humility and service.
At one point in the novel, Eric and his bodyguard stop by a club where a mob of young people dances “in a gutted theater pounding with electronic sound”. As they observes the kids all popping pills, the bodyguard asks “Kids. What pain do they feel that they need to take a pill?” to which Eric responds, “There’s pain enough for everybody now.”
We know this to be true, perhaps more so in 2012 than in 2003 when this book was written. It’s re-imagination as a film is clear evidence that it still resonates. Amidst so much pain and indifference, what could be more impactful and sustaining than the love of Christ, which embeds us in the midst of this fractured world to provide glimpses of that future unbroken, renewed world that we, by faith, call our true home?