‘What is left that’s worth the telling?’: Novels of financial crisis, and the compelling case of Don DeLillo

by Christopher Hartley

We live – it seems undeniable – in an era of crises: the global financial crisis, the debt crisis, the cost of living crisis, the housing crisis, the population crisis, the constitutional crisis, the public spending crisis. These crises, amongst a swathe of others, punctuate our collective stagger towards and beyond our own personal debt and mid-life crises. With so much to worry about, it’s tempting to respond to the less pressing crises occurring simultaneously in the academy – in economics or the humanities, for example – with a resigned shrug of the shoulders. If we’re all doomed anyway – powerless to do anything on our own – why bother worrying? Grab what you can, defend what you have, and let the devil take the hindmost. In 1990 Saul Bellow lamented the ‘distraction […] which obviously originates in the endless crises of this century’ (155). Post-2008, with despair threatening to replace hope, it’s tempting to sympathise with Benno Levin, the washed-up and doomed nihilist of Don DeLillo’s novel Cosmopolis (2003), when he asks ‘what is left that’s worth the telling?’ (61).

There is reason to suspect that much current angst has a common origin, diffused through a range of distraction-inducing sub-crises. It may be a platitude these days, but it’s as true of crises as it is of information technology, so it’s one worth repeating: we live in an interconnected, globalised world. In a recent column in the Guardian, the economic journalist Paul Mason reminded readers that the overarching influence behind what Nigel Dodd calls ‘a crisis of legitimacy’ (3) – reaching from Greece to Glasgow – remains the 2008 financial crisis. If we’re to address the conditions that caused it, and the other crises it has triggered, Mason argues, we need nothing less than ‘a new theory of capitalism’.

In the immediate aftermath of the global financial crisis, the intellectual custodians of economic orthodoxy were queueing up to offer mea culpas. The Princeton economist Paul Krugman announced that ‘we live in a golden age of economic debunkery; fallacious doctrines have been dropping like flies. […] if you haven’t been radicalized by recent events, you haven’t been paying attention’ (Krugman, 2013). Alan Greenspan, the former Chair of the US Federal Reserve, nicknamed ‘the Oracle’ during the boom years before the crisis, acknowledged in 2008 that ‘the whole intellectual edifice’ underpinning the global reach of neoclassical economics’ obsession with equilibrium-trending mathematical models such as the arcane Dynamic Stochastic General Equilibrium model (DSGE), ‘collapsed in the summer of last year’ (Greenspan, 2008).

Heterodox economists, marginalised in the academy during the decades prior to the global financial crisis, frequently insist that systemic instability undermines the equilibrium theory of neoclassical economics, requiring a methological rethink that must draw on ideas from beyond the traditional boundaries of the subject. Inviting contributions from outside their discipline, the economists Joseph Stiglitz and George Akerlof acknowledged  that ‘much of the exciting work […] now underway extends the boundary of economics to include work by psychologists, political scientists, and sociologists’ (7).

Where is Literature in this nascent economic discourse? Can novelists and novels, for example, offer a contribution? The critic Mary Poovey has argued that the novel and early political economy once shared common ground, rooted in eighteenth-century moral philosophy. Prior to the rise of Romanticism, Poovey argues, the novel formed one part of a broad body of literature – economic, financial, monetary, literary – that ‘helped Britons understand and learn how to negotiate the market model of value’ (25). Is a return to this wider discursive intellectual environment possible, or even desirable? Poovey’s conclusion is that contemporary ‘disciplines are too inertial, and too many people have too much invested in systems of credentialization and evaluation simply to let established practices go,’ even as ‘the desire for alternatives – to the market model of value, […] to the academic division of knowledge – is [un]likely to go away either’ (419).

Despite the seemingly unbridgeable parting of the ways between economics and literary criticism that occurred when both were establishing themselves in the universities during the nineteenth century, novelists have continued to write about the manias and panics that characterise financial crises, from Dickens and Thackeray to Bellow, Amis, DeLillo and others. Indeed, there is a rich tradition of novels of finance that trace the spread of market panics on to the subsequent crises that such events often foster. For example, Trollope’s The Way We Live Now (1875) is a detailed study of how financial mania and collapse can hollow out an entire tradition of social and political values, resulting in a series of crises that transforms the lives of a complete cast of characters.

So what of the novels of the crisis of 2008? Thrown off the scent, perhaps, by attempts to identify the causes of the crisis in dry, one-off events in complex derivatives markets, or failures of regulation, or distracted by the more tractable crises that have pressed in on the shoulders of the financial collapse, novelists have generally either avoided the matter, or set it in a subsidiary relationship with other events. After all, where’s the drama in derivatives? Whatever else they may set out to do, Sebastian Faulks’s A Week in December (2009), Alex Preston’s This Bleeding City (2010), Justin Cartwright’s Other People’s Money (2011) and John Lanchester’s Capital (2012) do not offer much by way of a literary insight into the most significant financial setback since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Perhaps shy of ‘big ideas’, post-2008 novels of financial crisis have largely avoided Paul Mason’s question: was the crisis ‘the last in a series of shocks needed to allow a third technological revolution to take off? Or was it evidence that capitalism’s tendency to adapt and reshape in response to technology has stalled, or is even finished?’

Despite being composed several years prior to the 2008 crisis, Don DeLillo’s 2003 novel Cosmopolis, set during the collapse of the now forgotten ‘tech bubble’, addresses precisely these questions, and illustrates how the novel itself can remain vital to issues concerning students of economics as well as literature.

In an echo of both Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) and Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day (1956), Cosmopolis examines one man’s peripatetic journey across an urban environment during the course of a single day. In Cosmopolis’s contemporary setting, globalised finance capital has saturated every aspect of the protagonist’s daily life, leaving him sleepless, and with the creeping suspicion that ‘every act was […] synthetic’ (6). His fear is that his entire conscious subjectivity is determined by economic influences that have detached him from feeling humanity, ‘the force of cyber-capital that will send people into the gutter to retch and die’ (90). Packer lives in an economy where there appears to be no space for individual action that cannot be quantified, commodified, and exploited for profit: ‘It would be the master thrust of cyber-capital, to extend the human experience toward infinity as a medium for corporate growth and investment, for the accumulation of profits and vigorous reinvestment’ (207). In Cosmopolis’s dystopia, cyber-capital is in charge of ‘human experience’.

As the protestors in DeLillo’s novel proclaim, corrupting Marx, ‘A SPECTER IS HAUNTING THE WORLD – THE SPECTER OF CAPITALISM’ (96). This specter forms the central concern of the novel: even the protestors themselves form part of ‘the free market itself’ (90). Identifying the market influences that saturate the narrative, and robs its characters of space for independent action, Nicole Merola has described DeLillo’s novel as a work of ‘cybernaturalism’ (831), an examination of how financialisation has colonised economic and social life to the point where even anti-capitalist protestors ‘don’t exist outside the market. […] There is no outside’ (Cosmopolis 90). Market cycles have become as natural and unavoidable as ‘the time cycles of grasshopper breeding, wheat harvesting’ (200).

In an excoriating satire on critical theory, and what appears as a capitulation in the face of market forces, DeLillo creates Vija Kinsky, Eric Packer’s ‘Head of Theory’, who says of the financial market, ‘means nothing to me. […] Stop. I’m lost’ (84) but also claims that ‘the urge to destroy’ is ‘the hallmark of capitalist thought. Old industries have to be harshly eliminated. […] Destroy the past, make the future’ (92-93). Refusing to understand economics and its tangible manifestations, Kinsky nonetheless blandly accepts the nihilism of finance capitalism as a creative urge. ‘People,’ she predicts, ‘will not die. Isn’t this the creed of the new culture? People will be absorbed in streams of information’ (104).

Kinski speaks for what Cosmopolis implies is critical theory’s refusal to take seriously the implications of the spread of cyber-capital for critical freedom. “‘I understand none of this,” she said. “Microchips so small and powerful. Humans and computers merge. This is well beyond my range”’ (105). Only with Kinsky out of the novel, therefore, can Packer ‘begin the business of living’ (107): “‘It’s a mystery to me,”’ Kinsky has argued, “‘how such a thing might happen”’ (105).

The ideas of the critic Walter Benn Michaels parallel the line of thought that Kinsky symbolises in the novel. Michaels has argued that ‘subjects’ of capitalism cannot live ‘outside capitalism’. Indeed, there is no ‘space outside [capitalist] culture’ that writers can inhabit ‘in order to interrogate the relations between that space […] and the culture’ (27). In short, texts cannot ‘criticize or endorse the culture of consumption because they exemplify that culture’ (27). The remainder of DeLillo’s novel examines the question of whether some sort of rearguard defence is possible in the face of such critical resignation.

In Cosmopolis, Eric Packer attempts to identify space for independent activity beyond the reach of the market. He challenges Kinsky’s resignation in a series of attempts to break out of the isolation of his white limousine and into experiences that connect him with others: ‘He wanted to be here amongst them, all-body, the tattoed, the hairy-assed, those who stank. He wanted to set himself in the middle of the intersection, among the old with their raised veins and body blotches. […] He was one of them’ (176). Packer’s attempts to make connections lead him to an anti-capitalist demonstration, a nightclub, a funeral cortège, hotels, a bookshop, restaurants, his childhood suburb, and a film set, before his limousine takes him to his own assassin. In his tears, pain, and moments of ecstasy, Packer clings to the belief that there is room for a unique, untouchable consciousness outside the market:

The things that made him who he was could hardly be identified much less converted to data, the things that lived and milled in his body, everywhere, random, riotous, billions of trillions, in the neurons and peptides, the throbbing temple vein, in the veer of his libidinous intellect. So much come and gone, this is who he was, the lost taste of milk licked from his mother’s breast, the stuff he sneezes when he sneezes, this is him, and how a person becomes the reflection he sees in a dusty window when he walks by. He’d come to know himself, untranslatably, through his pain. (207)

Yet, having connected through his pain to a ‘distinctiveness, too vital to be bypassed and not susceptible […] to computer emulation’ Packer accedes to his own assassination at the hands of Benno Levin. The reader may feel inclined to wonder why.

Rare amongst contemporary novels addressing financial crisis, Cosmopolis takes its subject seriously enough to contemplate the possibility that the only protest left may be to celebrate the nihilism of financial meltdown. Packer’s last day begins with his contemplation of the possibility that ‘when he died he would not end. The world would end’ (6), and ends with the reflection that ‘what was missing [was] the sheer and reeling need to be’ (209). The novel contemplates a grim dystopia in which cyber-capital and mankind have become locked in a death grip of mutually assured destruction.

Nonetheless, what Merola calls the ‘melancholy political ecology’ of Cosmopolis leaves room for a hope that resides in those things that cyber-capital cannot control: the ‘little quirk, [t]he misshape’ or ‘the misweave’ of human life that might prevent the complete subsumption of culture by market forces (200). It may not be much to go on, but in a novel where the spread of digitalized capitalism threatens to become one more stage in the loss of independent action, DeLillo demonstrates that there is something in the ‘lopsided, the thing that’s skewed a little’ (200) that is yet ‘worth the telling.’ The novel, and literary criticism, Cosmopolis insists, must address the big questions, even if it is only though the ‘little quirks’. After all, it is the lopsided that makes equilibrium impossible, and change therefore inevitable. In the continuing fallout from the crisis of 2008, Cosmopolis might do once more what Mary Poovey saw in the novels of the early nineteenth century: help readers ‘negotiate the market model of value.’


Works Cited

Akerlof, George, and Joseph Stiglitz. ‘Let a Hundred Theories Bloom’. 2009. Web. 8 Oct. 2013. <www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/let-a-hundred-theories-bloom>

Bellow, Saul. ‘The Distracted Public’. It All Adds Up. London: Secker and Warburg, 1994, 153-169.

Benn Michaels, Walter. The Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism: American Literature at the Turn of the Century. Berkeley: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

DeLillo, Don. Cosmopolis. London: Picador, 2004.

Dodd, Nigel. The Social Life of Money. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2014.

Greenspan, Alan, ‘Testimony before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform’, cited in Robert Skidelsky, ‘The Way We Live Now’, The New York Times. Web. 8 Aug. 2013.


Krugman, Paul. ‘Phony Fear Factor’, The New York Times, 9th August 2013. Web. 24 Mar. 2015. <http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/09/opinion/krugman-phony-fear-factor.html?_r=0>

Mason, Paul. ‘To move beyond boom and bust, we need a new theory of capitalism. Finding one is the holy grail of economics’, Guardian, G2 (23rd March 2015), 5.

Merola, Nicole M. ‘Cosmopolis: Don DeLillo’s Melancholy Political Ecology’, American Literature, 84, 4 December 2012, 827-853.

Poovey, Mary. Genres of the Credit Economy: Mediating Value in Eighteenth and Nineteenth-Century Britain. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.


Christopher Hartley recently completed a PhD on literature and finance at the University of Oxford.



Upside Down Manhattan

Image by Maëlick, used under a CC BY-SA 2.0 licence.


Author: CCL

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