Wrestling with words: An attempt to unpack the meaning of Don DeLillo’s ‘Point Omega’

December 20, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 20, 2014

On one level, Point Omega, the slender 2010 work by American novelist Don DeLillo, is the tale of a social and intellectual seduction that is interrupted by inexplicable tragedy.

The two primary characters are Richard Elster, a 73-year-old former adviser to George W. Bush’s presidential administration, and Jim Finley, a 30-something filmmaker who is determined to make a documentary about the older man. Most of the book takes place in Elster’s isolated cabin in the Colorado Desert, about 180 miles southeast of Los Angeles.

Much of the book consists of long meandering philosophical discussions between Elster and Finley, such as this exchange from the first chapter:

“Lying is necessary. The state has to lie. There is no lie in war or in preparation for war that can’t be defended. We went beyond this. We tried to create new realities overnight, careful sets of words that resemble advertising slogans in memorability and repeatability. These were words that would yield pictures eventually and then become three-dimensional. The reality stands, it walks, it squats. Except when it doesn’t.”

He didn’t smoke but his voice had a sandlike texture, maybe just raspy with age, sometimes slipping inward, becoming nearly inaudible. We sat for some time. He was slouched in the middle of the sofa, looking off toward some point in a high corner of the room. He had scotch and water in a coffee mug secured to his midsection.

Finally he said, “Haiku.”

I nodded thoughtfully, idiotically, a slow series of gestures meant to indicate that I understood completely.

“Haiku means nothing beyond what it is. A pond in summer, a leaf in the wind. It’s human consciousness located in nature. It’s the answer to everything in a set number of lines, a prescribed syllable count. I wanted a haiku war,” he said. “I wanted a war in three lines. This was not a matter of force levels or logistics. What I wanted was a set of ideas linked to transient things. This is the soul of haiku. Bare everything to plain sight. See what’s there. Things in war are transient. See what’s there and then be prepared to watch it disappear.”

“You used this word. Haiku,” I said.

“I used this word. That’s what I was there for, to give them words and meanings. Words they hadn’t used, new ways of thinking and seeing. In one discussion or another, I probably used this word. They didn’t fall out of their chairs.”

I knew nothing about the men who didn’t fall out of their chairs. But I was getting to know Elster and I wondered about the tactic, not that it mattered in the end. I wasn’t interested in the impression he made on others, only in his feelings about the experience. Let him be wrong, rash, angry, weary. Lines and syllables. Old man’s stale feet/fretful summer night. Et cetera.

“You wanted a war. Just a better one,” I said.

“I still want a war. A great power has to act. We were struck hard. We need to retake the future. The force of will, the sheer visceral need. We can’t let others shape our world, our minds. All they have are old despotic traditions. We have a living history and I thought I would be in the middle of it. But in those rooms, with those men, it was all priorities, statistics, evaluations, rationalizations.”

The burgeoning romance is interrupted by a pair of events.

The first is the arrival of Elster’s only child, a 20-something woman who, like both Finley and her father, normally lives in New York City. Finley, who’s separated from his wife, is drawn to Jessie. She is somewhat distant — DeLillo suggests that she may have a mild form of autism — but she seems to reciprocate his attraction, at least to a point. The young woman’s appearance at the cabin prompts a subtle, entirely unspoken re-evaluation and rearrangement of the bonds formed between the older man and his would-be documentarian.

This process is in turn disrupted. I won’t describe the incident that occurs so readers of Point Omega can discover it on their own. It’s worth noting, however, that DeLillo never resolves just what has happened or why.

That’s hardly the book’s only mystery. There’s also the question of the identity of the man in the book’s prologue and epilogue. (DeLillo impishly titles these sections “Anonymity” and “Anonymity 2.”) This individual — whoever he is and whatever he’s supposed to signify — spends both of his appearances standing in a cinematic installation at the Museum of Modern Art.

Of course, the meaning of the installation itself — it’s an exhibition 24 Hour Psycho, a screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal 1960 slasher film that’s been slowed down so that a viewing of the one hour, 49-minute movie requires an entire day — is open to interpretation. DeLillo’s nameless watcher is mesmerized by the projection, spending hours gazing upon it, day after day. In his mind, grisly actions and images from the movie, such as the mangled private eye Arbogast falling after an attack, blend with mundane ones, such as Norman Bates handling a telephone.

The strip of interior light spreading across the floor as the door continues to move.

The shadow of the door vanishing under the door.

These abstract moments, all form and scale, the carpet pattern, the grain of the floorboards, binding him to total alertness, eye and mind, and then the overhead shot of the landing and the attack on Arbogast.

His visits to the gallery mingled seamlessly in memory. He could not recall on which day he’s watched a particular scene or how many times he’d watched certain scenes. Could they be called scenes, becalmed as they were, the raw makings of a gesture, the long arc of hand to face?

I suppose the suggestion DeLillo is making here is that the modern American is suffering from a psychological syndrome in which it’s impossible to see the forest for the trees — meaning becomes lost, decontextualized.

After all, consider Finley’s first and only film, a bizarre montage of re-edited 1950s television footage showing just one individual, Jerry Lewis.

This was social and historical material but edited well beyond the limits of information and objectivity and not itself a document. I found something religious in it, maybe I was the only one, religious, rapturous, a man transported.

I had [Lewis] babbling in unsequential edits, one year shading into another, or Jerry soundless, clowning, he is knock-kneed and bucktoothed, bouncing on a trampoline in slow motion, the old flawed footage, the disturbed signals, random noise on the soundtrack, streaky patterns on the screen. … I added intervals of modern music to the track, rows of tones, the sound of a certain re-echoing drone. There was an element of austere drama in the music, it placed Jerry outside the moment, in some larger surround, ahistorical, a man on a mission from God.

I tormented myself over the running time, settling finally on a freakish fifty-seven-minute movie that was screened at a couple of documentary festivals. It could have been a hundred and fifty-seven minutes, could have been four hours, six hours.

Finley and the anonymous watcher seem to be kindred spirits, and initially the reader imagines that they in fact are the same person. However, one eventually deduces that during his vigil, the watcher sees at least two of the characters from the book’s main section. In fact, he may encounter all three of them at the eerie screening.

Ultimately, Point Omega seems to defy analysis in the same way that 24 Hour Psycho and Finley’s unnamed debut movie do. This may be DeLillo’s goal for the book — an attempt to depict a reality that is beyond the comprehension of present human minds.

The novel’s title reflects a theory postulating that the universe is evolving (or may evolve) toward a point where intelligent life can “process and store an infinite amount of information in the universe” — a form of godhood and/or immortality, if I correctly understand this summary by a Swedish computer scientist. If our realm reaches, or has reached, this state, then naturally our outmoded mortal minds can’t properly comprehend what’s happening.

DeLillo, the author of 15 novels, is such an accomplished writer that I initially blamed myself for having difficulty mining Point Omega for meaning. But perhaps the fault lies elsewhere. The volume is so brief — 117 pages in all — that it seems less a completed book than the fragment of a novel that has yet to be fleshed out properly.

I rarely re-read books that leave me cold. But I’ve decided that I will give Point Omega another go in 2015 to see whether I have a second handle on it the second time around.

So that’s a second project on my agenda for next year. Stay tuned!

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