No 719 Point Omega by Don DeLillo

point o

 

It takes close attention to see what is happening in front of you. It takes work, pious effort, to see what you are looking at. He was mesmerized by this, the depths that were possible in the slowing of motion, the things to see, the depths of things so easy to miss in the shallow habit of seeing

This line, from Point Omega concerns a man watching Psycho slowed to a 24 hour running time, but could also be an accurate description of how it feels to read the novel itself. Point Omega, a slim novella of only 117 pages is very much about seeing and depth, detail and disappearance.

The main story of the novel is bookended by the description of Artist Douglas Gordon’s 24-hour video installation of Psycho, which an unnamed man is watching obsessively in a New York gallery. He is riveted by its cool, crawling terror, slowed-down to the point where the turn of a head takes on as much sinister significance as the stab of a knife. Intrigued, our narrator watches Janet Leigh, who is ‘in the detailed process of not knowing what is about to happen to her’.

 

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24 Hour Psycho, an exhibition by Douglas Gordon

The rest of the novella takes place in the California desert, where a film-maker, Jim Finlay is visiting the retreat of an ageing neo-conservative intellectual, Richard Elster. Finlay  wants to film Elster, Fog of War style, talking about his experiences in the Pentagon, where he provided the esoteric argument for the invasion of Iraq. Elster is stalling, he is happy to stay in the desert, His mind is on extinction. He is looking for the omega point, the point where the conscious mind inverts itself and becomes like the stone in the field. The beautifully evoked descriptions of the desert landscape are where he feels he can best achieve this Zen-like state.

He wants to feel the deep heat beating into his body, feel the body itself, reclaim the body from what he called the nausea of News and Traffic.

The image of the slowed down Psycho throws its light across the whole novel. It echoes and reverberates as the characters explore the minutiae in order to see the bigger picture.

The true life is not reducible to words spoken or written, not by anyone, ever. The true life takes place when we’re alone, thinking, feeling, lost in memory, dreaming self aware, the sub microscopic moments.

The narrative evolves in a glacial, detailed way written in sparse, almost Beckettian prose. It requires close reading. The smallest things become important. How many curtain rings are pulled off when Janet Leigh is killed in the famous shower scene?  Finlay tries to talk to Elster about the Iraq War, Elster responds with lengthy discussions about the hang nail on his thumb and the many linguistic variations of the word rendition. Time moves differently for the characters in the desert, with days punctuated only by mealtimes. Finlay, who tries to keep track of the number of days his visit has lasted, notes that ‘I never know if a minute has passed or an hour. I don’t get old here.’

Into the inertia comes Elster’s daughter Jessie, sent from New York by her mother, who is concerned her daughter is in danger from a man she has recently started seeing. All three characters are in a state of limbo, away from home, unsure why and waiting for something to come along and define them. Jessie is oddly detached and unknowable but Finlay finds himself drawn to her.

Her look had an abridged quality, it wasn’t reaching the wall or window, I found it disturbing to watch her, knowing that she didn’t feel watched.

Like Janet Leigh in Psycho, Jessie is in the detailed process of not knowing what is about to happen to her and the novel briefly turns into a thriller of sorts when Jessie disappears into the desert. There is a sinister caretaker, a knife with no blood, a potential stalker and search helicopters, but the mystery is left as such. In the disappearance of Jessie, as in the 24 Hour Psycho, build-up, event and aftermath vanish into a series of equally important stray moments, all happening in our collective blind spot. The loss of his beloved daughter brings Elster to an unsettling emotional reality, the reality that was missing in his contextualisation of war and by doing so it hollows him out. His thoughts on impending annihilation are moot, his musings on ‘true life’ interrupted by life itself. His daughter has become the omega point.

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Photo by Eamonn McCabe for The Guardian

DeLillo has long been the master of the grand narrative, in books such as Underworld, White Noise and Libra. His last three novellas, The Body Artist, Cosmopolis and Falling Man, have, like Point Omega, touched on large themes, but felt for me, like exercises in writing. They have been hard to love. Point Omega, on the other hand, manages to marry concept, structure and theme perfectly and DeLillo creates a novel that asks us to slow down, to explore the fact that where we place our attention creates our reality, so maybe we should place our attention elsewhere. In an interview with the New York Times, DeLillo said of Point Omega;

The idea of time and motion and the question of what we see, what we miss when we look at things in a conventional manner — all that seemed very inviting to me to think about.

They are also very inviting to read about and this brittle and strange tale is a worthy addition to DeLillo’s body of work. It may be short, but, like Finlay, the reader will realise that ‘the less there is to see, the harder he looked, the more he saw’.

 

Read On: Book

Number Read: 28

Number Remaining: 718

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13 thoughts on “No 719 Point Omega by Don DeLillo

  1. Thanks for an excellent review. I’ve had a bunch of DeLillo on my stack of unread books (most notably Underworld and White Noise) but just haven’t gotten around to reading them yet. Makes me think I should go ahead and tackle at least one of them.

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    • Erich, Underworld is probably my favourite novel of all time. I love DeLillo and his big, grand, all encompassing novels. His most recent ones haven’t worked for me but this one really impressed. Libra is a good one to start with – it’s a fictionalised account of Lee Harvey Oswalds life.

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  2. I’m intrigued by the sound of this one, especially with its connection to Psycho. The only DeLillo I’ve read is Cosmopolis, which rattled around in my head for weeks afterwards, but I have a copy of White Noise on my bookshelf.

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    • Thanks Philip, I haven’t read White Noise yet, so once I get my summer challenge over with I’m going to get to it. I was a little disappointed with his last few, but something about this one really captured my imagination.

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  3. Glad to see this review because DeLilllo is just not an author that I’ve really “got into” yet. I’ve had White Noise on my shelf for years, but have yet to finish it. Maybe I should start with this one instead?

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  4. I rather liked Cosmopolis, which was my first DeLillo (there’s a review at mine). This one sounds exactly like the sort of thing I’d like, but I have copies of his White Noise and Underworld still unread so I should get to grips with those first, particularly Underworld which I see is your favourite and which is many others’ too.

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