Don DeLillo’s novella Point Omega begins with an art installation at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, on 3 September, presumably in 1996. The narrator, about whom we learn very little as the story unfolds, is absorbed in the experience of watching 24 Hour Psycho, a work by Douglas Gordon in which the Alfred Hitchcock film is slowed down to run over a twenty-four hour period.
The less there was to see, the harder he looked, the more he saw. This was the point. To see what’s here, finally to look and to know you’re looking, to feel time passing, to be alive to what is happening in the smallest registers of motion.
DeLillo’s interest in art is evident in his previous work. Underworld, Mao 11, The Body Artist all feature artists and art making as central motifs. In Point Omega, it is the treatment of time and space at work in durational art works which captures his attention. In particular, the act of looking and being looked at. Self and Other in the post-Freudian mode.
Everybody was watching something. He was watching the two men, they were watching the screen, Anthony Perkins at his peephole watching Janet Leigh undress.
The novel is book-ended by two sequences set in the gallery. In the first of these, two men enter the space, observed by the narrator who concludes that one of the men, the older one with the gray plait, looks like a professor of film studies, and his companion, a much younger man, is his junior academic colleague.
The older man is, in fictional fact, Richard Elster, a scholar who had been recruited by the Pentagon to assist in philosophically conceptualising military strategy in Iraq. ‘I wanted a haiku war, he said. I wanted a war in three lines.’ The younger man is Jim Finley, an experimental filmmaker intent on making a cinema verité documentary about Elster’s experiences in the war room. Elster invites Finley to his remote, tumble down house in the desert where they spend their days talking, drinking and baking in the sun. Their conversation, in which Finley persists in his attempts to have Elster agree to the project, forms the core of the novella. Woven into the dialogue and Finley’s first person narration (not the same voice as in the MOMA scenes) is a compressed exploration of time, space, landscape, mortality and the philosophical metaphor of the omega point. Point Omega is firmly fixed on human consciousness and the threat of species extinction as an ontological question.
The French Jesuit philosopher and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin coined the term ‘omega point’ to describe a state in which the universe develops in ever increasing material complexity and consciousness. As Elster puts it:
He said that human thought is alive, it circulates. And the sphere of collective human thought, this is approaching the final term, the last flare.
Readers of DeLillo know that his work bristles with mass media static and the heat of consumerist mega culture. Elster says he goes to the desert to escape Sports and News. In Point Omega, DeLillo suggests that the velocity of postmodern experience is unsustainable on every front, including that of human consciousness itself. In Elster’s words:
We’re a crowd, a swarm. We think in groups, travel in armies. Armies carry the gene for self-destruction. One bomb is never enough. The blur of technology, this is where the oracles plot their wars. Because now comes the introversion. Father Teilhard knew this, the omega point. A leap out of our biology. Ask yourself this question. Do we have to be human forever? Consciousness is exhausted. Back now to inorganic matter. This is what we want. We want to be stones in a field.
When Elster’s daughter Jessie comes to visit, bringing with her ghosts of the past and threats in the present, the plot culminates in an event that shatters the philosophical musings.
Point Omega follows DeLillo’s 2007 novel Falling Man, which explored the aftermath of 9/11 through the experiences of a shell-shocked New Yorker. In previous novels he has dealt with environmental catastrophe (White Noise), the Kennedy assassination (Libra), nuclear waste and geopolitical warfare (Underworld) and politically motivated abduction (Mao 11). His earlier books had similar traces of cultural and political concerns. And yet it would be wrong to regard DeLillo as an ‘issue’ writer. His work is tightly bound in the double helix of intricate plot and edgy characters cast in a highly distinctive, latter-day hipster language. When drafting a novel, DeLillo writes a single paragraph to a page in order to see the interplay of words, the syntactic shape and sense the rhythm in the language. (Bill Gray, the writer depicted in Mao II says: ‘I’m a sentence maker. Like a donut maker, only slower.’). DeLillo’s style resembles frames in a film but certainly not one made in Hollywood. Reading his stand alone paragraphs end to end in the published form can at times be a disorienting experience, like listening to Charlie Parker or watching a Lenny Bruce show.
Point Omega is a gritty, bleak and challenging novel. In it DeLillo returns to work on the world he has explored in all his books but this time he is excavating well below the surface, to borrow the paleontological metaphor that crops up occasionally in the novel. This is indeed a book about now. The global financial crisis, the pressures on democracy, the groan of burdened late capitalism, the spurious justifications of disaster engineers, the mindless distraction of multifarious, mediated experience. But in Point Omega, DeLillo’s take on his subject is deeply philosophical and that is what makes it both difficult and special. DeLillo is riffing on the end of consciousness, the final hours, but he in doing so he artfully sidesteps nihilism and apocalyptic cliché. This is late DeLillo. Contemplative DeLillo. Like old man Elster in the desert.
The final section of the book returns us to MOMA and our first narrator speaking in close third person. He goes back to the gallery for more of 24 Hour Psycho and dreams his way into Norman Bates’ slomo, hypnagogic world … twenty-four frames per second. He’d read somewhere that this is the speed at which we perceive reality, at which the brain processes images. He flirts with a woman who enters the gallery, checks himself in the bathroom mirror and walks out into the street, New York at night, alive, urgent.
The true life is not reducible to words spoken or written, not by anyone, ever. The true life takes place when we’re alone, thinking, feeling, lost in memory, dreamily self-aware, the submicroscopic moments.
For a writer, Point Omega is a lesson in risk taking. It is also a radical lesson in the short-form novel. The plot is ragged and loose, the characters not entirely sympathetic, the dialogue at times obtuse, the settings claustrophobic and the central idea abstract. But this little book is as hard as stone and could only have been written by Don DeLillo.
Interviews with Don DeLillo can be found at perival.com.