‘We’re all played out’: The panic of Don DeLillo
Tue, Feb 23, 2010 (7:45 p.m.)
From the disillusioned TV executive of Americana to the plague refugees of White Noise and the garbage strategists of Underworld, novelist Don DeLillo has built a career exploring the inner lives of individuals perched on the threshold of oblivion. Many critics (and maybe even DeLillo himself) might have once characterized this territory as the Great American Fringe, and DeLillo as its greatest living surveyor. But after reading his slender new Point Omega, I’m not so sure.
Not because the book’s bad, either. To the contrary, the 117-page tale of an American war architect, his daughter and a documentary filmmaker in the raw California desert confers the same deep, elegant prose as always on the freaks of DeLillo Nation. But even more, Point Omega looks and feels unusually like final-frontier territory—the embodiment of cultural mortality that DeLillo has merely teased for four decades. Art is smashed to atomic bits, humans are reduced to stones or literally nothing at all. “We’re all played out,” says Iraq-consultant-turned-hermit Richard Elster to his young, would-be film chronicler. “Time to close it all down. [...] We want to be the dead matter we used to be.”
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All right, then. Except, of course, for the obvious question it raises: Why now? The symptoms are plenty, but an answer starts with one simple diagnosis: Finally, panic seems to have caught up with Don DeLillo.
As America’s longtime panic laureate, DeLillo has acquired an anatomist’s understanding of how fear and paranoia make us think, squirm and laugh. Yet along with the cold clarity of peril threading his masterpieces Libra, The Names and Underworld, the prescience he brought to subjects like terrorism (Mao II), cybereconomy (Cosmopolis) and media saturation (White Noise) must naturally culminate in some end. Even his trademark dark humor and satire have evaporated in the scorched Omega landscape, as if to say, once and for all: The joke is no longer on us; we are the joke. Indeed, as civilization attenuates over the Web or perishes entirely in places like Iraq and Haiti, it’s hard to argue we’re not some evolutionary blink from our single-cell roots.
Yet any writer can predict or sketch the demise of a living being. DeLillo’s scores of doomed ideologues, infidels and strivers in a canon of 16 novels (one pseudonymous), three plays and a single screenplay add up to a full-blown doomsday prophecy. DeLillo very well may have planned it this way from the start, when, in 1971, the TV escapee/amateur filmmaker of his Americana first set out on the road. From narrator David Bell’s vantage point at the end of the millennium, his exile on a small island at least yields closure and consciousness—two relative luxuries that the putative Omega filmmaker Jim Finley never enjoys. The first is thwarted by his own Gen-X inertia and a subject, Elster, who spends much of the book eulogizing the second.
DeLillo’s subsequent novels charted the same individual struggles against the ruins of civilizations and institutions. And continually, the author sought to digest and refine the era’s encroaching panic. Sometimes he did so with grudging optimism; an indelible passage in Underworld describes another film’s rebellious aesthetic as being “baroque apparitions and hard to adapt to—you wouldn’t want it any other way.” But that indulgence comes at a cost today, when the experimental-film viewing that bookends Point Omega slows Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho down to a couple frames per second. This bloody losing battle against time itself leaves readers and DeLillo himself for dead, thrusting them into the desert afterlife that follows.
From there, the unresolved phenomena of early works call out. “The greater the scientific advance, the more primitive the fear,” the protagonist of White Noise tells his wife, anticipating the mutations of technology that even DeLillo is still too horrified to observe in the 21st century. The closest he comes is his much-maligned Cosmopolis (2003), in which aloof asset manager Eric Packer mismanages billions of his clients’ dollars into thin air from his soundproofed, bulletproofed limo in New York. Sound familiar?
Just for consistency, DeLillo has Packer chased by assassins and terrorists—the subculture bound so symbiotically to all the novelist’s most bracing tales. Point Omega offers a respite, but only because Elster simply concludes that annihilation is the natural order of things. It sounds tossed-off, even lazy in relation to DeLillo’s terror opuses like Mao II, where characters dwell forever on premonitions like: “I’ll never make it to 60. I see something coming and I see it complete. Slow, wasting, horrible, deep in the body. It’s something I’ve known for years.” But echoed 20 years later in Point Omega—by a character near the end of a life dedicated to out-rationalizing terror—the circle is complete. There literally is nowhere left to turn.
And so DeLillo himself stands at the threshold of oblivion, the tippy-top of the leaning tower of panic he so lovingly, beautifully crafted by hand. Many will call Point Omega what they will—slim, light, minor, a light breeze amid gusts of apocalyptic portent. But wait and see if, in the end, it’s not the one that finally blows him over the edge.