March 2010

Arts & Letters

‘Point Omega’ by Don DeLillo

By Sebastian Smee

The title of Don DeLillo’s new novel reverses a concept known as the Omega Point, which was coined by the renegade Catholic thinker Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Teilhard believed the universe was evolving towards a supreme level of complexity and consciousness. DeLillo’s brilliant novel, set in contemporary America, suggests a haunting inversion of this – a kind of mental and physical entropy, an evacuation.

DeLillo’s main character is an elderly man named Elster. He is being courted by the book’s narrator, a film-maker who wishes to make a documentary about him. The film he wants to make will consist of nothing but Elster’s spoken reflections on the period he spent advising the American government in the lead-up to the Iraq War. Elster resists the idea, even as he comes to treat the narrator as a confidant. He comes across as a cerebral and capricious version of Donald Rumsfeld, a Nietzschean who talks about war as an “act of will” but admits he can’t bear violence.

Most of the book is set on a Californian desert ranch where Elster goes to experience a different sense of time, away from the city and what he calls “dimwit time, inferior time, people checking watches and other devices” in an “endless counting down”. Oddly, however, he hates to be alone, and that is why the narrator finds himself in Elster’s company for weeks, trying with waning energy to persuade him to take part in the film, listening patiently to his ruminations.

In the desert, Elster detects “the rule of extinction”. The narrator, too, succumbs to its torpid spell; at times, he has to force himself to believe he is there. Lying back one night, he feels “like nobody nowhere, a shadow that’s part of the night”. At some point in all this, Elster’s daughter Jessie turns up. In her twenties, beloved by her father, she nevertheless feels like a strange embodiment of the general mood: vacant, unplugged.

One day, Elster and his new companion return to the house to find her gone. They search for her, frantically. Elster goes into shock. All his philosophical conjectures suddenly seem – if they did not before (and strangely, they did not) – worse than preposterous. It all “seemed so much dead echo now … All the man’s grand themes funneled down to local grief, one body, out there somewhere, or not.” DeLillo’s prose is compacted, precise, rich in connotation. Its rhythms seem to bear on the main theme of time as much as what’s said.

Oddly, the story is bookended by the narrator’s two lengthy accounts of watching 24 Hour Psycho, a video work by the Scottish artist Douglas Gordon, in which Hitchcock’s film is slowed to a running time of 24 hours. Thus retarded, the film’s action, he writes, becomes like “a thing receding into its drugged parts. Janet Leigh in the detailed process of not knowing what is about to happen to her.” DeLillo makes this process of not knowing similarly detailed and similarly suspenseful – even as the very idea of suspense unravels. “We need time,” he reminds us, “to lose interest in things.”

Sebastian Smee

Sebastian Smee is the art critic for The Washington Post and winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for criticism. He is the author of The Art of Rivalry, and a forthcoming book on Berthe Morisot and Édouard Manet.

@SebastianSmee

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