By Don DeLillo
Scribner, 128 pages, $24.95
The century ended. Says Richard Elster, the protagonist of Don DeLillo’s 15th novel, Point Omega: “I’d try to imagine the end of the century and what a far-off wonder that was and I’d figure out how old I’d be when the century ended, years, months, days, and now look, incredible, we’re here … and I realize I’m the same.” Elster, a brilliant intellectual hired by the government to “conceptualize, his word in quotes, to apply overarching ideas and principles to such matters as troop deployment and counter insurgency,” has retreated, as he often does, to his secluded home in the desert to be alone with his thoughts and watch the atomic-colored sunset. The century may have ended for Elster in anticlimax, but DeLillo went out on a high note with his epic send-off of Cold War paranoia, the wonderful Underworld (1997) He followed that book with a string of disappointments—2001’s The Body Artist, 2003’s Cosmopolis and 2007’s Falling Man. The writing became directionless, and these minor novels felt like the work of a lame-duck author who wrote his masterpiece and was now just biding his time. But now we have Point Omega. This short novel is a feverishly understated return to form, an icy exploration of the past decade’s paranoia and melancholy, the “nausea of News and Traffic,” as Elster calls it. If Underworld was DeLillo’s extravagant funeral for the 20th century, Point Omega is the farewell party for the last decade.
Elster’s story opens with a nameless, faceless man in a crowded gallery watching 24 Hour Psycho—which is exactly what it sounds like: Hitchcock’s last great film slowed down to two frames per second, a video installation on view at MoMA in the summer of 2006. The anonymous viewer discovers the reality of Norman Bates’ knife going into Janet Leigh’s naked body. “Every action was broken into components so distinct from the entity that the watcher found himself isolated from every expectation.” Mr. DeLillo’s prose is as ambiguous here as the viewer’s face: a list of empty signifiers hitting the reader like a closed fist. Obscure, drug-addled and beautiful, it’s his best writing in years.
The opacity of the opening gives way to the cold reality of the story: “The true life is not reducible to words spoken or written, not by anyone, ever.” Surely, Mr. DeLillo has tried—even through his questioning. “Where was it, the world?” he writes. Elster has gone to find it in the desert. He’s followed by Jim Finley, a struggling filmmaker living in two solitary rooms in New York City. Finley is recently separated from his wife, with one film under his belt that no one has seen—a montage of promotional clips of Jerry Lewis on television in the ’50s. He wants to make a film about Elster—“just a man and a wall.” Just words. He’d even picked out the perfect wall, a dull gray surface in a Brooklyn loft. Ten days in the desert turn to 20, which turns to losing count as the men engage in typical DeLillo dialogue, cyclically discussing the “meaning” in everything, concluding there is none, watching the sun set.
When Elster’s daughter, Jessica, visits as a retreat from an obsessive boyfriend—he’d been, presumably, calling Jessica’s mother using an anonymous number, breathing into the phone and hanging up—the three reach a comfortable harmony. “No more strange than most families except that we had nothing to do, nowhere to go.” But the novel prepares us for a downfall from the outset: the Omega Point—Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s theory that there is a maximum level of consciousness through which the universe is evolving. “Some worldly convulsion,” as Elster defines it. Equilibrium is always followed by chaos.
Point Omega is a novel about the end of the century—a moment that was supposed to be so meaningful. We stocked up on water and canned goods; we thought the world might end; and then it didn’t. As the decade changed, there was no flash of white light, no epiphany. It just happened. True life is not reducible to words or conspiracy theories, and yet, Mr. DeLillo urges, that’s all true life is: words and theories. It’s all the author has. With just over 100 pages, Mr. DeLillo has corrected his mistakes and written the first important novel of the year. “Why is it so hard to be serious, so easy to be too serious?” Mr. DeLillo writes, asking the question of his own work. In Point Omega, he has tapped into a reality as paranoid as ever, a world where, sometimes, the most frightening thing imaginable is a nondescript face in a crowded gallery, an anonymous number on your caller ID.