Don DeLillo’s latest work Point Omega takes an oblique, subtle, and unnerving tackle at themes of time, perception, family, and, ultimately, personal apocalypse. It’s not a particularly fun book nor does it yield any direct answers, but it’s also a rewarding, engaging, and often challenging read.
Point Omega pretends to be a novel about two subjects: the Iraq War and film. Its narrator Jim Finley is an experimental filmmaker who travels to the Arizona desert in an attempt to convince aging intellectual Richard Elster to participate in a film comprised solely of one long, unedited take of Elster talking about whatever he likes. Although Finley repeatedly claims that Elster can talk about whatever he chooses to in the film, it’s clear that that the younger man wishes for the subject to be Elster’s involvement in the planning of the Iraq War, a sort of mea culpa from the intellectual elite who rolled over to the Bush administration. Elster’s involvement was essentially to provide academic credibility to the invasion:
He was the outsider, a scholar with an approval rating but no experience in government. He sat at a table in a secure conference room with the strategic planners and military analysts. He was there to conceptualize, his words, in quotes, to apply overarching ideas and principles to such matters as troop deployment and counter-insurgency. He was cleared to read classified manuscripts, he said, and he listened to the chatter of the resident experts, the metaphysicians in the intelligence agencies, the fantasists in the Pentagon.
Elster becomes disillusioned with the whole process soon; he comes to realize the hollowness of his role and soon moves to the desert. “He’d exchanged all that for space and time,” writes DeLillo, announcing his theme. Later in the novella, Elster claims that the geologic time of the desert allows him to feel, “Time falling away . . . Time becoming slowly older. Enormously old. Not day by day. This is deep time, epochal time.” He contrasts this “deep time” with the time of cities:
It’s all embedded, the hours and minutes, words and numbers everywhere, he said, train stations, bus routes, taxi meters, surveillance cameras. It’s all about time, dimwit time, inferior time, people checking watches and other devices, other reminders. This is time draining out of our lives. Cities were built to measure time, to remove time from nature. There’s an endless counting down, he said. When you strip away all the surfaces, when you see into it, what’s left is terror. This is the thing that literature is meant to cure. The epic poem, the bedtime story.
Elster appears concerned that humanity is approaching Teilhard’s omega point, the maximum level of complexity of consciousness toward which the universe is evolving. He concedes that this idea might be “a case of language that’s struggling toward some idea our experience.” For Elster, the omega point is inevitable and leads to either “a sublime transformation of mind and soul or some worldly convulsion.” Ultimately, his viewpoint seems nihilistic: he’d rather human beings somehow be transformed into stones, be somehow absorbed into a new time, a geologic time.
The obsession with time and film literally wraps the book in two short chapters called “Anonymity” (a prologue) and “Anonymity 2″ (an epilogue (or a prescient epitaph, perhaps?)). Both sections describe a man who spends all of his time at MOMA’s presentation of Douglas Gordon’s videowork 24 Hour Psycho, a silent showing of Hitchcock’s Psycho over 24 hours. Neither section is narrated by Finley, although it later becomes clear that he–along with other principals in the story–is present at the showing. The unnamed man whose consciousness permeates these chapters finds his own omega point in the crawling pace of the film. 24 Hour Psycho divorces itself from the healing powers that stories give us, the power to narrativize all the gaps and crevices of life. It’s no longer the medicine that Elster suggests literature (or film) might be. It now exists outside of narrative cohesion and somehow resonates with the purity or transcendence of geologic time.
Fortunately, DeLillo is gracious enough to his readers to not attempt replicating the pace of geologic time in his book. Point Omega is particularly slim–under 120 pages in hardback–and reads with a the conciseness and clarity which has been a hallmark of DeLillo’s style. As perhaps the signal writer of post-postmodernism (whatever that means), DeLillo continues to engage and anticipate new and emerging forms of alienation, and he does so without gimmicks or trickery, just the purity of considered ideas. Point Omega works best when he allows those ideas some room to breathe; the late-night scotch-soaked dialogues between Elster and Finley are some of the finest passages of the book and it’s a pity there aren’t more of them.
But it seems like we’ve digressed from some of our starting points, doesn’t it? Many critics will call Point Omega DeLillo’s “Iraq War novel,” which is a mistake akin to calling Underworld a book about baseball or White Noise a book about Hitler. The war is merely an entry point to the greater, more personal tragedy that underlies the book, a tragedy that will perhaps make Elster reassess his own value system. We won’t name the trauma at the core of the book–to do so might spoil a twist in a book largely devoid of conventional concrete plotting–but it is worth noting that DeLillo optimizes suspense and tension as the novel builds to its own omega point. While many will feel left cold by the book’s ultimately ambiguous invocation of personal calamity, we found in it a meaningful counterpoint to Elster’s explicit commentary on time and identity. DeLillo’s novel, in the end, requires an intellectual–or perhaps, dare we say spiritual–leap. Point Omega is hardly a satisfying read, but that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? Highly recommended.
Point Omega is available February 2nd, 2010 from Scribner.