In which Netty goes searching for the Omega Point, but will settle for the Mojave Desert any day …May 26, 2014
The omega point is a theory, postulated by early 20th century French priest and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, that the universe is evolving towards a maximum level of complexity and consciousness. It’s a weighty concept far beyond my meagre scientific understanding of the cosmos, but possibly not that of Don DeLillo, whose most recent novel – Point Omega, published in 2010 – bears its moniker.
DeLillo turns 78 later this year, and while he is yet to do a Roth (fellow American author Philip Roth announced, just shy of his 80th birthday, that he had “retired” from writing books), he has not published any new novels in four years (a short story collection came out in 2011). After the opuses released in the decade from 1988 to 1998, his noughties output became increasingly less prolific and more sparse – amounting to just four novellas (including Point Omega) during that time. Of these, I have also read Cosmopolis (2003) and The Falling Man (2007); the so-called “late-phase DeLillo”.
It was not my original intention to read Point Omega this early into my DeLillo min-challenge – and I certainly hope that there are more novels to come before he shuffles off to that great library in the sky. But it inadvertently turned out to be a serendipitous move, as there are certain unmistakeable parallels between this and DeLillo’s debut Americana (you can read what I had to say about that here). Superficially, both concern film, with major characters who are attempting to either frame their lives, or make a statement, via the medium.
In Americana, it was 28-year-old TV executive-cum-wannabe filmmaker David Bell. In Point Omega, it is 35-year-old Jim Finley, also a New Yorker. Following a lecture in NYC, Finley approaches septuagenarian scholar Richard Elster, who was co-opted by the US Government to advise on and contribute to the intellectual strategy behind its war efforts, after he published a provocative essay called Renditions.
Finley wants to make a one-take film (“just a man and a wall”) about Elster’s time in government and, ipso facto, his involvement in the military complex (“the blat and stammer of Iraq”). Elster point-blank refuses, but nonetheless invites Finley to join him at his holiday retreat (“somewhere south of nowhere in the Sonoran Desert or maybe it was the Mojave Desert”). It is Elster’s “spiritual retreat”; “Time slows down when I’m here. Time becomes blind … I never know what day it is. I never know if a minute has passed or an hour. I don’t get old here,” he asserts.
Finley joins Elster for a visit he envisages will last two or three days at the most, but the days soon become weeks as the younger man settles into life in the desert – omelettes for breakfast; scotch on the porch in the evenings; talk, reverie, remembrance, philosophising. At one point (no pun intended!), Elster mentions he studied the work of Teilhard de Chardin as a student, and poses the question to his young charge: “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”.
Twentysomething Jessie arrives at the house, despatched from NYC by her mother, Elster’s estranged wife Galina, who is worried about their daughter’s involvement with a man. As her stay lengthens, Finley finds himself increasingly, but quietly, attracted to Jessie, culiminating in a night where he stands at her bedroom door, watching her as she ostensibly sleeps. The following day, Finley and Elster return from a supplies expedition into town to discover that Jessie has disappeared without a trace. The two men, the younger frantic and frenetic, the older quietly despairing and slowly withdrawing, call in the authorities; in a conversation with Finley, the local sheriff notes that people come to the desert to commit suicide. With the ongoing searches proving fruitless, and Elster increasingly retreating into himself, Finley decides they have to return to NYC, even though he knows deep down the answers are as unlikely to be found there as in the Californian desert.
I know what you’re thinking: sounds like a reasonably straightforward mystery. But this is DeLillo, so you can throw that out the window. Point Omega is bookended by two sections wherein a lone, unnamed man spends two days in early September standing in NYC gallery MOMA, watching an installation entitled 24 Hour Psycho – the famous Alfred Hitchcock film slowed down to two frames per second, meaning the 109-minute movie takes a full 24 hours to screen (DeLillo has said in interviews that he inadvertently saw this 1993 work, by British artist Douglas Gordon, at MOMA in 2006). In the opening section, the unnamed man observes two men, one older, one younger – whom he assumes are filmographers – enter the gallery space and watch the installation; he experiences something akin to annoyance when they leave after about 10 minutes. In the closing section, as the lone, unnamed man again watches the installation, a solitary, unnoticed woman approaches him and asks, “What am I looking at?” They converse for a while, she leaves, he follows her and asks for her number, before he returns to the gallery to continue watching the installation.
Again, seemingly straightforward. But things are never really as they seem in DeLillo’s world. And perhaps, like the character who returns to MOMA day after day to watch Psycho, the key to the riddle is in repetitious viewing in slow-motion until we reach our own omega point. As The X Files’ Fox Mulder would say, the truth is out there. As Teilhard de Chardin might have it, it is beyond human consciousness.
Point Omega is a stunning, multi-faceted work that rewards re-reading – easy enough to do in the context of its brevity. But, as always, one man’s meat is another man’s poisson. I easily can see how someone else would find the book a frustrating, ponderous, pompous literary wank. You probably already know which category you fall into. If you’re in the former, then jump right in; if not, well, maybe you’d prefer something in the ilk of a Dan Brown. Horses for courses, as they say. Count me on board for this ride, long may it last.