I’ve read a sizeable chunk of Don DeLillo’s output, and consider myself a huge fan of his work. Not everything he writes his easy to get through, and his sentences and dialogue have a habit of annoying some readers, but I can’t get enough of them. Nearly everything he writes seems to connect with the deepest possible sense of understanding the world. I’ve often thought of him as a writer who can turn everyday blandness into a science fictional landscape. His sentences are the finest in the English language, with a cadence you can spot of mile off.
So, because of one of the many perks of being published by Pan Macmillan (me – Tor UK, DeLillo – Picador), I was chuffed to bits to get my paws on Point Omega, his latest tome, clocking in at a brief 120 pages.
In the middle of a desert ‘somewhere south of nowhere’, to a forlorn house made of metal and clapboard, a secret war adviser has gone in search of space and time. Richard Elster, seventy-three, was a scholar – an outsider – when he was called to a meeting with government war planners. For two years he tried to make intellectual sense of the troop deployments, counterinsurgency, orders for rendition. He was to map the reality these men were trying to create.
At the end of his service, Elster retreats to the desert, where he is joined by a young filmmaker intent on documenting his experience. Jim Finley wants to make a one-take film, Elster its single character – ‘Just a man against a wall.’
The two men sit on the deck, drinking and talking. Finley makes the case for his film. Weeks go by. And then Elster’s daughter Jessie visits – an ‘otherworldly’ woman from New York – who dramatically alters the dynamic of the story. When a devastating event follows, all the men’s talk, the accumulated meaning of conversation and isolation, is thrown into question. What is left is loss, fierce and incomprehensible.
The novel is bookended by a section with man attending a gallery, viewing 24 hour Psycho, which is, quite literally, the film Psycho stretched out over 24 hours, and as a result, each scene becomes enhanced somehow, as the action is stilled. Also, it implies foreshadow of events to come, though the links come in different ways. There’s a nice irony here, because I often think this is exactly how DeLillo writes. You get slow-motion scenes with his books, or stilled points in existence, the gaps in daily life, and his novels seem to sit there, in such moments, giving readers his unique spin on the world.
The true life is not reducable to words spoken or written, not by anyone, ever. The true life takes place when we’re alone, thinking, feeling, lost in memory, dreamingly self-aware, the submicroscopic moments.
The rest, and bulk, of this very small narrative takes place out in the desert, with Elster and Finley engaged in deep intellectual conversations at the old scholar’s retreat, where all concepts of the universe are discussed. Finley is there to persuade Elster to be filmed by him, to give a raw portrait of his career. Elster uses Finley, largely, as a sounding board. The usual DeLillo themes of death and time, stripped more than ever of any humour, ebb and flow over that particular this-is-how-people-actually-talk dialogue that DeLillo does so well.
In their endless conversation, what strikes me as particularly important is the discussion of the Omega Point, “a term coined by the French Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin to describe a maximum level of complexity and consciousness towards which the universe appears to be evolving.”
It’s particularly problematic not to give spoilers here, due to the very short narrative. Elster’s daughter joins the two men, and what happens after that is unsettling to the reader, but a massive jolt to Elster and Finley.
I was struck, at the end, by this point: none of the verbose discussion of intellectual matters seemed to… matter anymore. It was as if this was DeLillo’s intellectual anti-intellectual novel, a lament at how useless such qualities can be at times of deep human stress (something I’ve noticed hinted at in his other novels). One can’t help notice the reversal of the omega point as the title in the role of this theory, too – a point where intellectualism cannot cope. Moments become stilled, slowed down and confused, and Elster – the scholar – in particular seems unable to cope or to function properly.
I dare say a bunch of national newspapers will spew out spoilers, but I don’t want to ruin it for anyone, so I’ll stop myself there.
Point Omega is sparse, poignant, and brilliant.
I’ll keep an eye out for it, Mark, thanks for the review. 🙂 If you want something strange, funny, a touch ludicrous but brilliant, check out Towing Jehovah by James Morrow. Here’s a link: http://www.sff.net/People/Jim.Morrow/towing.html
Hi Dave, yeah, I’m surprised there’s been no more coverage of it, to be honest. Thanks for the link – that looks truly bizarre. 🙂
So glad DeLillo has returned to the shorter novel. Can’t wait to read this one. Maybe Christmas afternoon with a full stomach. Thanks for the spoiler-free review. Cheers.
I really enjoyed this post, Mark.
I think you’ve put your finger on the Point Omega experience.
I found the book quite shocking by the end, in the sense that one’s humanity is put through the wringer of microminimalist (Psycho 24), the gargantuan (desert and omega point) and just plain humanness (Elster’s daughter), and must survive the encounter with the system intact.
Reading it is like going under a wave in slow motion – that diving sensation, the weight and pressure of the water pushing you down, the sudden silence and the drawn out sliding noise that follows, and then back into the air – the shock.
I could gab about DeLillo all day, really. I also detected, in the opening dialogue and scenes between Elster and Finley, an echo of the Robert McNamara / Errol Morris documentary The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons From The Life of Robert S. McNamara.
Dave – I read Towing Jehovah once upon a time – I recall enjoying it immensely but I have to admit to having totally forgotten about it, so thanks for the reminder.