City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Cosmopolis by Don DeLillo

Written in



These being some highly rough notes-to-self and choice quotations from Don DeLillo’s novel Cosmopolis [Amazon UK|Amazon US]

Set in a pretty-darn-near-future New York … the highly-technologised, impossibly rich and utterly empty life of a Masters Of The Universe-like character unravels … Dedicated to Paul Auster, and despite the book’s journey tracing the character’s journey through New York city – the third major character in the book – it actually felt closer to Ballard – the cool, often dispassionate, prose relating a picking apart at the seams of an ordered, privileged culture – the familiar relentless, slow descent into amorality and unhinged degradation. Y’know. But beautifully written, with wonderfully sharp observation and some delightful set-pieces en route. It’s short and focused too, set over one single day.

A particularly entertaining middle-eight concerns the aftermath of an anti-globalisation-style riot segueing into the insane spectacle of the funeral procession of the world’s greatest rapper – “Brutha Fez” – through the streets of New York …

A motif throughout the first half of the book is the main character’s repeated observations about the obsolescence of the technology out on the streets, in contrast to the highly-advanced cocoon of his limosine and personal tech …

“The wind came cutting off the river. He took out his hand organizer and poked a note to himself about the anachronistic quality of the word skyscraper. No recent structure ought to bear this word. It belonged to the old soul of awe, to the arrowed towers that were a narrative long before he was born.
The hand device itself was an object whose original culture had just about disappeared. He knew he’d have to junk it.” [p.9]

“A nurse and two armed guards were on constant watch at three monitors in a windowless room at the office. The word office was outdated now. It had zero saturation.”

“Where is Shiner?”
“On his way to the airport.”
“Why do we still have airports? Why are they called airports?”
“I know I can’t answer these questions without losing your respect,” Chin said. [p.22]

“He looked past Ingram while the doctor listened to his heart valves open and close. The car moved incrementally westward. He didn’t know the stethoscopes were still in use. There were lost tools of antiquity, quaint as blood-sucking worms.” [p.43]

“He was thinking about automated teller machines. The term was aged and burdened by its own historical memory. It worked at cross-purposes, unable to escape the inference of fuddled human personnel and jerky moving parts. The term was part of the process that the device was meant to replace. It was anti-futuristic, so cumbrous and mechanical that even the acronym seemed dated.” [p.54]

“He saw a police lieutenant carrying a walkie-talkie. What entered his mind when he saw this? He wanted to ask the man why he was still using this contraption, still calling it what he called it, carrying the nitwit rhyme out of the age of industrial glut into smart spaces built on beams of light.” [p.102]

“He was tired of looking at screens. Plasma screens were not flat enough. They used to seem flat, now they did not.” [p.140]

A further motif is the quite beautiful writing about the textures of the information age – a mere extrapolation of now, as all science fiction. DeLillo captures the initial beauty of this world – but increasingly the character’s observations on this become disjointed, unsure and eventually tainted by its false promise.

“All this optimism, all this booming and soaring. Things happen like bang. This and that simultaneous. I put out my hand and what do I feel? I know there’s a thousand things you analyze every ten minutes. Patterns, ratios, indexes, whole maps of information. I love information. This is our sweetness and light. It’s a fuckall wonder. And we have meaning in the world. People eat and sleep in the shadow of what we do. But at the same time, what?” [p.14]

“He looked past Chin toward streams of numbers running in opposite directions. He understood how much it meant to him, the roll and flip of data on a screen. He studied the figural diagrams that brought organic patterns into play, birdwing and clambered shell. It was shallow thinking to maintain that numbers and charts were the cold compression of unruly human energies, every sort of yearning and midnight sweat reduced to lucid units in the financial markets. In fact data itself was soulful and glowing, a dynamic aspect of the life process. This was the eloquence of alphabets and numeric systems, now fully realized in the electronic form, in the zero-oneness of the world, the digital imperative that defined every breath of the planet’s living billions. Here was the heave of the whole biosphere. Our bodies and oceans were here, knowable and whole.” [p.24]

“The speed is the point. Never mind the speed that makes it hard to follow what passes before the eye. The speed is the point. Never mind the urgent and endless replenishment, the way the data dissolves at one end of the series just as it takes shape at the other. This is the point, the thrust, the future. We are not witnessing the flow of information so much as pure spectacle, or information made sacred, ritually unreadable. The small monitors of the office, home and car become a kind of idolatory here, where crowds might gather in astonishment.” [p.80]

A recurring character throughout the book, the yen and its inexorable rise, disproves this world-view of ‘data supremacy’, if nothing else. Continually defying all his and his experts’ understanding of those patterns, the yen is out of control no matter what the projections suggest … “This thing doesn’t chart” as he says later … It’s an exception which disproves all rules from inside that world-view, never mind the events outside of this data-prism, which indicate the world isn’t capable of being modeled in such a way … Ultimately, his destiny is decided by an outcast who writes with a pencil, who is “living offline … all bared down.” [p.149]

There’s also a wonderful aside on ‘the grain of the street’ …

“Hasidim walked along the street, younger men in dark suits and important fedoras, faces pale and blank, men who only saw each other, he thought, as they disappeared into shopfronts or down the subway steps. He knew the traders and gem cutters were in the back rooms and wondered whether deals were still made in doorways with a handshake and a Yiddish blessing. In the grain of the street he sensed the Lower East Side of the 1920s and diamond centers of Europe before the second war, Amsterdam and Antwerp. He knew some history … Cash for gold and diamonds. Rings, coins, pearls, wholesale jewelry, antique jewelry. This was the souk, the shtetl. Here were the hagglers and talebearers, the scrapmongers, the dealers in stray talk. The street was an offense to the truth of the future. But he responded to it. He felt it enter every receptor and vault electrically to his brain.” [p.65]

Following that section, here’s one for Mr. Webb’s Glancing, should he ever package it up in a nice box and need a quote for the front:

“Eye contact was a delicate matter. A quarter second of a shared glance was a violation of agreements that made the city operational.” [p.66]

And one for me:

“The city eats and sleeps noise. It makes noise out of every century. It makes the same noises it made in the seventeenth century along with all the noises that have evolved since then.” [p.71]


5 responses to “Cosmopolis by Don DeLillo”

  1. wayne Avatar

    After I finished Cosmo I decided I didn’t think it was as good as “Body Artist” … It’s good that both of them are short – both are driven by a basic story (woman finds stranger in house, man drives across town in limo) and despite the lack of extra pages Delillo finds a way to get to his trademark riffs (which you have documented!). I saw Mr. Delillo read parts of the novel and the funny lines seemed even funnier.
    The novel is the white limo, coming at you on the front cover for 200 or so pages of stretch. But it was just a bit too over the top, yet doesn’t capture the right over the top for the era. If you knew some people in NYC money industry in the late 90s or some dot com types at the higher levels, there was interesting stuff, but I wonder how much/what kind of research Mr. Delillo did.
    I like that he is in a period of writing short novels, I dunno if he can match White Noise, but it seems possible.


  2. Marty Avatar

    I got the impression that this was DeLillo pretty much on autopilot, still great, but nothing to match Underworld, arguably the greatest American novel since John Dos Passos’ USA trilogy (of which there are many similarities).
    My memory of Cosmopolis is a bit sketchy, but I remember that there are some big coincidences. In a city of 8 million people, Packer manages to run into his wife (ex-wife?) twice.
    BTW, the covers of UK editions of DeLillo books are way better than the US editions, dontchathink?


  3. Dan Avatar

    Agreed Marty, on all counts – and especially the covers.
    RE the coincidences – you’re right I think, and it prompts a memory of the writer Jonathan Raban talking of novel-sized cities – circa 1.7m, the size of London when the novel emerged as a literary form – big enough for meaningful things to happen; small enough to enable coincidence. Notes here (scroll).


  4. Avatar

    Anniversary on autumn-pilot.

    A. lately? Q.tiddy with the ‘rents in N.Diddy. (You know she’s got the keys to the city.) Me lately? Flickr,, a couple of books, beaucoup DVDs and a concert. A. and I tomorrow? 5-by-5, darling, wood and it’s…


  5. Avatar

    Anniversary on autumn-pilot.

    A. lately? Q.tiddy with the ‘rents in N.Diddy. (You know she’s got the keys to the city.) Me lately? Flickr,, a couple of books, beaucoup DVDs and a concert. A. and I tomorrow? 5-by-5, darling, wood and it’s…


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