Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Point Omega, by Don DeLillo

Point Omega is the endpoint: the apocalypse, the end of human life, the end of the world, the prospect of personal extinction. In this slight novel by Don DeLillo (Scribner’s 2010) —and by slight I mean in length, not in substance—personal extinction looms in the foreground, but all the other meanings are present as well. The novel has three sections—in the first a filmmaker named Jim Finley (we don’t immediately learn that he is a filmmaker) is obsessed with an exhibit at the New York Museum of Modern Art. An artist has taken Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and slowed it down so that it takes 24 hours to watch. People drift in and out of the exhibit room. No one seems to remain for long, except Finley, who is there for most of the eight days the film is playing. He’s obsessed with it.

At the exhibit, Finley meets Richard Elster, a brilliant and aging intellectual who is living out the final years of his life in a desert shack in California. His most recent work involved advising the U. S. military on how to package the concept and practice of war for public consumption. He says he wanted to reduce the concept of war to a haiku. Finley becomes obsessed with making a film in which Elster does nothing but talk. Elster invites him out to the cabin. Finley spends much time trying to convince Elster to do the film, and Elster seems to be interested, although he never commits to the project. The cabin is a place of extreme isolation. Cell phone signals barely work there. But Elster is the most isolated of all in the novel.

Elster’s daughter comes to the cabin to visit. Elster loves her but rarely speaks to her directly. Instead he speaks about her, most often to Finley. She doesn’t really want to be there—her mother has forced her to make the visit so that she will not see a man she has been involved with romantically. Finley grows attracted to her. One night on the porch, after Elster has gone to bed, he takes her hand and holds it. But Elster suddenly turns on his bedroom light and then comes out on the porch. The daughter goes inside. Later the same evening, Finley walks past her door, slightly ajar, and looks in to watch her sleep. He suddenly realizes she is awake and watching him, and then she turns away from him—a clear rejection.

The next day she disappears, without explanation. Has she been abducted or committed suicide? The local sheriff comments than many people come to the desert to commit suicide. She never returns and no trace of her is ever found. Did Finley kill her? Probably not. He never hints or implies in any way that he did, but the possibility is there. He also seems totally unaware, or unwilling to acknowledge, that his actions the previous evening may have had some connection with her disappearance.

Elster is devastated and destroyed by his daughter’s disappearance. He stops talking and begins wasting away, physically and intellectuals. Eventually Finley takes him back to New York, planning to leave him in the care of the most recent ex-wife.

In the final section of the novel Finley is back in the Museum, watching the slowly progressing Hitchcock film. He makes a half-hearted effort at conversation with a woman, who gives him her number, but he forgets to ask her name. The novel ends.

There are no real resolutions here. Rather, there are circumstances and situations. One can see (or imagine that he sees) much of DeLillo in Elster, the aging artist and intellectual. But one can also see much of the reclusive novelist Bill Gray and his relationship with his two assistants in DeLillo’s Mao II (1991).

The emotional impact of the middle section, where Elster’s daughter disappears, is haunting and powerful. The writing and its evocation of the desert setting reminded me of several essays by Joan Didion in her book Slouching towards Bethlehem (1968). This novel never clearly sets forth what the narrative or intellectual issues are. It implies them by reflecting them—Finley’s obsession with the slowed-down Psycho, Elster’s comments about the modern world. We know simply that Finley wants to make a film about Elster, and that Elster has withdrawn from life, feels alienated from everything, believes the end is coming both for himself and the rest of humanity, even as he is considering the film. Finley himself is a younger version of Elster. His obsession with filmmaking (he has made only one other film) costs him his marriage. He lives alone in a New York apartment and, despite his intention to make films, is adrift. He’s also a kind of voyeur, a watcher. Elster’s foreboding sense of doom and horror, not only at his own situation—death’s approach—but at the general situation of the world, dominates the novel. A spooky, eerie, depressive gloominess envelops Point Omega, and the fact that the novel never comes to a conclusion, that nothing is resolved for any of the characters, enhances the pervasive sense of doom.

What to make of the 24-hour Psycho? Such a film was actually made by Scottish artist Douglas Gordon in 1993 and screened at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington DC in 2004. DeLillo was reportedly impressed by it, and he acknowledges the artist on the last page of the book. But was he impressed or depressed? For me such exhibits are signs of how self-absorbed and obsessed with artificial constructions we have become in the contemporary world of interpretation, where we care more for the apparatus of interpretation than for the works under study. Finley’s obsession with the exhibit is a sign of his own narcissism and essentially obsessive-compulsive nature. Does the film signify for DeLillo the fragmentation and deconstruction of modern culture, or is he truly impressed by it as Finley was?

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