Don DeLillo's 'Point Omega' is an Iraq war tale stressing insight over action
By By Matthew Sharpe
Jan 31, 2010 | 12:00 AM
The reviews of Don DeLillo's last few novels put me in mind of the sports journalist who, after a certain Yankee game, wrote, " Babe Ruth was not able to make any home runs." Critics of "The Body Artist," "Cosmopolis" and especially "Falling Man" seem to want DeLillo to be the Babe Ruth of novelists, to keep writing "Underworld" and "Libra," those long, magisterial books about big American events. Such people will probably not regard his new novel, "Point Omega," which weighs in at not much more than 100 pages, as a literary home run.
Yet "Point Omega" is a splendid, fierce novel by a deep practitioner of the form. No nuclear explosions or life-changing home runs, as in "Underworld," occur here; no assassinations of major political figures, as in "Libra," are anatomized; no airborne toxic events, as in "White Noise," fill the skies. Mostly there are just two people, and then a third, sitting and talking and drinking and thinking in a little house in the middle of a desert.
The two people are Richard Elster and Jim Finley. Elster is a 73-year-old intellectual who spent a few years helping members of the George W. Bush Defense Department conceptualize the Iraq war; he has come to his Southwestern vacation home to retreat from his work and city life, what he calls "News and Traffic." Finley, a 37-year-old filmmaker, has pursued Elster -- by invitation -- to persuade him to be the subject of a documentary about his time in the DOD: "No plush armchair with warm lighting and books on a shelf in the background. Just a man and a wall." The third person is Elster's daughter, Jessie, unemployed, in her 20s; she arrives midway through the book, sent by her mother, to get her away from a man she's been seeing in New York.
"Suspense is trying to build but the silence and stillness outlive it." This could describe the methodology of "Point Omega." By conventional novelistic standards, little happens, even after Jessie appears, and even after she becomes the focal point of a traumatic event. DeLillo, though, is not referring to the events here; rather, he is describing a video installation at the Museum of Modern Art, where the book's prologue and epilogue are set.
The video is a real work by Douglas Gordon called "24 Hour Psycho," consisting of the Hitchcock classic slowed down to a run time of 24 hours. Much of what is said about it can be used as implicit instructions for reading "Point Omega": "It takes close attention to see what is happening in front of you. It takes work, pious effort, to see what you are looking at . . . the depths of things so easy to miss in the shallow habit of seeing." In some ways, "24 Hour Psycho" is to Hitchcock's movie as "Point Omega" is to a conventional novel about the Iraq war.
The movie's brutal killings -- in the shower, on the stairs -- do not lose their importance in the slowed-down video, but all the other moments ( Anthony Perkins turning his head, reaching for a car door) become equally worth looking at. Nothing is relegated to the status of stray moment or build-up or aftermath; everything that happens is the main event.
And so in "Point Omega," whose subject is arguably the Iraq war, the settings are New York and California, and the war is explicitly discussed on all of eight pages. A preponderance of sentences consist of dialogue, physical description and meditation. One of the chief themes of the meditations, and of the dialogue -- which itself often consists of meditations -- is identity. Elster describes himself as someone who, since boyhood, "[b]ites the skin off the edge of his thumbnail, always the right thumb. . . . Not my books, lectures, conversations, none of that. It's the . . . hangnail, the dead skin, that's where I am, my life, there to here." So the book's methodology is also one of its themes: The life-defining events are the ones usually considered interstitial. The action is in the dead spots.
The kind of looking required of the viewer of "24 Hour Psycho" suggests that identity in "Point Omega" is constituted by how one is looked at. Finley, who narrates all but the prologue and epilogue, says of Jessie, "Her look had an abridged quality, it wasn't reaching the wall or window. I found it disturbing to watch her, knowing that she didn't feel watched. Where was she?" Her father mentions that when she was a child, "She had to touch her arm or face to know who she was." And Finley says this about the father's narcissism (a disease, after all, of self-regard): "I'm not sure he understood the fact that she was not him."
This is reminiscent of how Elster describes the war he and his fellow strategists invented: "Human perception is a saga of created reality. But we were devising entities beyond the agreed-upon limits of recognition or interpretation. . . . We tried to create new realities overnight, careful sets of words that resembled 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." One may infer a connection between the mistakes Elster makes in conceptualizing Iraq and those he makes in conceptualizing his daughter, and the sorrows that result from each -- the sins of the parents.
"Point Omega" does not say this, I am saying it, and perhaps in so doing I am falsely conceptualizing the book. So I can't be too hard on those who make up their own DeLillo and fault the real one for not being that. This is the problem of consciousness, that fictive version of the world hampered by the modesty of the equipment. Still, let's not insist DeLillo keep writing "Underworld." He may be at his desk now, chewing a hangnail, working on a novel I can't imagine and will be keen to read. Meanwhile, it has been enlivening, challenging, harrowing and beautiful to imagine "Point Omega," an experience I heartily recommend.
Sharpe's new novel, "You Were Wrong," is due out in September.
Scribner: 128 pp., $24
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