[14 February 2010]
Entirely too long at 117 pages, Don DeLillo’s latest novel (novella really), Point Omega, was inspired by an installation at the Museum of Modern Art in 2006 called 24 Hour Psycho by Douglas Gordon. The Hitchcock movie is slowed down so that it takes 24 hours to view in its entirety. The novel is bookended by descriptions of the thoughts of a man seemingly bewitched as he stands watching the “movie”.
The nature of the film permitted total concentration and also depended on it. The film’s merciless pacing had no meaning without a corresponding watchfulness, the individual whose absolute alertness did not betray what was demanded. He stood and looked. In the time it took for Anthony Perkins to turn his head, there seemed to flow an array of ideas involving science and philosophy and nameless other things, or maybe he was seeing too much. But it was impossible to see too much. The less there was to see, the harder he looked, the more he saw.
All this ultimately will lead to a gratuitous Hitchcockian twist at the end, which I’ll get to later.
There are only two other plot elements in the book, which otherwise take place in the southern California desert. First, a young documentary maker is visiting an elderly philologist who has served the government by working with the military planners of the Iraq war to help them to market the war to the American people.
”But we were devising entities beyond the agreed-upon limits of recognition or interpretation. Lying is necessary. The state has to lie. There is no lie in war or in preparation for war that can’t be defended. We went beyond this. 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.”
Though it’s not made explicit, one suspects that here is the author of “shock and awe”, but what follows is either a caricature, a joke, or, DeLillo having insider knowledge of what goes on in the Pentagon, truth indeed stranger than fiction.
”Haiku means nothing beyond what it is. A pond in summer, a leaf in the 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. Bare everything to plain sight. See what’s there. Things in war are transient. See what’s there and then be prepared to watch it disappear”.
“You used this word. Haiku,” I said.
“I used this word. That’s what I was there for, to give them words and meanings. Words they hadn’t used, new ways of thinking and seeing. In one discussion or another, I probably used this word. They didn’t fall out of their chairs.”
The young man’s goal is to convince the older to be the subject of his “idée fixe”, which is to stand him in front of a wall and film him talking about his experiences. While the film is never made, we’re treated to endless blather that would presumably have been the film’s content. Here we get to the central conceit of the book, suggested by the title, something the priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin referred to as the “Omega Point”, a singularity in the developing consciousness of man, the moment when we collectively seek the end of all consciousness. There is much bloviating on this dubious concept.
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.
The second plot element involves the philologist’s daughter, who comes to visit and, a few days later, simply disappears.
She was sylphlike, her element was air. She gave the impression that nothing about this place was different from any other, this south and west, latitude and longitude. She moved through places in a soft glide, feeling the same things everywhere, this is what there was, the space within.
This is as close as we get to having a sense of this character. As often happens in Haruki Murakami’s novels, the disappearing girl never reappears, and we never find out what has happened to her. But, unlike with Murakami’s women, about this disappearance we just won’t care.
Now, I’m going to reveal the faux Hitchcockian twist I mentioned. It gives the whole thing away, such as it is, so please skip this paragraph if you don’t want to know. The girl has been sent to visit her father in the desert by her mother (his ex-wife), who doesn’t like the girl’s boyfriend and hopes to separate them. She doesn’t like him because she believes he’s been calling and when she answers he doesn’t say anything. Finally, the young man, taking the older out of the desert, their having given up hope of the girl’s return, receives a phone call on his cell and whoever is calling doesn’t say anything. How scary is that? In the final scene, back at the Museum of Modern Art, we learn that the man watching the movie has met the daughter there and had an entirely natural conversation with her, the furthest thing from sinister. Whether or not it is he that is responsible for the girl’s disappearance, or whether he has kidnapped, murdered, or simply run away with her, is never revealed.
So much for plot.
The real purpose of the book appears to be to provide the author with a platform for pseudo-profound tommyrot, such as this.
You understand, it’s not a matter of strategy. I’m not talking about secrets or deceptions. I’m talking about being yourself. If you reveal everything, bare every feeling, ask for understanding, you lose something crucial to your sense of yourself. You need to know things the others don’t know. It’s what no one knows about you that allows you to know yourself.
What happened to the stunning prose stylist and storyteller who wrote the incredible set piece “Pafko at the Wall”, which so memorably opens his award-winning novel Underworld?
DeLillo perhaps gives up the game on himself with this reaction of the younger man to the father’s pain on losing his daughter. It reads nicely as a comment on the book itself.
I thought of his remarks about matter and being, those long nights on the deck half smashed, he and I, transcendence, paroxysm, the end of human consciousness. It seemed so much dead echo now. Point omega. A million years away. 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 funneled down to local grief, one body, out there somewhere, or not.
One almost suspects that DeLillo’s baring his own secret grief in this book. Unfortunately, it’s all so chilly and dry—a desert at night. Its suspect ideas so much plaster on which he’s penciled a few emotions in black and white. Its only pleasure for the reader is its ending.
I mean, the fact that it’s over.