Review

Point Omega

by Don DeLillo

If our descendants are reading serious fiction hundreds of years
from now, they would do well to revisit the work of Don DeLillo to
seek out insights into the temper of our times. In an impressive
body of work created over some 40 years, DeLillo has demonstrated
an uncanny ability to tap into our collective psyche and explain us
to ourselves. That talent surfaces again in his latest novel, a
spare exploration of the mysteries of time and space.

POINT OMEGA continues the pattern displayed in DeLillo’s
more recent works, interspersing substantial novels (his monumental
UNDERWORLD the most noteworthy) with slighter and more enigmatic
ones (THE BODY ARTIST, COSMOPOLIS). The new novel settles
indisputably into the latter category.

Set in 2006, most of DeLillo’s brief story unfolds in the
harsh and starkly beautiful California desert. There, an aging
professor, a “defense intellectual” named Richard
Elster, has retreated to a ramshackle house to reflect on his
career and contemplate the folly of his tangential involvement in
planning for the 2003 Iraq War: “We tried to create new
realities overnight,” he recalls with more than a trace of
irony, “careful sets of words that resemble advertising
slogans in memorability and repeatability. These were words that
would yield pictures eventually and then become three-dimensional.
The reality stands, it walks, it squats. Except when it
doesn’t.” Describing his close encounter with that
artificial world of “acronyms, projections, contingencies,
methodologies,” Elster confesses with disarming candor,
“Violence freezes my blood.”

Accompanying Elster is Jim Finley, a documentary filmmaker
barely half his age, who wants to make a single take film of Elster
talking about his life and career, unscripted, seated in front of
the wall of a Brooklyn loft. What Elster anticipated would be a
brief visit stretches into weeks as the two men spend hours in
elliptical conversation musing on the enigmas of existence.
“This is deep time, epochal time,” Elster observes.
“Our lives receding into the long past. That’s
what’s out here. The Pleistocene desert, the rule of
extinction.” The arrival of Elster’s daughter, Jessie,
“an exceptional mind, otherworldly,” as he describes
her, injects a palpable tension into Finley’s relationship
with his subject. Jessie’s mysterious disappearance and the
frantic effort to find her supplies most of the story’s
limited dramatic energy.

The central section of the novel is bookended by encounters with
an art work entitled “24 Hour Psycho,” which features
Hitchcock’s iconic film slowed down to stretch to the length
of a full day. Its unsettling presence serves to underscore the
theme of time that pulsates at the heart of the story.

At its core, DeLillo’s novel is fundamentally a
philosophical one, calling to mind the work of Camus. The term that
supplies its title was coined by the French Jesuit philosopher and
paleontologist, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. As DeLillo put it in a
recent Wall Street Journal interview, he was taken by
Teilhard’s notion “that human consciousness is reaching
a point of exhaustion, and that what comes next may be either a
paroxysm or something enormously sublime.”

Known for meticulous --- almost obsessive --- prose
craftsmanship, in any DeLillo work there are moments of sublime
writing. Most notably here, those examples focus on the rugged
majesty of the desert landscape in descriptive passages like this
one: “Beyond the local shrubs and cactus, only waves of
space, occasional far thunder, the wait for rain, the gaze across
the hills to a mountain range that was there yesterday, lost today
in lifeless skies.”

Although it does so at best obliquely, POINT OMEGA revisits some
of the motifs DeLillo has explored in novels like WHITE NOISE and
UNDERWORLD: free-floating anxiety about malign forces abroad in the
world and the existence of powerful men in shadowy rooms whose
desires shape our world more directly and forcefully than
we’d like to admit. A less accomplished writer might deliver
these messages accompanied by a whiff of paranoia, but in
DeLillo’s hands they’re the soul of realism.

Readers looking for conventional story structure or characters
sketched in more than the broadest or most impressionistic
brushstrokes either won’t be likely to engage with
DeLillo’s work or if they ever did it’s probable they
abandoned him long ago. But in its austere beauty, POINT OMEGA
perfectly expresses the sensibility of a writer comfortable
grappling with big questions and big themes, content to leave us to
seek out the hints of answers in the dark recesses of an unsettling
still life portrait.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg (mwn52@aol.com) on January 18, 2011

Point Omega
by Don DeLillo

  • Publication Date: December 14, 2010
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 128 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • ISBN-10: 1439169969
  • ISBN-13: 9781439169964