Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Point Omega by Don DeLillo

In the time it takes you to read this post, an infinite amount of action passes seemingly without your noticing. The chest rises and falls with each breath. Blood courses through the body. Eyes blink. The body shifts, nervous energy makes the foot rock back and forth, the head moves, as do the eyes. And that's just for the individual. Time that is irrecoverable, used up like waste paper, looking for purpose and meaning.

Since the achievement of "Underworld" in 1997, Don DeLillo has focused more of his energy on a series of novella-like creations, and this theme of time - its passage, consumption, wastage, etc. - dominates them all. "Point Omega" can be taken as an anti-war message, a parable on the multiple meanings of existence, on the ability of mankind to make meaning for itself, but what spoke to me was its obsession with time.

"Point Omega" begins with a man in a gallery taking in "24 hour Psycho," a screening of Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" at two frames per minute, meaning that one viewing of the film would take an entire day. At that speed, the imperceptibly moving image begins to have more meanings than just those a low-budget slasher film made by a genius. "The less there was to see, the harder he looked, the more he saw," the narrator tells us. It's interesting that DeLillo chose "Psycho," even though there is an exhibition of the film at the Museum of Modern Art. David Thomson's book, "The Moment of 'Psycho,'" shows that the film is a veritable funhouse of meaning and imagery. "Psycho" is concerned with murders created by a monster, and what they mean - crimes of passion, not profit.

Most of the action of the book has to do with film, though. The documentarian Finley wants to make a movie about Richard Elster, a "wise man" academic like Ravelstein called in by the Bush Administration in the run-up to the Iraq War in order to give the enterprise some intellectual heft. Elster, naturally, seems haunted by this (naturally, because rarely is a character in a DeLillo novel ever not "haunted" by something) and a need to escape into the desert. Finley's wish is to do, not a "Fog of War" film examination, but a relentless interview with just the face on the screen, offering explanations. Later on, after Finley has had time to emotionally bond with Elster's daughter Jessie, she disappears into the desert and Elster must cope with the loss.

"Point Omega," like "The Body Artist," "Cosmopolis" and "Falling Man," at times resembles not so much a narrative as a series of declarative character statements in the guise of narrative. Given DeLillo's politics, Elster is an enigmatic figure who must bear the pain of his complicity in the war. "There were times when no map existed to match the reality we were trying to create," he tells Finley. But the events are cold. Elster may bond emotionally with Jessie, but we see little evidence of it. All of these people seem exhausted by events.

Or by time, perhaps? "Time is enormous," Elster says, later restating that "every lost moment is the life." In a few sentences of dubious logic, he makes clearer, perhaps, the author's intent: "Cities were built to measure time, to remove time from nature. There's an endless counting down... when you strip away all the surfaces, when you see into it, what's left is terror. This is the thing that literature was meant to cure. The epic poem, the bedtime story."

The book's cover gives us the infinite image, the eight turned sideways, an endless loop that circles back to itself. And that is the dubious logic - because the city built to remove time from nature only restates time and nature in all its terror. Buildings fade and fall. Cities age, rot, are rebuilt only to rot again. Meaning, like time, is elusive. The disappearance of Jessie, and the lack of resolution, may disappoint a reader looking for an explanation, but DeLillo isn't interested in explanations, because in his view, life isn't. And that lack of explanation is deadly, just as deadly as a war that a man may plan from the safety of an office thousands of miles away, unaware of where his ideas will take others. "The omega point has narrowed, here and now, to the point of a knife as it enters the body. All the man's grand themes funneled down to local grief, one body, out there somewhere, or not."

Follow me on Twitter.

1 comment:

  1. In the early twentieth century, in his series of lectures entitled Pragmatism, the philosopher and psychologist William James advanced the thesis that, broadly speaking, people can be separated into two general categories of personality – tough minded and tender minded.[1] Here are these two classes as described by James in his own words.