Cosmopolis by Don DeLillo

I saw the trailer for this recent Cronenberg offering and didn’t get around to seeing it in the cinema and at the time I didn’t realise that it was based on a Don DeLillo book of the same name. At just a couple of hundred pages long this is a racing read and appears to be dying for the film adaptation especially by someone who brought us A History of Violence and Eastern Promises .

The story turns on a day in the life of Eric Packer, 28, multi billionaire asset manager who we join on a mission to get a haircut. His obscene wealth is no protection from the rioting city or the looming menace of a possible death threat – it does in fact make him a target.

As a Londoner I found a lot to enjoy in this book which shows a picture of city living with its noise, claustrophobia, business and loneliness. DeLillo’s summation of city dwellers as “stunted humans in the shadow of the underwear gods that adorn (…) the soaring billboards” perfectly describes how I feel walking down Oxford Street.

Eric’s mental aloofness does not make him immune to the gnawing ennui that can take hold of the super-rich, “It was hard for him to say something he hadn’t already said, words arranged in the same tedious sequence, a thousand times before.” This is surely a common feeling for those at the top; when you can buy anything one day even that can lose its charm. Packer reminds me of some ancient god from mythology who is bored with his lot in heaven and chooses to disguise himself as one of us so he can walk among the mere mortals and take part in all the feelings humans do. He seeks a multitude of sensorial experiences throughout the book, endlessly searching for meaning and newness – looking to feel something real. When Eric finds his life may really be under threat he finds himself drawn to the business of living at last; mirroring the well accepted idea that only when faced with death can you really appreciate life and how short it is.

You may find yourself at times bemoaning the sentiments of Packer’s chief of technology, “do you get the feeling sometimes that you don’t know what’s going on?” but that is part of the charm of this tale. It is packed with philosophical questions for the modern age and offers some answers but mostly leaves it up to you to ponder. DeLillo deals with susto (soul loss) in the face of extremes of wealth and poverty and I found myself wanting to underline sentences because time and again he produces that magic which only a good storyteller can; when they seem to put into words perfectly that feeling you have had – making you pause and say “yes that’s it, that is it”.

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