Friday 5 March 2010

Even when something happens, you're waiting for it to happen'

Point Omega

by Don DeLillo

I've only read a couple of DeLillo's; the brilliant Libra and the bloated Underworld. The first is a superior look at the life of Lee Harvey Oswald and the events leading up to the assassination of JFK. In a bit of a Dealey Plaza splurge I read it in close proximity to James Ellroy's American Tabloid and repeated viewings of Oliver Stone's movie, and DeLillo wipes the floor with both of them. Underworld has faired less well in my memory. The book's opening section, describing the baseball match that contained 'the shot heard round the world' (published separately as 'Pafko At The Wall') is a tour de force but I'm ashamed to admit that almost none of the following 750 pages has stayed with me. Thankfully, DeLillo has turned his hand to slimmer novels of late and his latest, at a little over a hundred is easily digested.

Or perhaps that's not quite accurate. The novel is framed by two short sections, Anonymity and Anonymity 2. Douglas Gordon's art installation 24 Hour Psycho (in which Hitchcock's film is slowed down to screen over the period of twenty four hours, just two frames per second) provides the backdrop to the slightly bizarre thoughts of an unnamed narrator.

Everybody was watching something. He was watching the two men, they were watching the screen, Anthony Perkins at his peephole was watching Janet Leigh undress.
Nobody was watching him. This was the ideal world as he might have drawn it in his mind.

The two men he has watched happen to be the protagonists of the central novella. One, Richard Elster, is the same age as DeLillo himself, 73, and a former architect of the war in Iraq, an academic rather than a military man, retired now to the desert of Anza-Borrego in San Diego. The other, Jim Finley, is a filmmaker less than half his age who wants to shoot a single take interview with Elster, just him against a wall, to document his experience.

I said, " I have the wall, I know the wall, it's in a loft in Brooklyn, big messy industrial loft. I have access pretty much anytime day or night. Wall is mostly pale grey, some cracks, some stains, but these are not distractions, they're not self-conscious design elements. The wall is right, I think about it, dream about it, I open my eyes and see it, I close my eyes it's there."
"You feel a deep need to do this thing. Tell me why," he said.
"You're the answer to that question. What you say, what you'll tell us about these last years, what you know that no one knows."

Elster invites Finley to his shack in the desert and here the two men talk. What was supposed to be two days stretches to three and then more, Finley aware that he has become a 'confidant by default' and that 'he was telling me things, true or not, only because I was here, we were both here, in isolation, drinking.' Amongst their discussions are various philosophical themes, one providing the book's title. Pierre Teilhard, a French Jesuit priest, coined the term Omega Point to describe the point of maximum complexity and conciousness towards which he saw the universe developing. For Elster, who has tried to reduce war to a haiku and retired to the desert as a place where time stands still, this development is imminent and closer to a reversion than a giant leap forward.

"We're a crowd, a swarm. We think in groups, travel in armies. Armies carry the gene for self-destruction. One bomb is never enough. The blur of technology, this is where the oracles plot their wars. Because now comes the introversion. Father Teilhard knew this, the omega point. A leap out of our biology. Ask yourself this question. Do we have to be human forever? Consciousness is exhausted. Back now to inorganic matter. This is what we want. We want to be stones in a field."

It might be unfair to take an excerpt like that out of context and judge it, but if it turns you off then there's a fair chance that this novel may leave you wanting. Beyond the men's musings there's little by way of plot, even the arrival of Elster's twenty-something daughter does little more than add a suggestion of sexual tension and a plot-twist that sends things reeling off at the end. Personally I found the book provocative and thoughtful, the kind of book that tempts you towards an immediate second reading (I haven't yet). It's possible that those who have read more of DeLillo's work will find it to be less than a stand-out work, the prose being as bleached as that desert landscape and the pace generally close to that of the film that bookends the action. Perhaps this is more of a continuation on a theme rather than anything genuinely new but it remains compelling and enigmatic, as satisfying as a shot of the bourbon that lubricates the conversation.


Trevor 5 March 2010 at 17:19  

When I read the excerpt from Point Omega in The New Yorker last year, I didn't really like it. But some of it has stayed with me, and I keep seeing fairly positive reviews of the book now. If it were long, no way I'd go there. But at just over 100 pages . . . I get more and more tempted.

Have you read White Noise? I didn't like that one and would love someone to tell me if this is more of the same stuff I didn't like.

William Rycroft 5 March 2010 at 23:56  

I'm sorry that I haven't read White Noise, Trevor, and so can't give you the thumbs-up or thumbs down on this one. I seem to remember reading something somewhere that was positive about White Noise and not so much for this one so my hunch would be maybe not.

ricoeurian 6 March 2010 at 16:02  

Hi Trevor - White Noise is actually my favourite DeLillo novel, so I'm sorry to hear you don't like it. But, that said, I can safely say that Point Omega is not like White Noise. (I also really like Point Omega.)

This new novel is very spare and mysterious, whereas I think WN was more of a dark comedy.

Anonymous,  6 March 2010 at 20:56  

I think I may be the only DeLillo reader in the world who likes Underworld best. I read a number of others (including White Noise, which I remember nothing about) and found them wanting. DeLillo has a "preachiness" about him (which would seem to be a feature of this book as well) that is tolerable on first exposure but wears thin very quickly. I have a theory that your first DeLillo is your favorite.

William Rycroft 7 March 2010 at 00:10  

Thanks for the clarification James. I realise that by accepting others people's judgement that White Noise was better (and therefore maybe Point Omega might not be for Trevor) I hadn't seen that by being different it might actually work as a recommendation (if not for the fact that Trevor wasn't so keen on the extract he read). I guess, Trevor, with it only being a short one you might have to see if that temptation to read becomes strong enough.

Kevin, that's a very good theory you have there, although I'm sure I read Underworld first. Maybe the first hundred pages of your first DeLillo are your favourite?!

Anonymous,  7 March 2010 at 15:23  

Now that you mention it, the first 100 pages of Underworld were my favorite. I'd say you have made an excellent refinement to my theory.

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