Friday, March 12, 2010


By Don DeLillo

Scribner, $24, 128 pages


For nearly 40 years, Don DeLillo has trained a cool analytical eye on the structures we erect and the devices we create in hopes of exercising some control over whatever exists outside and around us. He’s an unconventional cultural building inspector, pointing out unperceived cracks and leaks in seemingly impermeable surfaces, issuing warnings so cryptically framed that we’re not always certain where, or in whom, trouble lurks.

Novels like “End Zone,” “Mao II,” “White Noise,” “Libra” and nearly a dozen others - a list climaxed memorably by his recent re-imagining of the catastrophe of Sept. 11, “Falling Man” - pinpoint and define the condition of Americans and America at the intersection of the recent and current centuries: globally involved and responsible, yet tending toward hunkering down in introversion, hoping to avoid damaging contact with external forces that we nevertheless struggle to comprehend, whose dangers we hope, and presume, to mitigate and contain.

This increasingly unstable and volatile environment is entered again in “Point Omega,” Mr. DeLillo’s newest envisioning of America in extremis. This time, the territory surveyed has shrunk to modest, if not exactly manageable dimensions: the land surrounding a half-finished house, situated in a remote and unspecified locale somewhere in the California desert, and occupied by retired academic Richard Elster, following the recent period during which he had been enlisted by U.S. military strategists as a “defense intellectual” charged with devising “words and meanings” that could be employed to justify any and all actions - specifically, those linked to an invasion of a country that can be no other than contemporary Iraq.

Yet the story, such as it is, begins elsewhere, and in a manner only tangentially connected to Elster. In September 2006, we find ourselves among a crowd of tourists visiting a metropolitan museum, either watching or bypassing a film, offered as “conceptual art,” which “slows down” Alfred Hitchcock’s classic movie “Psycho” to the point where it can be experienced in full only throughout a 24-hour period.

This attempt to demonstrate “depths that were possible in the slowing of motion” attracts the attention of Jim Finley, himself a documentary filmmaker, who is on his way West to discuss’ with Elster a film about the latters employment by the U.S. military (which, we infer, may resemble Errol Morris incendiary “The Fog of War,” that unveils Vietnam War-era Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara’s second thoughts and regrets about his part in conducting that war).

When Finley arrives at Elster’s retreat, the filmmaker begins to understand - from halting conversations marked by evasive oracular “answers” - that Elster has sought to “free … [himself from] the leveling tendencies of events and human connections”; to seek in hermitic seclusion what is gradually identified as “the omega point” (a concept borrowed from French theologian and philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin), at which life ceases to expand and exfoliate, instead beginning its momentum toward ending.

“We want to be stones in a field,” in this formulation - one as alien to Finley (whose surname, amusingly, incorporates the French word for “end”), an eager absorber of all the minutiae and detritus of whatever is real, as it has become gospel to Elster, who appears to desire nothing but distance from people, places and things.

Everything changes with the unexpected arrival of Elster’s adult daughter Jessie - the only acknowledged child of this self-created Lear, as Elster has effectively exiled her two brothers from his presence, presuming to forget that they exist. And Jessie herself barely registers as a human presence, revealing levels of frailty, distraction and paranoia so intense that it’s scarcely even a mild surprise when, one day shortly after arriving, she simply vanishes.

Yet thereafter, “Nothing happened that was not marked by her absence.” Investigations come to naught; Elster’s withdrawal deepens. And as the days dwindle toward full autumn, the two men leave the desert, going their separate ways. The novel’s observing eye returns to the museum and the extended showing of “Psycho.” And as Finley, who has thought about this exhibit repeatedly since first viewing it, watches the tantalizingly slow frames again creep menacingly by, he strikes up a conversation with a woman who seems as fixated on the film as is he, follows her out of the building, and - well, who knows what ensuing frames may reveal?

Has Finley, unlike Elster and his seemingly doomed progeny, pulled himself back from the omega point,and chosen life over motionlessness? Evidence is at best ambiguous, though clues may inhere in this enigmatic fiction’s sly manipulations of the complexities of viewpoint and perspective. Do things (and people) exist independently, or only as they are perceived and understood (or misunderstood)?

This riddle is linked, albeit in ways we can only partially grasp, with Elster’s sagelike declarations framed “to apply overarching ideas and principles to such matters as troop deployments and counterinsurgency” - and also with recurring images of compromised and flawed ascent and descent. These latter include the sighting of an old woman painfully descending a staircase, walking backward; fragmentary information about the possible motives behind the ill-fated Jessie’s fears and flights; and - in one of the most nightmarish moments of “Psycho” - the scene in which a detective confidently climbs stairs, secure in his belief that the solution to the mystery he’s investigating lies right around a corner waiting for him. In fact, it does.

One reads this troubling short novel - which is actually something of a recit, similar to the plot-deprived, idea-driven narratives perfected by Voltaire and Diderot, and also reminiscent of Albert Camus’ icy little masterpiece “The Fall” - much as one might eavesdrop on a bitter family quarrel or a brutal crime occurring next door. Is the novelist who “screens,” as it were, its appearing and disappearing particulars for us a stalker or voyeur - or a resolute diagnostician of the multiplicity and opacity of human actions? As Don DeLillo would be the first to remind us, its all a matter of perspective.

Bruce Allen is a freelance reviewer who lives and writes in Kittery, Maine.

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