Monday, August 22, 2011

Point Omega by Don DeLillo

What happens to a writer as he ages? His style, his preoccupations? Philip Roth, of course, is famously enjoying an indian summer. In music, Johnny Cash did it, too, with his American Recordings I-IV, and Ali Farka Toure’s stupendous final album, Savane, recorded while he was enduring his final illness, is transcendently life-affirming. Beryl Bainbridge got better and better. Others? Bellow pared his style down. We will need to see, from Cormac McCarthy’s next novel, The Passenger, whether the transition into sparseness seen in No Country For Old Men and The Road is the result of the waning of an old man’s powers or the opening of a final, great chapter. And Paul Auster, as I’ve said before on this blog, is a man from whom we enjoy diminishing returns with each passing novel. Don DeLillo may not be quite in that state of terminal decline but I wonder, with Point Omega, whether we have seen a decisive turning point.

The basic plot, as you would expect from a 117 page novella, is slight. Jim Finley, an experimental film-maker, wants to make a single take movie focused wholly on one man talking uninterruptedly. That man is Richard Elster, a neoconservative academic recruited into the Bush administration to give it some well-needed intellectual rigour. In that, he singularly fails, being inadept at politics and proving an ineffectual yes man. The two men retreat to the Californian desert to discuss the project. Or perhaps not. After some weeks no decision has been made and the film looks increasingly unlikely to be made. Interrupting the men’s isolation is Elster’s daughter, Jessie, a mysterious young woman who soon equally mysteriously disappears. This narrative is bookended by an unknown man’s visit to an exhibition in MOMA in 2006 of Douglas Gordon’s 24-hour video installation of Psycho, in which Hitchcock’s original is shown at two-frames per second. In the middle of this section, although we don’t know it then, Finley and Elster make an appearance, and further linkages between the main narrative and the bookends, more subtle, emerge as the novel progresses.

The two men’s sojourn in the desert mimics the slowed-down action of Psycho. They are removed from the rest of world, almost from reality itself, and work themselves into an almost intimate routine of slowness and deliberation. They discuss the Iraq War. They medidate on time and reality, on Teilhard de Chardin’s Omega Point, that moment when consciousness reaches its highest level of material complexity. They do all of this very slowly. In crisp, clean prose. “With lots of dialogue.” “Much of it sophistic to the point of meaningless.” “Indeed.” “Slowly.”

DeLillo has been in the process of paring down his style ever since the sprawl that was Underworld. Succeeding novels have been getting shorter and terser. The Body Artist was another novella, and another meditation on ageing. Cosmopolis revolved largely around a massive traffic jam. Falling Man was a (too) short evocation of 9/11. With Point Omega DeLillo has surely reached the end of the line, unless he aims to become a short story writer or a poet. What’s left out in minimalist writing, of course, is often what is most important. Think Beckett, think Godot. But for that to work the words that remain have to lead the reader/viewer, however obliquely, to the source of the missing words. The suggestion must be given of a hidden mass behind a screen, and not only that, but some sense of its potential meaning. In Point Omega there is a plethora of intellectual winking and nudgery, suggestions that in the careful elision just made resides the true message of the story. Nonetheless, the feeling persists that, unlike DeLillo’s previous works, this time there is really nothing behind the screen. Undoubtedly, there is form and style and elegant philsophising, beautifully rendered, but does it mean anything? And if it does, does anybody care?

This becomes increasingly apparent in the first Psycho scene. All is uncertainty. Some examples: “In the time it took for Anthony Perkins to turn his head, there seemed to flow an array of ideas involving science and philosophy and nameless other things, or maybe he was just seeing too much.” And: “How long would he have to stand here, how many weeks or months, before the film’s time scheme absorbed his own, or had this already begun to happen?” The message is clear: we are in unreliable narrator territory here, his point of view deliberately vague. But still the hints keep coming. “Did he imagine himself seeing with the actor’s eyes? Or did the actor’s eyes seem to be searching him out?” Or “He understood for the first time that black and white was the only true medium for film as an idea, film in the mind. He almost knew why but not quite.” And: “He didn’t know if this made the slightest sense.” And: “The meaning of this escaped him. He kept feeling things whose meaning escaped him.” All of these examples come within six and a half pages. We get it, Don, we really do. But no, there’s more: “The original movie was fiction, this was real. Meaningless, he thought, but maybe not.” By this stage, it is hard to ignore the gnawing suspicion that the emperor is naked. At some point, all of this literary fooling has to lead somewhere, but, alas, it never does.

I get the feeling, reading reviews of this novel, that critics are frightened of DeLillo’s reputation and of Point Omega’s slightness. The most common word in these reviews is “but”, that little get-out conjunction with which critics can point out the novel’s faults – “little happens”, “in keeping with the new aesthetic of incompleteness”, “hypnotic, if sometimes baffling”, comedy that “deliberately removes the laughs”, a character who is “flat, and yet like us”, a “a forlorn counterattack against plot, cause and effect, and the near-universal sense that tiny moments matter less than grand narratives”. What we have then are negatives immediately turned into positives. They’re like the over-eager school teacher writing scrupulously fair and wholly inaccurate report cards on the dim children in class. They are furiously justifying what, in the work of a different writer, they would be criticising. BUT this is DeLillo, they're saying, so it’s deliberately stylised, it’s “devastating slow motion”, it’s art, it’s intellectual, it’s philosophy, man, “the action is in the dead spots”. Well, I don’t care who wrote this next passage, it is simply juvenile:

“Time becoming slowly older. Enormously old. Not day by day. This is deep time, epochal time. Our lives receding into the long past. That’s what’s out there. The Pleistocene desert, the rule of extinction.”

Further, these critics delight in taking quotes from the novel and using them to justify their own cleverness in sticking with the novel. James Lasdun, for example:

"The less there was to see, the harder he looked, the more he saw." The line, from Don DeLillo's new novel, is about a man watching Psycho slowed to a 24-hour running time, but it could also serve as a fairly accurate description of how it feels to read DeLillo himself these days, now that he has entered what appears to be a definitively "late" period in his work.

Hermione Hoby, in The Guardian, gives us:

"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." It's a neat description of the novelist's task, too – to scrutinise those things that "shallow habits" overlook.

Matthew Sharpe, in the LA Times, invents a criticism and then invents dullards who would make it, suggesting they would criticise Point Omega for not being Underworld – and then dismisses these straw men for missing the point. He goes on:

"Suspense is trying to build but the silence and stillness outlive it." This could describe the methodology of "Point Omega."

A magisterial turning of a negative into a positive, simply because – well because it’s DeLilllo, ain’t it?

This is the sound of critics applauding what they dare not criticise, for fear of being thought not to have tried hard enough, or suspected of being careless, even – whisper it – a bit stupid. Well call me lazy, call me careless, call me stupid, but Point Omega is the emperor’s new clothes, a meditation on time that reveals precisely nothing except that – hey, things happen and you can’t stop them and then you die. If Cheech and Chong made those same points they would be treated with the contempt they deserve, but because it’s DeLillo, because it’s served up in beautiful, limpid prose, nobody dares to mention to the emperor that we can see his ass cheeks quivering.

What is particularly galling is that all this stillness and silence and lack of suspense is served up to provide an analysis of the US government’s use of extraordinary rendition, that bland, almost meaningless neologism designed to shield us from the truth of state-sponsored, outsourced torture. The emotional intensity of Point Omega is incommensurate with the activity it is critiquing. I’m not calling for table-thumping anger, but an old man contemplating his navel as his daughter disappears is simply inadequate. No account as bloodless as this will ever come close to presenting the true horror of extraordinary rendition or the intellectual bankruptcy of the Bush administration. It’s like trying to put out a fire with a fart. And on that scatalogical point, let me conclude with a typical Point Omega-type paragraph:

Fundament. A basic tenet, base, support, understructure. Eerie depths. I am transcending all direction inward. I am tunneling, upward, a mass, coiled, wet, moist. Somehow comforting. Warm, rustic, sustaining. Teilhard de Chardin sat in this very spot once. He wrote a haiku. He saw the complexity of consciousness here. He saw the cyclical beauty of life through death, alchemical aliment, perception of transmutation. He tried to understand time and motion. And indeed the whole of my consciousness is here and now present in this brown peristaltic motion, ideas in transience. The slow rush of history as we approach one another. Some kind of meditative panic. And by the time I reach past the colon into the small intestine, the large intestine, I am acutely aware I am slightly older. And rather smellier. But it is vanity to imagine otherwise. I am reaching that terminal point. Who knows how far we are from perfection. It may take a long time but one day we will see the ideal turd. Because this is the story of the artist and his solitary journey up his own perfect, puckered ass.

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