DeLillo, Don (2010), Point Omega, Scribner
I’m not a slow reader, not usually, especially not with regard to fiction, but it took me ages to finish Don DeLillo’s slim new novel Point Omega. It is a short, intense burst of literary fireworks by a living master, a writer, indeed, that some consider to be one of the best (if not the best) prose writer of his generation. Like many other writers of his generation, that praise has not been universally strong, like Pynchon, Barth or Roth, he has always had his detractors (most famously, perhaps, James Wood and the insufferable B.R. Meyers), and in the past decade, they seemed to gain the upper hand in the critical discourse. With no major (and canonical) novels like The Names, White Noise and Libra forthcoming, his output seemed to concentrate on plays and thin novels, with the exception of Underworld, his longest novel so far, and the one that could be said to contain the broadest and most sustained statement of his artistic vision. Mao II (despite winning the PEN/Faulkner award) and The Body Artist both failed to garner the attention, praise and respect that his earlier books won, and his 2003 novel Cosmopolis arguably represents the nadir of his oeuvre. There is a blandness to some of his late work, an indulgence of means and thought that ill befits a writer of DeLillo’s power and that does not really fit in with his ability to draw the utmost tension from a setting or situation. All that is different in Point Omega. There is not much plot, or memorable characters in the book, but then, that’s not the game it engages in.
Point Omega is one of the most concentrated, dense, focused novels I have read in a while. I think one of his problems in his late work, even in books that I enjoyed greatly, like Mao II, is a lack of will to decide upon a mode to write the book in, and nothing in the books mediates, controls or explains this lack. Mao II, for example, is, on the one hand, an explication of crowds and the cultural ties of various ideas about and views of crowds to the American culture and its self-image. As usual, DeLillo’s novel toys with idea, with slogans mentioned only to contradict them on the plot level. On the other hand, it’s an almost classical, traditional ars moriendi. There is no tension between these two elements, no gain that enriches the novel, these two parts just sit uneasily next to each other, sometimes connecting, more often not. I mention this specific novel and its problem, because in Point Omega, DeLillo sets up a similar situation, but this time his craft, his marvelous abilities as a novelist, prevail and mold the two elements into one coherent whole. Sadly for many of his readers, he sacrifices a readable plot, and believable characters in the process. But, the book still works, because DeLillo’s decision to focus on a wholly cerebral structure and narrative, to craft a book that is about speaking, seeing, writing, reading, a book that is, unlike much of his earlier work, about uncertainty, a book that questions authorial control and power, pays off big time in this book which I read carefully but breathlessly, slowly, but compelled to read on by the sheer avalanche of thought.
That thought, it should be added, isn’t DeLillo’s. One of his major strengths in this book is to write micro-pastiches, small set pieces, and set up a maze of reflective and repetitive devices, content to let the reader find his way through this. The static quality of this and other good recent DeLillo books often derives from the fact that DeLillo sets up situations rather than developing them in detail. His work, and especially Point Omega, frequently reads like a carefully constructed stage design, one that leaves the actors little wriggle room, but still one that depends upon the audience to animate it. His earlier work has practiced some healthy skepticism with regard to the long diatribes of the self-important narrators and protagonists populating its pages, but that skepticism was never as strong as in this book, which undercuts all attempts to establish any kind of authority. Unceasingly, the reader is confronted with readings and statements that sound definitive and certain, while becoming more and more certain that what he’s chasing after, what DeLillo denies him, is like the Kantian noumenon, independent from his perception but unknowable. This is not about the conditio humana, it’s not a broad and sweeping statement about human perception. It would be an incredibly dull and useless book if it were. No, what DeLillo does is examine his own art by putting it through the grinder of doubt. Point Omega is utterly self-contained; although it does offer references to culture, politics and science, it uses these as texts, as tools to make sense of itself.
Many of these tools appear in the monologues and brief remarks made both by the narrator, a filmmaker called Jim Finley, and by Richard Elster, an aging intellectual that Finley desperately wants to conduct an interview with. Or rather: whom he wants to be the subject of a documentary that is supposed to feature only Elster in front of a wall. In the most recent of a series of attempts to convince Elster, Finley visits him in his home in the desert (doubtless a fitting setting for a man who helped provide the intellectual framework for the Iraq war). Jesse, Elster’s visiting daughter, completes the set-up. As tensions between the odd trio develop, fissures start to show in the facade of their acts, as behaviors and speech seem to adapt to shifting dynamics. Finally, as the daughter vanishes without a trace, the situation breaks down, establishing a new hierarchy and new priorities for all concerned. What may sound exciting when summed up in a few sentences, isn’t actually exciting in the novel, or, not exciting for the reasons that one would expect. DeLillo takes care not to create a narrative that thrives on speed, on a simplistically coherent narrative thrust. Instead, he selects bits and pieces, small narrative chokepoints which are not structured by the characters and their emotional concerns, but rather through speeches and observations made by one of the three participants in that curious desert session. More often than not, these speeches focus on abstract issues, such as Teilhard de Chardin’s concept of the “Omega Point”, on political, and philosophical considerations. The exigencies of film-making come up, as well as personal relationships in general.
In fact, it’s Point Omega’s treatment of the latter topic that best exemplifies not just it’s concerns but more to the point: what it’s not concerned with. In these discussions of marriage, we are offered two bland, cardboard cutout characters who talk about their marriage with less passion than an accountant will discuss his occupation with. Two things are especially remarkable about these passages, both to do with literary references. One is the fact that DeLillo borrows, possibly for the first time in his career, the maudlin tone of Philip Roth’s most self-absorbed and most self-pitying works (The Humbling, for example). It utterly, however, lacks the emotion, the sentimentality that Roth lathers his narratives up with. This is because these are pastiches, recognizable as such by the distance they keep to the reader and to other other sections of the book they are in. As the book draws to a close, these elements become stronger and stronger, but DeLillo keeps delaying the payoff, the gratification that we expect of some of these elements. In what is a very old-fashioned move, he presents us with possibilities, only to never work through their details. Whereas much of his other recent work allowed his old men to be as whiny as they wanted to be, DeLillo’s method here checks what, from the evidence of this other novels published in the past decade, is clearly an artistic instinct of his. This is one of several elements that he offers up for inspection and criticism. That he does it by borrowing the tone of a writer like Roth is not a sign of cowardliness. I think it’s a combination of wanting to exaggerate the tendency in his own work by comparing it with Roth’s vastly more indulgent use of the same device, and of trying to step away from the plate, of trying to set a stage but let the reader hit the ball. The various reviews that made different use of this element of the book are an indication of sorts of the success of that method.
The other thing that is remarkable about this passage (but also about the rest of the book) is how it clearly demonstrates an alienation, of the sort that has been amply expounded upon by fiction writers of all stripes. Two books seem particularly pertinent here. One is Albert Camus’ La Chute, with its protagonist Clamence whose disillusion, whose ‘fall’ provides a blueprint for how Richard Elster’s life develops, not in most of the details, but certainly in the sentiment and general direction. Some aspects are even rather close, as Clamence’s predilection for heights and loneliness which corresponds to Elster’s move to the desert. The other book, which seems more a spiritual forebear than an actual explicit reference, is Peter Handke’s odd little masterpiece Die Angst des Tormanns beim Elfmeter (translated into English by Michael Roloff as The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick). In this book, published in 1970, Peter Handke proposes an idea of alienation that far exceeds a feeling of simple estrangement from people and situations. His protagonist, Joseph Bloch, even finds himself unable at times to hold on to the conventions of language, the relationship between things, words, and himself, which is usually taken for granted. At a particularly chilling moment in the book, even Bloch’s language breaks down, dissolving into small pictorial icons. While such a breakdown isn’t experienced by the narrator, it’s suggested that Elster may suffer from something like that, and the very framework, the novel’s central metaphor, engages a disbelief in the viability of conventional solutions to perceptional coherence.
That framework is film, more specifically, Douglas Gordon’s installation 24 Hour Psycho, “first screened in 1993” and “installed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in the summer of 2006”, as the author tells us at the back of the book. And it is in late summer 2006 that the frame narrative of Point Omega is set, in the darkened room where the project is installed. 24 Hour Psycho is a projection of Hitchcock’s Psycho, but slowed down to about 2 frames a second, so that a screening of the whole movie takes up exactly 24 hours. Finch spends days in that room, watching the long version several times, and through his encounter with it, we are offered film as a metaphor for perception. The fact that our stories change when we see them enlarged, slower, faster, or from a different angle. Finch tries very hard to be smart and insightful and peppers his narrative with references to the installation, but his remarks are frequently ridiculous, and clearly serve as a reproduction of Elster’s speech. Elster, as a teacher, and someone who helped shape governmental policies, represents the discourse of power, but the novel weakens the link of that kind of discourse with the character of Elster, extending it to the narrator first, and, implicitly, to the authorial discourse itself. This deliberate weakening of the dominating discourse of the book is at times buttressed by a fuzziness in the writing, small ambiguities, inexact phrasings which destabilize a clear reading of these passages, without offering an alternative. While its true that its cerebral nature distances the reader, giving him everything at a remove, offering him emotions as objects, objects as language and language, in turn, as objects, it also distances the author. When a writer like Auster disavows his characters, it’s a sign of weakness, a difference which is compounded by books like this which are driven by an intense self-awareness that arises not in a disquisition about self-awareness, but in a steady and fine undercutting of the author’s own grasp of the novel’s discourse.
Any payoff that the book offers is in the exhilarating ride that it provides as literature, the plain joy of reading, of becoming, for minutes, hours, part of the book’s enterprise. It declines the opportunity to use characters and a story as an easy in for the reader, it does not reach out to him, it expects him to climb down into it on its own terms, read it, understand it within the limits that it offers. There’s no pretension of openness, of availability, and this is surely a quality that will put a lot of people off who like some comfort with their art, the coziness and warmth, not of ‘real’ human emotion, but of the conventional charade that is verisimilitude. DeLillo makes demands of his readers, and more than any other writer I read these past months, he isn’t open to or accepting of a broader, less interested readership. It wants you to care about its issues. If you don’t, this book won’t work for you. In its harsh look at convention, its rejection of simple solutions, it’s actually, while not open to other kinds of readers, open to other voices. Don DeLillo can seem like a writer who hogs the attention in his books, which can lead critics and readers to falsely equate the opinions of his protagonists with his own opinions. What’s true, however, is that DeLillo’s taut fictional nets do not allow for other voices, they are strict and restrictive in that regard. Point Omega, while possible DeLillo’s most taut book, disowns these narratives and suggests an opening up of new possibilities. We’re not there yet, neither we as readers, nor DeLillo as a writer, but Point Omega is a breaking point, a frontier post, as Stevens put it, “at the end of the mind, / beyond the last thought.” There is space, and as a writer, DeLillo lays no claims on it. He doesn’t even map it out, he only demonstrates the limits of his work, of his reach as writer and artist. That’s why Point Omega, his most claustrophobic, most densely constructed novel, also feels like a liberation, and his bravest book in decades.