Point Omega Don DeLillo. Scribner. 128 pp, $24.00.
One difference between art and entertainment has to do with the speed of perception. Art deliberately slows and complicates reading, hearing, and/or viewing so that you’re challenged to re-think and re-feel form and experience. Entertainment deliberately accelerates and simplifies them so that you don’t have to think about or feel very much of anything at all except, perhaps, the adrenalin rush before dazzling spectacle. Although, of course, there can be myriad gradations between the former and latter, in their starkest articulation we’re talking about the distance between, say, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol; between David Lynch’s Lost Highway and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.
Another way of saying this, as Viktor Shklovsky did in his seminal 1916 essay, “Art as Technique,” is that art’s aim “is to make objects ‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception.” Through difficulty, through impeded progress (rather than through predictability and velocity), art offers us a return to apprehension and thought.
Such a notion pervades the prelude and coda of Don DeLillo’s new grim, austere, avant-horror novella, Point Omega, which weighs in at a wiry 128 pages—precisely the same length (and in many ways much the same mood) as his haunting 2002 The Body Artist. Both prelude and coda are set in 2006 in a video gallery on the sixth floor of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. On a mesh screen that appears to float in the middle of the dark room frequented by a series of poker-faced guards, bewildered tourists, and handful of aficionados, plays 24 Hour Psycho, Scottish artist Douglas Gordon’s experimental film. By stripping out its soundtrack and decelerating Hitchcock’s 1960 classic from its original 109-minute running time to a full 24 hours, Gordon’s project changes the popular movie into an art event. The famous shower scene, which in Hitchcock’s version lasts 45 seconds, takes an hour to unfurl in Gordon’s.
For most viewers, Gordon’s film’s effect is simple: an agitated boredom that shoos them from the gallery in search of something more interesting (read: palatable) elsewhere. To a few diehards in the audience, however, comes the understanding that the work’s “merciless pacing had no meaning without a corresponding watchfulness.” “It was impossible to see too much,” one viewer realizes after being drawn back several days in a row to study various sections of 24 Hour Psycho:
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.
Gordon’s investigation thereby opens—as does DeLillo’s novella itself—onto questions of subtle tonalities, authenticity and duplicity, time and memory, recognition and repetition. It transforms Hitchcock’s movie into a kind of video sculpture to be walked around, studied, mulled over, even as that sculpture explores the nature of the cinematic experience and perception. “It takes close attention to see what is happening in front of you,” the viewer above concludes. “It takes work, pious effort, to see what you are looking at.”
This is good advice for Point Omega’s ideal readers as well. Four of the viewers in that gallery—all of them unnamed and shadowy as they pass through the prelude and coda (told, by the way, in an appropriately filmic third-person point of view)—resolve, if one is paying attention, into the four main players of the four short chapters that comprise the heart of the novella, which itself is narrated in an only slightly less-filmic, detached, relentlessly and strangely exterior first-person point of view by a videographer named Jim Finley. In his early thirties, recently separated from his wife, Finley has flown from New York to San Diego, then driven in a rental east to a ramshackle metal-and-clapboard house on the outskirts of the Anza Borrego Desert State Park. He’s on a mission: talk Richard Elster, a secret war advisor on a “spiritual retreat” in the midst of this physical and metaphoric wasteland, into being interviewed.
Finley’s projects are born of obsession. To date, he’s only completed one film: a 57-minute compilation of footage of Jerry Lewis from his early telethon days: “a disease artist,” Finley calls him, “heroic, tragicomic, surreal.” Finley’s idea this time is to sit Elster in front of a gray wall in an industrial loft back in New York and shoot his subject in a single continuous black-and-white take talking about his involvement for two years in shaping America’s wars. “There’s no offscreen voice asking questions,” Finley explains to Elster. “There’s no combat footage or comments from others, on camera or off. . . . A simple head shot.” The interview, Finley says, will last as long as it lasts.
Elster, a brutally laconic 73-year-old scholar, twice married and divorced, can’t stand being with other people and can’t stand being alone. Until Finley’s arrival, he’s spent his days on his deck reading poetry he read in his youth, drinking, trying to get outside time, taking in the view which includes “nothing but distances, not vistas or sweeping sightlines but only distances.” His withdrawal is the aftermath of his work with government war planners. They approached him to bring to bear his knowledge on creating new realities around the conflicts in which the U.S. was involved: “careful sets of words that resemble advertising slogans in memorability and repeatability. . . . words that would yield pictures eventually and then become three-dimensional.” In a phrase, Elster was charged with constructing Baudrillardian combat—war where simulation replaces the real so completely that the notion of the real is finally lost altogether.
Finley assumes his visit will last a couple of days at most. But time goes elastic almost as soon as he steps through Elster’s front door, and, before he knows it, weeks have elapsed. Into this universe that’s still as the desert, glacial as Gordon’s film, enters Elster’s twentysomething daughter, Jessie, an “otherworldly” woman who does volunteer work for the elderly in New York and lives with her mother on the Upper East Side. Worried about the boyfriend Jessie’s been seeing, committed to getting her away from him, Jessie’s mother convinces her daughter to fly out to Elster’s place for a short visit. Finley and Jessie carry on what may or may not be a weak flirtation. Elster and she live at terse cross-purposes—although, Finley notices, Elster “didn’t seem baffled by her stunted response to his love.” And Jessie quickly enters the drift that comprises existence in this place, passing her time reading science fiction novels, well aware that “nothing she read so far could begin to match the ordinary life on this planet … for its sheer unimaginableness.”
An example of that sheer unimaginableness strikes with astonishing force when Finley and Elster return from a supply run to town one day to find Jessie gone, all her things left behind. The police and park rangers launch a search, but no one quite knows what to do or think about Jessie’s disappearance. It’s wholly within her character, Finley knows, simply to have wandered off to lead another life. It’s also possible she came to the desert with the intent to commit suicide. Nor is it out of the question that her boyfriend (the fourth and creepiest unnamed player back in that MOMA gallery) followed her out here with nothing good on his mind.
In a sense, both Finley and Elster are artists. The former makes films, the latter language that transforms death and chaos into ideas acceptable for public consumption. Both men inhabit large abstractions—at least until Jessie’s vanishing, at which time those abstractions condense quickly into real loss. As Finley comes to understand, all Elster’s “grand themes funneled down to local grief, one body, out there somewhere, or not.”
During one of the men’s conversations, Elster introduces Finley to the central idea in 20th-century Jesuit philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s writing: the omega point—that instant of maximum complexity and consciousness towards which the universe has been evolving. Beyond that, according to Teilhard de Chardin, lies a grand merging with God’s awareness. According to Elster, beyond that lies human extinction:
We’re all played out. Matter wants to lose its self-consciousness. We’re the mind and heart that matter has become. Time to close it all down. This is what drives us now. . . . We want to be the dead matter we used to be. We’re the last billionth of a second in the evolution of matter.
That’s it, DeLillo says, that’s all: not knowledge and insight, but extended uncertainty and undoing. If Falling Man is about the 9/11 attacks themselves, Point Omega is about the military and—more important—deep existential responses, and those responses are nothing if not unremittingly bleak for the individual and the species. For DeLillo, it feels as if we’re living Gordon’s iteration of Psycho, slo-mo, vicious, impossible, the only consolation that it will all be over soon enough.
Lance Olsen’s most recent novel is Head in Flames (Chiasmus, 2009). He teaches narrative theory and practice at the University of Utah.
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