In keeping with my attempt this year to read books I wouldn’t usually gravitate toward, I recently finished Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis. I am aware the novel has a film adaptation starring Robert Pattinson (He of Twilight fame), and herein lies the issue: having not seen the film but distinctly able to remember movie posters featuring said actor plastered over bus stops and buildings, when I sat down to read the book I was at a complete loss to imagine the protagonist Eric Packer as anyone else. This isn’t a terrible thing but contributes somewhat to the blurring of lines between book and film.
Cosmopolis is not a lengthy novel; most readers would be able to power through it within a day. It’s a clever story about modernity at its worst; commenting on the somewhat detached world we all live in, a twenty-first century world saturated in technology, consistently trying to out-do itself. It is a cynical look at contemporary society and the worrying evolution into what can only be described as “a throwaway society.”
The novel begins with twenty-eight year old multi-billionaire Eric Packer. Everything about him screams of excess; his ridiculously overdone apartment (forty-eight rooms in total, one in which he keeps live sharks circling in a tank) to his futuristic office set-up in his limousine. Packer is in need of a haircut and so begins the journey through the streets of New York, which are busy at the best of times but are shut down by a rapper’s funeral, the visiting President and an anti-globalism protest.
During this fraught trek through the city, we meet some of Packer’s employees and his wife – these relationships are lacking; dysfunctional at the best of times. Packer is supposedly living the American dream yet discontentment abounds. He is not immediately likeable; there are glimpses of depth to his character – particularly when faced with his own mortality – but these vanish as soon as they appear.
The novel is full of incisive comments on the ways of the twenty-first century; modes of conduct we have readily accepted as the norm seem quite absurd when dissected by DeLillo. The highs of ambition, competition and success are contrasted with the lows of dissatisfaction and apathy; particularly when the highs are void of any “real” value.
Cosmopolis can be read as prophetic in many ways as it was published ahead of the global financial crisis, yet ominously predicts exactly what we are experiencing today. It is a novel skillfully dealing with relevant, current issues within our contemporary culture, and the utter mayhem our decisions have the ability to create.
Book review by Annette Ong