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Perfectly expresses the sensibility of a writer comfortable grappling with big questions and big themes
on February 8, 2010
If our descendants are reading serious fiction hundreds of years from now, they would do well to revisit the work of Don DeLillo to seek out insights into the temper of our times. In an impressive body of work created over some 40 years, DeLillo has demonstrated an uncanny ability to tap into our collective psyche and explain us to ourselves. That talent surfaces again in his latest novel, a spare exploration of the mysteries of time and space.
POINT OMEGA continues the pattern displayed in DeLillo's more recent works, interspersing substantial novels (his monumental UNDERWORLD the most noteworthy) with slighter and more enigmatic ones (THE BODY ARTIST, COSMOPOLIS). The new novel settles indisputably into the latter category.
Set in 2006, most of DeLillo's brief story unfolds in the harsh and starkly beautiful California desert. There, an aging professor, a "defense intellectual" named Richard Elster, has retreated to a ramshackle house to reflect on his career and contemplate the folly of his tangential involvement in planning for the 2003 Iraq War: "We tried to create new realities overnight," he recalls with more than a trace of irony, "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." Describing his close encounter with that artificial world of "acronyms, projections, contingencies, methodologies," Elster confesses with disarming candor, "Violence freezes my blood."
Accompanying Elster is Jim Finley, a documentary filmmaker barely half his age, who wants to make a single take film of Elster talking about his life and career, unscripted, seated in front of the wall of a Brooklyn loft. What Elster anticipated would be a brief visit stretches into weeks as the two men spend hours in elliptical conversation musing on the enigmas of existence. "This is deep time, epochal time," Elster observes. "Our lives receding into the long past. That's what's out here. The Pleistocene desert, the rule of extinction." The arrival of Elster's daughter, Jessie, "an exceptional mind, otherworldly," as he describes her, injects a palpable tension into Finley's relationship with his subject. Jessie's mysterious disappearance and the frantic effort to find her supplies most of the story's limited dramatic energy.
The central section of the novel is bookended by encounters with an art work entitled "24 Hour Psycho," which features Hitchcock's iconic film slowed down to stretch to the length of a full day. Its unsettling presence serves to underscore the theme of time that pulsates at the heart of the story.
At its core, DeLillo's novel is fundamentally a philosophical one, calling to mind the work of Camus. The term that supplies its title was coined by the French Jesuit philosopher and paleontologist, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. As DeLillo put it in a recent Wall Street Journal interview, he was taken by Teilhard's notion "that human consciousness is reaching a point of exhaustion, and that what comes next may be either a paroxysm or something enormously sublime."
Known for meticulous --- almost obsessive --- prose craftsmanship, in any DeLillo work there are moments of sublime writing. Most notably here, those examples focus on the rugged majesty of the desert landscape in descriptive passages like this one: "Beyond the local shrubs and cactus, only waves of space, occasional far thunder, the wait for rain, the gaze across the hills to a mountain range that was there yesterday, lost today in lifeless skies."
Although it does so at best obliquely, POINT OMEGA revisits some of the motifs DeLillo has explored in novels like WHITE NOISE and UNDERWORLD: free-floating anxiety about malign forces abroad in the world and the existence of powerful men in shadowy rooms whose desires shape our world more directly and forcefully than we'd like to admit. A less accomplished writer might deliver these messages accompanied by a whiff of paranoia, but in DeLillo's hands they're the soul of realism.
Readers looking for conventional story structure or characters sketched in more than the broadest or most impressionistic brushstrokes either won't be likely to engage with DeLillo's work or if they ever did it's probable they abandoned him long ago. But in its austere beauty, POINT OMEGA perfectly expresses the sensibility of a writer comfortable grappling with big questions and big themes, content to leave us to seek out the hints of answers in the dark recesses of an unsettling still life portrait.
--- Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg (firstname.lastname@example.org)