Eric Parker is a 28-year-old billionaire asset manager who wakes up with one mission: to go across town for a haircut as he wagers his fortune in a daring financial bet. Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis describes Eric winding his way through Manhattan in a limo glittering with the latest technology – meeting with his advisers and encountering his young wife, exiting the limo for sexual encounters and food. He pops into a rave, stops for a funeral procession, and has his limo defaced in an anarchist protest. He feels the thrill of possible death as he sees assassinated titans on his limo’s TV screens, and rumors of his own assassin follow him.
The whole time, he is pouring millions away in his bet against the yen. As he sinks his fortune in the belief that the yen cannot go higher, the yen continues to climb and his millions dissipate. Finance tumbles along with his fortune.
The novel is about a suicidal, mad pursuit of knowledge – about the desire for immortality through information – and the crash that follows. It is one of those prescient books that resonates more today, with our own financial titans falling, than when it was written in 2003. The story is set in 2000 – pre 9/11 when New York seemed invincible – “all this optimism, all this booming and soaring,” as one character put it. When you add the shadow of 2008 to the shadow of 2001, Parker’s fall is even more spectacular.
Eric bets against the yen because he believes that he – with his financial omniscience that hasn’t failed him yet – can see a pattern that no one else can see. Deep beneath, beyond detection through analysis, there must be a pattern in the chaos – “a pattern latent in nature itself, a leap of pictorial language that went beyond the standard models of technical analysis and out-predicted even the arcane charting of his own followers in the field.”
“There’s an order at some deep level,” he tells his chief of finance. “A pattern that wants to be seen.” Eric seems to have a hyper-consciousness that sees the future in his security cameras seconds before it occurs. But even with this heightened sensitivity, the yen defies him. The yen can’t go higher, he tells his chief of finance. That’s right, she says: “Except it just did.”
Eric worships information. He and his chief of theory emerge from his limo to watch data roll by on the electronic tickers – too fast to read, too fast to absorb – and to genuflect in information’s glow: “We are not witnessing the flow of information as much as pure spectacle, or information made sacred, ritually unreadable.” It’s this hidden knowledge that Eric seeks. He wants to read the unreadable. Analyze what defies analysis. He believes that he knows – and if he really knows, he has to act.
So he acts, but financial forces act beyond his control. Knowledge is out of his reach and when he grasps for it he falls. His chief of theory tells him he may seek a pattern but he cannot control frenzied forces that act on their own:
You apply mathematics and other disciplines, yes. But in the end you’re dealing with a system that’s out of control. Hysteria at high speeds, day to day, minute to minute. People in free societies don’t have to fear the pathology of the state. We create our own frenzy, our own mass convulsions, driven by thinking machines that we have no final authority over. The frenzy is barely noticeable most of the time. It’s simply how we live.
This is where the novel resonates so deeply with our situation today. Suddenly this frenzy – these mass convulsions – are no longer barely noticeable. We finally feel the hysteria that drives the market forces and our helplessness to control it. The individual decisions of people – whether they happen to feel panic or confidence on a day – create mass convulsions. Stocks rise and fall. Hysteria swells and bubbles burst, and it all acts outside our authority.
Eric is exhilarated by his own destruction. Pouring money away lends a kind of euphoria – a way to feel his power to create his own convulsions. As his assassin tells him when they meet, “Even when you self-destruct, you want to fail more, lose more, die more than others.”
It’s the classic Faustian story: A man trades his humanity in a desperate thirst for knowledge because he believes that through information, he can somehow live forever. Eric’s chief of theory tells him, “People will not die. Isn’t this the creed of the new culture? People will be absorbed in streams of information.” At the story’s end, as Eric faces his killer, he wishes he could “live outside the given limits, in a chip, on a disk, as data, in whirl, in radiant spin, a consciousness saved from void.”
But then he realizes his prosaic humanity – the pain he feels in his wounded hand, the ache in his knee, the wart on his thigh – can’t transfer to a chip of data. His own bloody crash nears, and Eric realizes the impossibility of immortality through information.