Point Omega, by Don DeLillo
By Don DeLillo
Scribner, 117 pages
Slim,” “slender,” “slight.” These are the adjectives critics have used to describe the latest works by the American novelist Don DeLillo. The 73-year-old writer has recently trended toward books that are notably compact. A late-career winnowing is not necessarily an alarming event in the arc of a writing life. We need only recall Saul Bellow’s elegant novella years as proof of this. Such winnowing is a welcome turn when it comes as the result of an ever more economic sensibility. An older Bellow was once asked what his novel The Adventures of Augie March was about. “About 200 pages too long,” the writer said of the epic, composed in his 30s.
As for DeLillo, his 15th novel, Point Omega, weighs in at 117 sparsely populated pages. Early on in the book, we encounter what is tempting to read as an anti —Underworld, pro-compression statement of stylistic purpose: “An eight-hundred-page biography is nothing more than dead conjecture, he said.”
The “he” is Richard Elster, the 73-year-old “defense intellectual” at the heart of the novella. Elster is a somewhat crabby, copiously ruminative academic who has retired to the American desert after a disillusioning experience in Washington, where he contributed to the conceptualization of the Iraq war. He has now gone off the grid in order to “feel the deep heat beating into his body, feel the body itself, reclaim the body from what he called the nausea of News and Traffic.” Elster also gets something more profoundly philosophical from the desert. He has exchanged the city’s “dimwit time” for the “geologic time” of the brutal, uninhabited landscape, of which he is now one more stoic detail: “Time slows down when I’m here,” he says. “Time becomes blind.”
In his modest desert home, the retired mystic hosts a young experimental filmmaker named Jim Finley. Finley, who serves as narrator for most of the book, is desperate to make an artsy documentary about Elster. The film, in Finley’s v-ision, will be a one-camera, one-shot undertaking, consisting entirely of Elster standing before a wall, talking about the Iraq war. “The man stands there and relates the complete experience, everything that comes to mind, personalities, theories, details, feelings,” he explains. Elster is noncommittal and mostly wants Finley around for the company.
The two men are soon joined by Elster’s daughter, Jessie. She is a gauzily rendered shadow of a young woman, a half-presence who confuses and attracts Finley and delights her own father. For an undisclosed span of “blind” desert time, the strange threesome cohabitate, taking elementary meals together, drinking on the sundeck at night, and speaking in the clipped, trippy profundities common to all DeLillo characters:
“What idea. Paroxysm. Either a sublime transformation of mind and soul or some worldly convulsion. We want it to happen.”
“You think we want it to happen?”
“We want it to happen. Some paroxysm.”
He liked this word. We let it hang there.
“Think of it. We pass completely out of being. Stones. Unless stones have being. Unless there’s some profoundly mystical shift that places being in a stone.”
This portentous stasis is broken one day when Jessie goes missing. At that point, Elster steadily decompensates and Finley performs the functions of a visiting nurse. That is the book’s plot, such as it is.
Whatever Point Omega is, what it is not is a book about the Iraq war. It is not about the war’s architects or its political, historic, cultural, moral, or even human ramifications. There is a certain offense in this. No matter one’s ideological orientation, a modern American war—indeed, a war still underway—is too monumental a phenomenon to serve as Muzak for three existential monologuists hanging around in the desert. The rare moments when Iraq comes up are so shaped by DeLilloesque metaphysics as to bear no resemblance to the real war. Here’s Elster making his case:
Haiku means nothing beyond what it ixqs. A pond in summer, a leaf in wind. It’s human consciousness located in nature. It’s the answer to everything in a set number of lines, a prescribed syllable count. I wanted a haiku war,” he said. “I wanted a war in three lines. This was not a matter of force levels or logistics. What I wanted was a set of ideas linked to transient things. This is the soul of haiku.
In the world we happen to inhabit, no civilian swamis were called to secret Washington meetings to expound upon haiku wars. If so artificial an entity such as Elster is the novel’s sole stand-in for the entire notion of the war, we can safely dismiss the handful of hallucinatory Iraq references that follow from this invention. Had DeLillo decided at the last minute to make Elster a traffic cop meditating on the behavior of cars at a particularly complicated intersection, a minor edit of a dozen paragraphs would have left us with more or less the same book—a meditation on heat, time, mortality, and omelettes. That’s right, omelettes.
We were eating omelettes, we ate omelettes nearly every night now. He was proud of his omelettes and tried to get her to watch as he broke the eggs, beat them with a fork and so on, talking all the way through the seasoning and olive oil and vegetables, enunciating the word frittata, but she wasn’t interested.
How could she fail to be interested? After all, eggs are very important; the unequivocal sign of Elster’s agonizing debilitation after the disappearance of his daughter is his transfer of egg responsibilities to Finley: “I was cooking the omelettes now. He seemed to wonder what he was supposed to do with the fork in his hand.”
Point Omega is the worst book Don DeLillo has ever produced. That he has attempted to construct a piece of fiction in which perception itself serves as narrative is not the problem. He has done this before, and the effort has paid off in moments of crystalline revelation. His “slim,” “slender,” and “slight” 2001 novel, The Body Artist, is a lovely example.
Point Omega is the document of a writer who has come to the end of himself. The extent to which DeLillo has, in this book, plundered his own catalog is arresting. In Jim Finley, the writer has resuscitated at least three of his earlier characters: David Bell, the renegade filmmaker of his first novel, Americana; Volterra, the renegade filmmaker of his novel The Names; and an Interviewer in his play Valparaiso. In the character of Elster, we get a version of Alex, the iconoclastic old artist who used the desert as his medium in DeLillo’s play Love-Lies-Bleeding. The very desert of Point Omega is the same unrelenting monochrome heatscape against which a slew of DeLillo figures have come to a slew of stark determinations.
DeLillo has been able to create a brilliant literature of paranoia in part because of his own spooky powers of prediction. He wrote about terrorist bombs, the World Trade Center, and grief counseling in his 1977 novel, Players; an “airborne toxic event” and airplanes hitting the White House in his 1985 novel, White Noise; a hidden relationship between the World Trade Center and the Fresh Kills Landfill (where a third of the destroyed Twin Towers, in fact, ended up after the 9/11 attacks) in Underworld four years before 9/11.
After that book, Don DeLillo stopped predicting the future and started playing catch-up to the present. And yet nowhere has he seemed so disconnected to current events as in Point Omega, which attempts to mine them.
There are, to be sure, occasional flashes of beauty in the book. They glisten so simply as to suggest that DeLillo, not unlike his identically aged protagonist, is now inclined toward haiku, or at least poetry—and not the logistics of novel-writing. Consider the following:
A great rain came sweeping off the mountains, too strong to think into, leaving us with nothing to say. We stood in the covered entrance to the deck, we three, watching and listening, world awash. Jessie held herself tightly, each flung hand clutching the opposite shoulder. The air was sharp and charged and when the rain stopped, in minutes, we went back to the living room and talked about what we were talking about when the sky broke open.
Shame about the other 116 pages.