30. ‘Cosmopolis’ by Don DeLillo

The Book:

A billionaire businessman travels across Manhattan in his limousine, on his way to get a haircut. He doesn’t need to, he could get the barber to come to him at home, or at the office. But he wants to travel, and the trip – stretched out interminably because of various events slowing traffic to a standstill in the city – will change him forever.

I love books based around simple concepts like this, especially ones set within a very short space of time, because their apparent limits lead to such vast possibilities. Everything is easy for Eric: he has people visit him in the limo, including financial advisers, a doctor and even a ‘chief of theory’.

The conversations are complex, cryptic and slightly surreal. The characters speak in similar ways, so even though they are distinct people they have a tendency to merge into one voice. This is fitting, emphasising Eric’s distinction from them, because they are all so similar. The feeling of disconnection is prevalent in the novel, and Eric seems to be constantly trying to break through the barrier that stands between him and everybody he meets (including his wife, and the women he sleeps with) to reach reality.

I particularly liked the way Eric thinks about names and words. He sees things that are becoming outdated before anyone else realises, and he often questions why things are called what they are. Words like ‘telephone’ and ‘ATM’ seem old-fashioned to him, no longer fit for purpose, and he wants to perpetually rename and make new.

There are glimpses into another character in the story. We hear things from his more emotional, even raving point of view, and he tells us what will happen to Eric. The reader knows Eric’s fate, then, and this feeling of inevitability only serves to rack up the tension, rather than ruin the story. There is even an element of magical realism: the TV screens in the limo, and on Eric’s watch, see into the future, and this leads to a completely unexpected climactic scene at the very end.

I thought this book was brilliant, and I think it needs several readings because of its complexity. DeLillo kept me guessing all the way through – quite a feat, given that we effectively know the ending from the start – and proves that it really isn’t the destination that matters, but the journey.

“‘This is good. We’re like people talking. Isn’t this how people talk?’
‘How would I know?'”

The Background:

I got this book from my parents for my birthday. I saw that the film was coming out soon and I really wanted to read it first. I read it entirely in Venice. The cover design, by the way, is brilliantly simple and clever, just like the book.

If you enjoyed my review, why not buy the book and let me know what you think?

2 Comments on “30. ‘Cosmopolis’ by Don DeLillo

  1. Are you an overall DeLillo fan? I’ve tried Underworld a few times, but not much other than that

    • I’ve never read anything else by DeLillo – is Underworld good? I might give it a try because I really liked this one.

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