Review: Point Omega, Don DeLillo

This review was announced joint winner of the 2010 London Review of Books Young Reviewers Competition

Were it not for the stylish surety of Don DeLillo’s prose, you might start to wonder whether he’s been working in the wrong medium all these years. More than most contemporary writers, his novels show an enthusiasm and dedication to alternative, non-literary art forms. In his colossus, Underworld (1997), for example, the reader is treated to an underground screening of Eisenstein’s mythic Unterwelt, a tour of the Bronx street-art scene, a desert ‘exhibition’ of artistically modified scrap planes and J. Edgar Hoover’s encounter with Bruegel’s The Triumph of Death mid-baseball game. If fiction gets a bit lost amidst this multimedia ekphrasis, it can seem positively trampled underfoot in his later novels. For Eric Packer, in Cosmopolis (2003), life is ‘a matter of silences, not words’. He scorns the novel form in favour of ‘spare poems sited minutely in white space, ranks of alphabetic strokes burnt into paper’. Indeed, DeLillo’s output post-Underworld could well be seen as a craving for the ‘spare poem’. In both the slimness of their volumes and the terseness of their sentences, there is something awkwardly poetic about The Body Artist, Cosmopolis, Falling Man and – now – Point Omega. In fact, in this new novella (his shortest novel yet), DeLillo’s narrator implicitly critiques his hefty, earlier book. ‘An eight-hundred-page biography is nothing more than dead conjecture’, he says. Underworld, though no biography, spreads itself out over just more than eight-hundred pages. And yet, Point Omega does more than dismiss the fat American novel in favour of the starved poem; this novel considers a different medium altogether, one that has occupied his interest since Americana, his first book. Once again, DeLillo takes us to the movies.

To clarify, these are movies at their most unwatchable. DeLillo examines the attraction of cinema at its most unattractive, films dependent on their audiences’ discomfort and tedium, but also films which actively encourage new ways of seeing and appreciating them. Such a film frames the entire novel. The ‘bulk’ of its story is sandwiched between two sections titled ‘Anonymity’, both set in ‘one brain-dead room in six gleaming floors of crowded art’ – New York’s Museum of Modern Art. In the opening section, a nameless man stands in the shadows watching the exhibit and its visitors as they come and go, often going as soon as coming. The man has been standing, watching for over three hours, and this is his fifth consecutive day spent watching the installation. The novel closes with the scene repeated, a day later, the last day of the exhibit. This time, however, the man is approached by a woman, who asks him what they’re watching. She exchanges a few more words, then leaves. He follows her out of the museum, asks if she might fancy a trip to a real cinema some time, takes her number, and re-enters the exhibition. So the novel ends.

They are watching Douglas Gordon’s conceptual film, 24 Hour Psycho. It’s exactly what its title suggests, Hitchcock’s movie slowed to an almost deadening halt, played at two frames per second (not the conventional twenty-four). 109 minutes are stretched into twenty-four hours. Though the watcher sneers at visitors’ short attention spans, their tendency to leave the room instantly, ‘forgetting what they’d seen in the seconds it took to turn and move toward the door’, the film inescapably resists its audience. Even the gallery cannot contain it. Constrained by opening hours, the museum must close overnight, so the film must be stopped and resumed the next morning. 24 Hour Psycho is a film that simply cannot be watched start to finish, despite the ambitious event our man imagines. Of course, we are not supposed to watch it as we would watch the original, or any old feature films. The movie is purposefully unwatchable. The anonymous visitor brands the piece ‘pure film’, an abstract compliment that could be restated as ‘pure form’. Achingly slow, the events of the original movie are disconnected. Cause is sundered from effect, each forgetting the other. A masterwork of suspense like Psycho relies on pace and succession to achieve any emotional impact. As such, when both are disregarded, the iconic shower murder of Janet Leigh becomes less interesting than the question of how many curtain rings we see in the shot. Humanist horror is usurped by a drama of objects, ‘a strange poem above the hellish death’.

Such is the movie of pure form. In the narrative proper, DeLillo lays out the foundations for its opposite, the equally formidable movie of content. The main story takes place in the Californian desert, in a hermit’s shack, where we observe the relationships between elderly academic Richard Elster, young filmmaker Jim Finley and – later – Elster’s daughter, Jessie. Their interactions are claustrophobic and sluggish, as if hallucinated, or borrowed from a Bergman chamber drama. Elster was, until recently, employed by the Pentagon as ‘a defense intellectual’, responsible for reducing the confusion of the Iraq war to a set of digestible, theoretical precepts:

We tried to create new realities overnight, careful sets of words that resemble advertising slogans in memorability and repeatability. These were words that would yield pictures eventually and then become three-dimensional. The reality stands, it walks, it squats. Except when it doesn’t.

Finley is determined to commit Elster’s experiences to film in an unprecedented way. He envisions a single take, a single head shot, Elster against a wall relating ‘everything that comes to mind, personalities, theories, details, feelings’. No offstage questioner or explanatory footage will be edited in. ‘Just a man and a wall’, for however long it takes. This extreme privileging of subject over formal convention, as far removed from 24 Hour Psycho as it might seem, asks as much of its audience’s stamina as Gordon’s project. As Jessie asks, after hearing Finley’s plans, ‘how many people will want to spend all that time looking at something so zombielike?’

Point Omega builds upon this tension between structure and action, form and content. The tripartite structure of the novel mirrors that of an essay by Elster, entitled ‘Renditions’. Finley glosses the essay for us. For the most part, it is a semiotic analysis of the word ‘render’, but with opening and closing sentences that appear starkly incongruous and irrelevant to the main discussion (‘A government is a criminal enterprise’, it begins). Elster refuses any explanation, but Finley’s attempts to see the argument as a harmonious whole reflects the ways we try to assimilate the two strands of this novel, to locate the scene at the MoMA within the world of Elster and Finley. As it turns out, the latter two visited the installation as cameo roles in the first section, and Jessie was the girl who asked the questions in the second. As it turns out, the watcher might just be involved with Jessie’s later disappearance.

What 24 Hour Psycho and Finley’s prospective project share in common is a dedication to life in the abstract, to life lived as theory. Theory saturates Point Omega, as it does most of DeLillo’s novels. Indeed, critics like the hysterically anti-hysterical realist James Wood have argued that DeLillo’s fictions are little more than dumping grounds for trendy social theory. Admittedly, when his characters talk to one another, it can often seem like Platonic dialogue updated by Baudrillard. Sentences emerge from mouths read-packaged as aphorisms, sultry and studied, sounding like a noir movie starring Wittgenstein. Could the following exchange between Jim and Jessie, for instance, be any less off the cuff?:

I said, ‘Footsteps in movies.’

‘Footsteps.’

‘Footsteps in movies never sound real.’

‘They’re footsteps in movies.’

‘You’re saying why shouldn’t they sound real.’

‘They’re footsteps in movies,’ she said.

‘Filmography’ and ‘film theory’ are unsurprising preoccupations of the novel. The anonymous watcher mistakenly labels the old, anonymous man (Elster) he sees at the MoMA a film academic. He judges him to be an expert on ‘film syntax, film and myth, the dialectics of film’. But Elster is not such a big fan of the movies, as his resistance to Finley’s film suggests. Instead, Gordon’s film appeals to him (we learn later) because its cosmological slowness anticipates the ‘heat death of the universe’, a collective entropic end for the human species. Here lies Elster’s guiding obsession, his pet ‘theory’, and the explanation for the novel’s title.

The term ‘point omega’ was first used by the Jesuit scholar, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, in his book The Phenomenon of Man to describe a kind of culmination to human consciousness, an evolutionary end-point for mind and matter. ‘He said that human thought is alive, it circulates,’ remarks Elster. ‘And the sphere of collective human thought, this is approaching the final term, the last flare’. But whereas for de Chardin, this was a positive step forwards, necessary for the ultimate fulfilment of the human animal, Elster finds it almost unbearable. ‘We’re all played out,’ he tells Finley, ‘Matter wants to lose its self-consciousness’. Elster looks beyond the omega point, beyond a transcendent consciousness, to the moment when we can crumble back into matter, into pure form with no content. ‘This is what we want. We want to be stones in a field.’

This explains Elster’s self-imposed exile to the desert, where there is ‘nothing but distances’ to dissolve a self in. For the first few chapters, DeLillo portrays the move as a success. Elster is confident, self-secure, edging towards the impenetrability of his new landscape in his opinions, the way he talks. At this early stage, the opinions of critics like Wood seem somewhat valid, such is the deadweight of theory that characters let fall, lethargically. They talk or stay silent and drink, they do nothing else. This is geological time, reminiscent of the epochal slowness of a Manhattan traffic jam in Cosmopolis. At times, the wry inevitability of the writing comes close to exhausting and we uneasily wonder whether DeLillo intends to narrate his characters’ full, tedious crystallisation and end it there. Three rocks on a deck.

But then, suddenly, Jessie vanishes. Returning from a trip for supplies, Elster and Finley find her gone. The sedimentary pace of the novel discovers a new, uncomfortable urgency, but an urgency that is cruelly disempowered by the landscape. How do you track a missing person in a geography made up of ‘nothing but distances’? The two men must simply wait, a state of being which has suited them until this point, but which is now agonisingly impotent. We learn that Jessie’s mother sent her out here to take a break from an odd, possessive boyfriend. We learn that his name is possibly, probably, definitely Dennis. We learn that Dennis has been calling Jessie’s mother obsessively – anonymously, but it’s obviously him. The police find a knife in a nearby ravine. In an act of petty heroism, or stupidity, Finley wanders out into the desert in search of the woman but loses his way. Half-dead with heat stroke and dehydration, he barely makes it back to the hut alive, after which he decides it is time for the two men to admit defeat and return to the city. Driving home, Finley remarks:

The omega point has narrowed, here and now, to the point of a knife as it enters a body. All the man’s grand themes funnelled down to local grief, one body, out there somewhere, or not.

Unexpectedly, the novel becomes a tragedy. Elster’s hubris: the devotion to theory that has sustained both him and the book until this point. DeLillo may be guilty of excessive theorisation in his writing, but as Point Omega demonstrates, his inclusion of high-minded themes like transhumanism and entropy should not be taken as devoutly uncritical. The acolyte of theory, though fully able to reduce life to a series of incisive aphorisms, finds himself overwhelmed by the ‘real’ life outside his words. No number of academic papers published on the death of the species and the ‘dream of extinction’ can support Elster when a blood relation disappears. No acknowledgement of the Pleistocene, transcendent dimensions of the desertscape can protect Finley from its unforgiving heat and terrain. The ‘stray poem’ of objects and ideas must always, ultimately, take second place to the ‘hellish death’ below.

Speaking about the anonymous watcher (who we can assume, by the novel’s close, to be Dennis), the narrator notes: ‘He would not be able to watch the real movie, the other Psycho, ever again. This was the real movie.’ While Dennis may discount Hitchcock’s original, Point Omega salvages in some ways the movie from Gordon’s formal experimentation. In the jarring switch to narrative suspense after Jessie’s disappearance, in the sinister descriptions of her boyfriend (‘she could remember him standing in her doorway like someone you see three times a week, a delivery man with groceries, and you still don’t know what he looks like’) and the persistent, anonymous phone calls, DeLillo toys with an older form of storytelling – the golden age of Hollywood suspense. Though renouncing Psycho, Dennis becomes something of a Norman Bates himself. The ambiguity of the plot leads us to question what a man more concerned by bathroom objects than a blood-soaked woman might be capable of doing to a missing girlfriend. Or, perhaps more accurately, what the link is between an art form that encourages this level of disassociation and the inescapably emotional human animal that encounters it. Finally driving home, Jim Finley imagines the telephone ringing as he enters his apartment. A withheld number has been ringing his mobile persistently, but he has not answered. He betrays a wish for safety in the conventions of the hostage narrative or the stalker narrative, in the husky-voiced exchange, in the certainty of ending. DeLillo refuses all such certainty, and this is probably for the best in Elster’s case. He clings to the ‘pure mystery’ of Jessie’s disappearance, desperate to escape the ‘explicit details’ that would locate it firmly in lived reality.

Though the deflating of theory by disaster may appear none too subtle, DeLillo’s novel outlines the perils of committing yourself to any system, any formal structure of being. This is not to say that Point Omega lies closer to Finley’s finally abandoned film project. Its content is minimal, its plot is minimal, its answers are sub-minimal. There is no man ranting, explaining himself, against a wall. As such, the book provokes a sense of non-satisfaction, an urge to re-read its few pages with a level of concentration similar to the man in the gallery. This is entirely appropriate, given that Point Omega is, at its core, a mature meditation by a fully matured writer on how we react to art and, more importantly, how we endure it.