Don DeLillo’s Point Omega

In 1991, Don DeLillo wrote Mao II, a prophetic little novel that examines (among other things) the tension between terrorists and novelists. Everything that’s happened after 1991 considered, it’s a pretty prescient book, especially when main character—a reclusive novelist in the Salinger/Pynchon vein—gets around to talking about the battle for the soul of culture: “For some time now I’ve had the feeling that terrorists and novelists are playing a zero-sum game… What terrorists gain, novelists lose. The degree to which they influence mass consciousness is the extent of our decline as shapers of sensibility and thought. The danger they represent equals our own failure to be dangerous.”

Nearly twenty years later—after 9/11, after our overreaction to 9/11, after the fear and the paranoia, after fewer and fewer people reading novelists, after cable news, after seemingly everything—DeLillo’s conclusion seems pretty foregone. Of course terrorism infiltrates and determines our mass consciousness. Of course. Of course novelists can no longer rise above the din of violence and cable news or blogs or whatever form of media you love to hate. Of course. Even the idea of a novelist so prominent that he or she could tangle with terrorists seems a little quaint now.

With the possible exception of DeLillo himself. Because even if you’ve never read a word of him (other than the sentence quoted in the first paragraph, obviously), you still know about DeLillo: even if you’ve never heard of DeLillo, you’ve heard of DeLillo. Just about anything dealing with media saturation—even the current recursive tendency for the media to report on media saturation—owes a debt to DeLillo’s White Noise. He didn’t invent the topic, sure, but he did make it popular and set the way we talk about it. Same with intellectualism and consumerism and violence, among others. It’s rare for a novelist these days, but DeLillo can actually take on culture with a recognized legitimacy and moral authority and influence the way that we talk about things. Even reactionary literary critics who don’t like his postmodernism (see, for example, James Wood) still can’t help singing DeLillo’s praises: he’s probably the closest thing we have now to a Dickens or a Tolstoy, someone who can actually (as DeLillo says) “alter the inner life of the culture.”

Which is what makes his newest novel, Point Omega, so disappointing and unsatisfying. Actually, perhaps calling it a novel is a bit charitable: Point Omega—the author’s first book since 2007’s Falling Man—is a slim 117 pages and, with its almost nakedly stripped prose, the kind of thing you can knock out in an hour or two. The plot is similarly light: set in the summer and fall of 2006, most of the novel is narrated by Jim Finley, an unsuccessful filmmaker looking for a new project after being left by his wife. Finley very much wants for that project to be a film about Richard Elster, an elderly scholar recruited by the Bush administration several years earlier to advise on the invasion of Iraq, to “give them words and meanings.”

Elster’s now retired and retreated to the seclusion of his home in the desert of southern California, a vast stretch that’s treated to many ample and occasionally gorgeous descriptions throughout the book. Finley comes down to the desert to try and convince Elster to participate in his newest film—in which Elster would be the only participant, “just a man and a wall”—but ends up staying for weeks, sitting up late at night and talking with Elster about the old man’s favorite obsession: the nature of time. This is exactly as tedious as it sounds. Let one of Elster’s sermons stand for the whole: “Day turns to night eventually but it’s a matter of light and darkness, it’s not time passing, mortal time. There’s none of the usual terror. It’s different here, time is enormous, that’s what I feel here, palpably. Time that precedes us and survives us.”

Not that this is poorly written or lacks intellectual depth (two criticisms of DeLillo that are never accurate), but it doesn’t feel like a novel: it feels like an essay. Elster and Finley are drawn so thin, flat and one-dimensional that they’re incidental to what they’re talking about. There’s not really the sense of anything being at stake, even when Elster’s daughter shows up about halfway in; sure, she’s an almost-love interest for Finley and provides what semblance of a plot Point Omega has by her mysterious disappearance, but she’s a little too insubstantial for us to care much. Same goes for the vignettes that bookend the main plot, which describe a man viewing 24 Hour Psycho, an installation in New York’s Museum of Modern Art that features Hitchcock’s Psycho slowed down to a full day. The prose is incredibly tight and often beautiful here, but except for the occasional mention of the unnamed and wholly attributeless man, it reads like an essay on concept art (albeit a very good one).

Although big DeLillo-heads (myself included) are often loath to mention it, this has really always been a problem with the man’s work: he’s often very bad at writing characters. You usually don’t notice because this lack of depth is often a part of his scalding satire (as in White Noise) or drowned out by the sheer volume of his manic plotting (Libra, Underworld), but even the characters that DeLillo tries to flesh out (like Underworld’s Nick Shay) are mostly boring. His work usually has so many other strengths that his weakness with character is outweighed, but it’s a fatal flaw here because Point Omega is so thin otherwise, lacking the black humor and passionate morality and epic weight of his best.

Which is a shame, because with things as on the verge of explosion as they seem now, we could really use a new DeLillo novel. Perhaps I’m just being naively optimistic and sentimental here, but with all the insanity that’s happened since, well, as far back as I can remember, is it really too insane to imagine that someone could write a great book and recapture that place that DeLillo imagines for novelists, a dangerous novel that “absorbs our terror,” influences mass consciousness, and finally strikes back against all those terrorists who shape our thought now? Given his considerable skill and unrivaled position within our culture, DeLillo seems like our best hope for it. Point Omega, unfortunately, is not that novel.

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