There is an air of mystery that surrounds Don DeLillo, both as it pertains to his oft-celebrated body of work and his notoriously private personal life. It borders on a certain degree of hero-worship, as if his relative reclusiveness allows him to know some vital thing that we, his loyal readers, do not. It is a curious combination, not without precedent, of course and also certainly not one without its incumbent critical peaks and valleys. Often lost in this discussion, however, is an understanding of DeLillo’s inspiration, of what compels him to write, in clear and exact prose, the detailed scenes of contemplative grief and suffering for which he is famous.
Such is not the case with his new novella, “Point Omega.” At 117 pages long, it is a deceptively short story for its immense density. His inspiration lies in the book’s first and last scenes, which describe an anonymous man’s interaction, on two consecutive days, with Douglas Gordon’s “24 Hour Psycho,” an art installment at the Museum of Modern Art in 2006 that, as the name implies, took the movie ”Psycho” and stretched it into a 24 hour movie. Sandwiched between what seem to be a prologue and an epilogue is the story of Richard Elster and Jim Finley, the former a retired intellectual who was intimately involved with the Iraq war and the latter an aspiring filmmaker with an avant-garde idea to film Elster telling his story. Other characters come into play as well, chiefly Jessie, Elster’s eccentric daughter, who joins the duo in the Sonoran Desert for a few weeks of drinking, contemplation and conversation. To no one’s surprise, Point Omega, like most of DeLillo’s repertoire, is not particularly active.
Despite being narrated in the first-person by Finley, the story pivots around Elster — his thoughts, ideas, motives and values. Finley’s proposed film is never actually made, but to be fair, it doesn’t have to be. This book is ostensibly Finley’s camera and Elster the principle subject. It is a profoundly philosophical piece and dwells on the nature of consciousness in both practical and theoretical terms. The DeLillo scenes of suffering are ones of silence and reserve, but the message is ultimately loud and clear — through no fault of our own, we all strive to die. Human consciousness, as a stage in the life of matter, is infinitesimal and the inevitability of death is coming sooner than we think and driven by forces that we create.
There is an inherent truth to the idea that we are all headed towards a death we cannot control. Death is unexplainable and has nothing to do with what we want or what we hope. But one wonders if DeLillo hasn’t become a bit too pessimistic about life — about the wonderful convergence of circumstances that can result in consciousness in the first place. Perhaps we do miss too much in life, but we also don’t spend our lives in the desert, regretting the nature of our being. We appreciate the parts that we do live and the things that we do notice and that is all the more gratifying.
To that end, Don DeLillo still has something useful to say, but he didn’t need 117 pages to say it. Instead, the opening and closing scenes would have been enough.