Don DeLillo in Short Form
If J. D. Salinger had written “The Catcher in the Rye” and nothing else, he would still be remembered as an enduringly important novelist. The same can be said of Joseph Heller and “Catch-22” or E. L. Doctorow and “Ragtime” (or, for that matter, “The Book of Daniel”). And Don DeLillo earned his literary laurels with “Libra,” a re-imagining of the assassination of John F. Kennedy that is, for me, the Great American Novel.
Which brings us to DeLillo’s latest book, “Point Omega” (Scribner: $24.00).
“Point Omega” is what we used to call a novella. At 117 pages, the story is sparely and briefly told. Something happens at the beginning and the end, and something else happens in the middle, but DeLillo never allows us to plainly see exactly how these two narratives are connected, although we can certainly make a good guess.
To be sure, DeLillo manages to inject the story with a solid dose of suspense. In the opening scene, we are witnessing an installation at the Museum of Modern Art in New York — a screening of Alfred Hitchcock’ “Psycho” that has been slowed down so that a single showing takes 24 hours. We begin to suspect that the all-American weirdo on the screen is being watched by his real-life counterpart among the spectators in the museum gallery.
Then, abruptly, the narrative shifts to a house in the far reaches of the Anza-Borrego desert of Southern California, where a young documentary filmmaker named Jim Finley is hanging out with the subject of his next project, Richard Elster. We learn that Elster is a highly cerebral scholar who was invited to offer his insights to the Bush administration war-planners who masterminded the invasion of Iraq, and he has now retreated to the desert in a state of spiritual crisis.
“The true life is not reducible to words spoken or written, not by anyone, ever,” says Elster. “The true life takes place when we’re alone, thinking, feeling, lost in memory, dreamingly self-aware, the submicroscopic moments.”
But now Elster’s thinking and dreaming have carried him to a kind of existential melt-down. Inspired by the writings of Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit priest who was also a philosopher and paleontologist, Elster insists that humankind has reached what Teilhard called “the omega point.”
“We’re a crowd, a swarm. We think in groups, travel in armies. Armies carry the gene for self-destruction. One bomb is never enough,” Elster tells the would-be biographer. “Because now comes the introversion. Father Teilhard knew this, the omega point. A leap out of our biology. Ask yourself this question. Do we have to be human forever? Consciousness is exhausted. Back now to inorganic matter. This is what we want. We want to be stones in a field.”
But Elster is dragged back into the here-and-now when his troubled daughter, Jesse, suddenly shows up at the desert hideaway. She is trying to put herself at a distance from a suitor — or is he a stalker? — back in New York, and the three of them are suddenly an ad hoc family: “[N]o more strange than most families except that we had nothing to do, nowhere to go,” muses Finley, “but that’s not so strange either, father, daughter and whatever I was.” And then, abruptly and inexplicably, Jesse goes missing, and the accidental family is thrown into a very different kind of crisis.
When compared to DeLillo’s masterpieces — not only “Libra” but also “Underworld,” a novel set in the early days of the Cold War, and “Falling Man,” which is inspired by the events of 9/11 — “Point Omega” seems like a fraction of a novel. What DeLillo puts on paper is superbly imagined and rendered, but I could not help but think about what he left out.
Nowhere is it written, of course, that a novel must be written according to specifications of length and narrative resolution. At this point in his long and accomplished career, he has certainly earned the right to produce a miniature rather than a tapestry, even if it leaves his most ardent readers — and I am one of them — wishing for more.
One thing is not missing from “Point Omega.” Among DeLillo’s greatest gifts as a storyteller is his ability to sound the depths of the human heart and mind with insight and compassion. Even when he is writing what could be described as a thriller, he allows us to glimpse the parallel reality that is the subtext of every human experience. For example, I copied the following heart-shaking lines from “Libra” into my reading journal long ago:
“He believed that nothing can be finally known that involves human motive and need. There is always another level, another secret, a way in which the heart breeds a deception so mysterious and complex that it can only be taken for a deeper kind of truth.”
I can give no better description of what DeLillo himself has depicted in the pages of “Point Omega.”