Watching the end of history in ‘Point Omega’
Isolated characters fill out Don DeLillo’s latest
Tue, Feb 23, 2010 (7:24 p.m.)
Much in Point Omega makes sense, for all the ponderous maundering of its central character, Richard Elster. That evolution gropes toward the “noosphere,” or mind-world, described by the French-born Jesuit and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. That we seek our end along the way. That the unity of time and space is more readily apprehended in the desert than in cities, “built to measure time, to remove time from nature,” as Jim Finley, narrator through much of Don DeLillo’s slim new book, paraphrases Elster.
What makes little sense, however, is that the Bush administration would solicit the advice of an academic like Elster, even if he had written an essay that probes the etymology of the word “rendition.” Perhaps some elements of the erstwhile regime, well larded with crackpot intellectuals, invited a few game-theorists to thrash out useful half-truths. But the ethereal-minded Elster—who reads Rilke and Pound, and yearns for a haiku war that “means nothing beyond what it is”—does not sound like their man.
Finley assumes Elster’s job was “to apply overarching ideas and principles to such matters as troop deployment and counter-insurgency.” Had Elster told the war-makers to secure Baghdad and the Iranian border, to armor-plate Humvees and to properly equip an adequate number of troops, his disenchantment might resonate. Instead, he regrets that his contribution of “words and meanings” helped them fashion a deceptive façade that collapsed. “I still want a war,” he tells Finley. “A great power has to act. We were struck hard …” He rambles through a rationale—the need to seize history—his advisees needed no help devising, and for which they marketed false culpability.
- Point Omega
- Don DeLillo. Scribner, $24.
So Elster flees the time-estranging streets of New York and Washington for a decrepit house in the desert east of San Diego. There Finley, a feckless filmmaker, comes to persuade Elster to be the subject of a documentary. It sounds like a project that would have bored the wig off Andy Warhol—Elster standing before a blank wall, talking about his war-counseling in one uninterrupted video shot.
Finley, whose sole completed project is a 57-minute kinescope montage of Jerry Lewis from the early years of his Labor Day telethon, needs more than wants to make the Elster documentary, although it’s not clear that’s why he stays for weeks at Elster’s desert lodge, drinking vodka while Elster downs Scotch, sitting on the deck and watching time scroll across the scrubby expanse.
Then Elster’s daughter shows up, dispatched by her mother to evade a lover-turned-stalker. Apparently determined to be both uninterested and uninteresting, except when escorting elderly Manhattanites to medical appointments, Jessie has the inert character of one for whom gallery-hopping with a friend means strolling through Chelsea while declining to enter galleries. Nonetheless Finley, who’s separated from his wife, is drawn to her, and imagines carnal engagement. One night he takes her hand and later releases it. Then she disappears.
Finley’s narrative is framed by two sections of omniscient third-person narration about a man obsessed with an installation at the Museum of Modern Art. Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho, installed at MoMA in 2006, slows down Alfred Hitchcock’s classic so that it consumes an entire day. “The original movie was fiction, this was real,” the unnamed obsessive concludes, viewing it repeatedly to observe, and then confirm, details such as the number of rings left spinning after the stricken Janet Leigh pulls down the shower curtain. It’s not his only fixation, however:
He was thinking a woman would enter who’d stay and watch for a time, finding her way to a place at the wall, an hour, half an hour, that was enough, half an hour, that was sufficient, a serious person, soft-spoken, wearing a pale summer dress.
The idea of distorted time complements the weighty themes of the middle narrative. Elster and Finley visit the installation before their desert interlude, and Jessie sees it separately. When we return to the framing narrative, the obsessive gets his wish. He follows the young woman outside and gets her phone number, but not her name. Earlier, he wonders why everyone knows Norman Bates, but not the name of Janet Leigh’s character.
You can fill in the blanks.
All of this is delivered in DeLillo’s tempered, cadenced prose, cultivated in earlier novels such as Libra and Underworld, and refined in his recent, short form books, such as Cosmopolis and Falling Man. At times it is maddeningly mannered, but mostly it’s mesmeric.
The inexorable spin toward obliteration is familiar, too. Teilhard, who figures in Elster’s musings, believed mind and matter “merge harmoniously in a moment of final incandescence,” as he wrote in The Divine Milieu. In DeLillo’s unstable universe, time and mind and story fuse along the way, and it’s hard to tell whether the still point at the end is transcendence or escape.