April 04, 2010

POINT OMEGA by Don DeLillo

Don DeLillo is probably one of our most important contemporary authors – certainly one of America’s best writers writing today. That said, his books are not always easy to get through, or enjoyable. I haven’t tackled some of his most intimidating works, like Underworld or Libra, but I loved White Noise. His last two books – the recently released Point Omega and, before that, Falling Man – I found to be a bit disappointing. Even now, writing about Point Omega a week after I finished it, I’m having a difficult time recalling its details and my immediate reaction to it. Unlike with White Noise, the characters and ideas behind Point Omega left me as soon as I closed the book. Though, this isn’t to say it is a bad book – I don’t think DeLillo is capable of that. It was still a worthwhile read.

Point Omega follows Richard Elster, an aging academic just coming off a stint working in the government as a sort of war strategist; a “defense intellectual,” kept around to intellectually justify and explain war. Following this, he has retreated to the desert as an escape from the busyness of reality and his thoughts. He is joined in his desert isolation by a young filmmaker interested in making a sort of avant-garde documentary about the man, and whose eyes we see Elster through. As their days meld together and they silently watch the colorful desert sunsets, we learn their philosophies of self, time, and death, and who they feel they are when stripped of all reality in this strange isolation. This is mostly what the book is – what they think and feel when there is nothing else to think about, and all focus has turned inward. When Elster’s daughter arrives, their routine shifts and they attempt to adjust their lives of the mind to include her, until something strange happens and they have to figure out how to adapt to this new reality that they cannot escape. (Vague, I know, but so was the book.)

DeLillo has a wonderful way with places. When it comes to descriptions, he has no use for flowery language (which, when misused, can undermine its very point). In portraying the isolation of the desert and the glory of the sunsets, he avoids overt descriptions while still capturing the power the place holds over his characters and conveying the sunset’s beauty. Similarly, the first and last scene of the book are all about setting, though a very different one. In a story that is seemingly incongruous with the rest of the book but ultimately comes together, these scenes take place in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, in an exhibit entitled “24 Hour Psycho.” In a number of articles I read about the book when it first came out, DeLillo cited this installation exhibit – one that actually took place, in the summer of 2006 – as the main inspiration for writing the book. In writing about it, he makes the exhibit (a screening of Psycho, slowed down so that it plays once over 24 hours) somehow transcendent; a breaking down of the film and, consequentially, real life. It made me wish I had seen the exhibit when it was on display.

Clearly, I didn’t actively dislike DeLillo’s Point Omega. He is a fantastic writer who makes powerful stuff out of no plot. And yet, though there were parts and aspects I admired, the book didn’t stay with me. For all its life philosophies, none of the ideas struck me. Perhaps I’m still holding DeLillo up to his own White Noise standard, but I continue to return his recent books to the library let down. Maybe its time for me to visit his older, more daunting works – Underworld, here I come?

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1 comment:

  1. Wunderbar as usual, Liannie. I actually started Libra at SLC's annual Bacchanalia--a picnic to celebrate the end of the school year where there was always much drinking and merry-making. I had never ventured into DeLillo's work before and expected a straight-forward novel. Needless to say, I couldn't get into it. But I still have my copy. One of these days I'll go back to it.

    And that Psycho exhibit sounds fantastic. I wish I had seen it.