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DeLillo’s Point Omega

Don DeLilloDon 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.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Boris Kelly is a Sydney-based writer with an interest in theatre, literary fiction and politics. In 2009, he was the recipient of a Varuna Fellowship for work on his first novel.

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Comments

  1. Reader, At least I’ve saved you the trouble of reading it and given you an opportunity to share your literary prejudices. For the record, I did not decribe the novel as “good” and “must be read”. Far easier to adopt someone else’s opinion than to form your own on having read the work in question,eh?

  2. I have read it, in fact. I think it’s worse than Dellilo’s early work, if that’s possible.

    I didn’t actually quote you as writing “must be read”. I wrote “should be read” — which, I thought, was a fair thing to infer from a positive review.

    But you’re right. You only implied that “Point Omega” is good: “he is excavating well below the surface”; it is “both difficult and special”; he “artfully sidesteps nihilism and apocalyptic cliché”. You also began the sentence after the one describing the negative aspects of the novel — ragged plot, obtuse dialogue, etc. — with the word “but”, which indicates that the statement contained in that sentence counterpoints the previous, negative statement. I should have made that clearer.

    To answer your last, loaded question: Yes, I imagine it is easier to appropriate the opinion of someone else, but I haven’t done so in this case.

    I really do recommend that essay in The Atlantic — it’s a great piece of polemical writing, whether you agree with it or not. I mean that sincerely.

    • Sorry to have misunderstood your first comment which gave the impression you hadn’t read the book. You must be an academic/critic with a special interest in contemporary American literature or why else would you waste your time reading the catalogues of authors you loathe. Anyway, thanks for the tip on the Atlantic Monthly essay which I’ve scanned and will certainly read more closely when I have a minute. Will try and get back to you on that one but the first paragraph says it all, I fear.

      I’m not interested in engaging in a culture war stoush over what is or is not Literature. Suffice to say I believe literature is a broad church and no place for pompous bigotry from critics and academics of any persuasion. I like DeLillo (and a great many other authors entirely unlike him in style and content); you don’t, but you read all his work so you can gripe about it, or so it seems. I won’t ask what you think of David Foster Wallace.

  3. Hi Boris
    Thanks for opening up this debate on lit and books. I read the Atlantic essay. I thought it was a pretty good polemic and very funny. I also have to say that I tend to shy away from books with the tag of ‘prize-winner’ and so on pasted on it. If I stuck with prize winners I’d never get anywhere and would never have found a whole lot of writers I love who never won prizes. And I also don’t like reading what critics and publishers tell me is good.
    I tried to read DWF’s ‘Infinite Jest’ but bailed about quarter of the way thru. I couldn’t do it. Perhaps I don’t have enough energy or a big enough appetite. And I have a rule that I never read books that weigh more than a brick. But his essays ‘ A supposedly fun thing I’ll never do again’ I liked very much. Very funny and sometimes very poignant.

  4. I had to write some literary criticism on Dellilo, and — though it is, perhaps, old school — I read a substantial amount of his work as background for it. B.R. Myers — author of that Atlantic essay — is the first critic I have come across to hit the nail on the head about Delillo, for me at least.

    And yes, I think we had better avoid talking about David Foster Wallace. I agree with Stephen that his essays are better than his fiction, though.

    • Although I disagree with the central thesis of the NAM essay, I do think Myers makes a reasonable point at the end when he suggests more review space be given to ‘classics’ modern and older. However, as this is a matter for publishers and their marketing priorities I don’t expect it to happen soon.

      I just don’t see the point of discussions of Literature which rest on lines of demarcation between what’s in and what’s out. These arguments – which often tend to have a political sub text, as is the case with the Myers piece – may exercise academics with tenure and salaries to justify but I doubt they are of much interest to non-specialist readers or, for that matter, most writers. Nevertheless, I respect his right to his opinions and literary preferences.

      • Hey Boris
        I’m not sure that Myers (or myself, or dear Reader)are talking about what’s in and what’s out. It seems to me that the point being made is that popular lit crit, prizes and so forth are exactly about identifying what’s in and what’s out, and this kind of thinking goes so deep that it in fact becomes criticism, defines the boundaries of literature and in fact works its way into literature’s bones and very much into the mind’s of writers. There’s no reason to think that the publishing of literature is exempt from the discourse of consumption, profit and personal enjoyment. There’s a politics in literature’s public production which is just as weird and sinister as the production of anything else. Literature isn’t privileged and exempt because it’s ‘art’. Writer’s don’t have special writers minds that lets them off the hook of thinking about the context in which writing and publishing occurs.Unless we’re mad who would think that selling 200,000 copies and winning umpteen prizes makes one a ‘better’ writer than someone who sold 200 copies and won no prizes? Sometimes fiction writers can just be people who
        enable more of what we already have. Which is not exactly what we need in these bizarre and sinister and apocalyptic times.
        And now I really have to go and do some work.

  5. Foster Wallace is a strange writer, for me at least. Brief Interviews with Hideous Men was Ok, but Infinite Jest was kind of ‘Enough already!!’ Internally I was begging him to shut up, and then I remembered that all I had to do was throw the book away. I think too that his personal story is so horrible, I find it hard to get that out of my mind when I’m reading him, his fiction as an attempted cure for his suicidal depression. Somehow that story is easier to hold when I’m reading his essays than when reading his fiction.
    I’ve just finished a blog for OL following up an essay by a Robert Cohen on literary style, which I will post next week or whenever, but one of the things that struck me when I was reading it was the very American obsession with ‘muscular’ prose. I suppose the opposite is weak effeminate prose.
    BTW, Dear Reader, I’m sorry to hear you had to write some literary criticism. Were you being punished for some crime?
    I won’t enquire the nature of the crime, that is obviously private and you may well be ashamed of it, but I assume that it was fairly severe and writing lit crit on DeLillo has caused you to utterly repent.

  6. Stephen, the crime was Dellilo’s – I merely took the punishment.

    And I agree with your comment that literary prizes and most mainstream literary criticism — James Wood is a good exception, sometimes — seek to demarcate literature, not Myers. I think Myers’ point is to broaden the parameters of literature instead of narrow them.

  7. The Myers essay is a lesson in demarcation. Do I really need to start quoting paragraphs demonstrating his sentimental disdain for anything that is not substantially ‘realist’? Not to mention his narrow definition of what constitutes ‘good writing’. If this guy had his way literature would not have progressed since Flaubert. I’m sure James Wood would approve.

    Polemic is a valuable form of discourse but Myers is undeniably consructing an argument against certain literary styles having less intrinsic merit than others. In short, he is falling prey to the very tendency he is polemicising against.

    And now I’m having the argument I didn’t want to have!
    And enjoying it despite my better intentions.
    Thanks Stephen and Reader.

  8. “If the new dispensation were to revive good “Mandarin” writing–to use the term coined by the British critic Cyril Connolly for the prose of writers like Virginia Woolf and James Joyce–then I would be the last to complain.”

    The above sentence, quoted from the essay, undermines the argument that Myers wanted literature to cease progressing after Flaubert. (James Wood is not in the clear, though).

    I think it also debunks the idea that Myers thinks that “certain literary styles [have] less intrinsic merit than others”. Several of the writers discussed in the essay could be described as “Mandarin”, but none of them are even close to the standard set by Woolf and Joyce. That’s what Myers means.

    I also disagree with the assertion that Myers has a narrow definition of “good writing”. I mean, he praises Stephen King and Theodore Dreiser in the same sentence–and the second sentence of the essay, no less.

    But even if Myers did have a narrow definition of good writing, Boris, would you disagree with his textual examples of the awfulness of Delillo’s work?

  9. You’re right, my Flaubert comment was rash but I’m glad you agree on James Wood. The problem here is that I’m clearly not writing from the perspective of an informed literary critic, as you obviously are. I claim the immunity of an occasional, non academic reviewer(one who tends to avoid reviewing fiction for reasons best understood by this exchange)not especially interested in the historical debates of literary criticism. I yawn when confronted with arguments that attempt to create false dichotomies in the discussion of fiction and I see little benefit in attempts to divide literature into camps defined by relative merit.

    Earlier this week I heard a group of blockbuster writers railing against critics. You, drawing on the Myers essay, rail against McCarthy, DeLillo et al. The Courtenay’s of the world want to be accepted on literary merit and you appear to want to tear down, or at least reduce the prominence of, writing that does not fit your subjective notions of excellence. That may be your job, I don’t know. However, I note that a survey of American writers reported in the SMH last year named McCarthy’s Blood Meridien and DeLillo’s Underworld as their most admired books. So perhaps they should read the Myers piece and mend the error of their ways.

    The battle between opposing critical camps is clearly underpinned by political agendas. The backlash against DeLillo, DF Wallace and others seems to me to be retaliation against the rise of poststructuralism in the academy. This is an argument that, in my view, has passed its use by date. The clear Australian parallel here is the rear guard action fought by ultra ‘conservative’ historians in the so called ‘history wars.’

    The culture wars project is an entirely spurious one fuelled by those who regard ‘left wing’ writers, journalists, environmentalists and commentators as ‘elites’ but are content to view the upper echelons of the financial sector, industry, the conservative commentariat and ‘old school’ academics as somehow non-elite. It is a nonsense.

    On your final point: “But even if Myers did have a narrow definition of good writing, Boris, would you disagree with his textual examples of the awfulness of Delillo’s work?” Yes, I do disagree. I think DeLillo, McCarthy and Wallace – and many who work in quite different modes – are legitimate, incisive voices that reflect the times.

    Sorry, I’ve drifted off topic here but you can perhaps understand why. Thanks again for the discussion.

  10. Boris, I think discussions about books should be between readers, not “informed literary critics”–there are too many critics, with too many differing views, for all of them to be informed, whatever that might mean. A book and a set of eyes: that’s all one needs to talk about literature. So don’t sell yourself short–“occasional, non academic” readers are the best kind. Forget the critics.

    And while I agree that Dellilo et al “reflect the times”–perhaps not such a great thing, in these particular times–I was referring to the actual excerpts that Myers disassembles in the essay, especially the dialogue exchanges. But we probably differ in opinion on those, too.

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