26 April, 2010Issue 12.1FictionLiterature

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At the Edge of Time

Ed Sugden

foerDon Delillo
Point Omega
Picador, 2010
224 Pages
ISBN 978-0330512381

Point Omega opens in an art gallery: 24 Hour Psycho is playing, an infinitesimally slowed down version of Hitchcock’s classic. An unnamed narrator reflects on its strange and hypnotic unfurling. The film allows him “to see what’s here, finally to look and to know you’re looking, to feel time passing, to be alive to what is happening in the smallest registers of motion”. The opening of Point Omega is less a framing device than a considered reflection on aesthetic practice—the narrator of this mysterious introduction seems to be suggesting how we might read the book itself. Rather than depending on seismic plot shifts and grand theatrical gestures, Point Omega exists in “the smallest registers of motion”, in the ebbing of ideas, and the slow disintegration of narrative. As readers, we must be alert to the minutiae; we must be patient.

It might seem odd that DeLillo feels the need to guide the reader into the work. After all, very few contemporary novelists have achieved his degree of critical acclaim. Both White Noise (1985) and Underworld (1997) are widely considered masterpieces, and American critic Harold Bloom has placed DeLillo alongside Thomas Pynchon, Cormac McCarthy, and Philip Roth in his canon of great living American novelists. His influence has been wide-ranging and immense, especially on the latest generation of American postmodernists, notably Jonathan Franzen, David Foster Wallace, and Bret Easton Ellis. On this side of the Atlantic, he has professed fans in Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie.

Yet, for all these accolades, his most recent novels—from The Body Artist (2001) onwards—have been far less favourably received, with critics decrying various forms of perceived shallowness, whether of plot, character, or concept. We might suppose, then, that the narrator’s directive on how to receive art, on how to generate a meaningful response to it, stems from an understandable anxiety on DeLillo’s part for people to understand Point Omega and to respond to it on its own terms. Bearing this in mind, and to put it rather bluntly, it would be wrong to assess the book in terms of plot. Yet if a novel is not plot-based then on what foundations does it rest? Can it be any more than self-indulgent meandering?

In Point Omega’s case, the answer is a resounding yes. Though far too considered and pensive a novel for it to be termed triumphant, it nonetheless showcases DeLillo’s gift for balancing stylistic depth with conceptual abstraction. It generates characters genuinely and movingly trying to negotiate with various versions of finality. As such, the meaningful analogues to it are not those novels that follow complexly contrived Dickensian plot arcs, but rather those that posit more diaphanous orders of meaning—the narratives of W.G. Sebald come to mind. What “happens” is somehow secondary to the scope of the ideas and the language used to render and exemplify them.

Unlike The Body Artist which came dangerously close to a turgid sententiousness, and suffered from a callow narrative voice, Point Omega has a considered, plaintive quality, which imbues the actions of the characters with an odd dignity and the language with a quiet discipline.

Insofar as there is a narrative, it concerns the efforts of youngish (but already failed) filmmaker Jim Finley to persuade retired academic and former Iraq War military advisor Richard Elster to be in his film. This film would simply involve Elster standing in front of a blank wall offering his philosophies on life and reflections upon the ongoing war. Elster resists at first, but finally invites Finley to come and stay with him in the desert retreat where the bulk of the action takes place. The two men discuss life, space, and time, and are later joined by Elster’s mysterious daughter Jessie, a spectral half-absent figure. When Jessie is endangered by a mysterious silent stalker, it provides the two men with the tableau to discuss various forms of loss and temporal entropy.

The novel takes its title from Teilhard de Chardin’s concept of the “Omega Point”, which, in a recent interview, DeLillo summed up as being “the possible idea that human consciousness is reaching a point of exhaustion and that what comes next may be either a paroxysm or something enormously sublime and unenvisionable.” In keeping with this notion, the book is suffused with a sense of fatigue and exhaustion, as if a terminus of some sort has been reached. There is a mournful starkness to the writing, as though DeLillo’s own idiom is almost used up. This intellectual background not only shapes the interactions of the characters but also the formulation of a consciously belated and increasingly mined-out age. Elster argues that “we want to be the dead matter we used to be. We’re the last billionth of a second in the evolution of matter.” Similarly, he discusses modern apocalypses with Finley:

“We keep inventing folk tales of the end. Animal diseases spreading, transmittable cancers. What else?”
“The climate,” I said.
“The climate.”
“The asteroid,” I said.
“The asteroid, the meteorite. What else?”
“Famine, worldwide.”
“Famine,” he said. “What else?”

Some sort of catastrophic blankness, grimly ironic, broods on the horizon, a creeping sense of impending doom that lends a tautness to the book, a definitiveness that is never fully realised. That Elster’s own end might be near adds a personal and moving charge to a narrative that might otherwise seem slightly cold and abstract. Elster tells Finley how he “was thinking when I was a small kid how 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.” In other words, the passing of time brings out a disjunction, a shock that an end, of some sort at least, is near.

Time, indeed, forms the conceptual node of the book. Elster’s rejection of his military past and his retirement into the desert is one aspect of a more general effort on his part to find different modes for perceiving temporality. As he phrases it, Elster exchanges his previous, civilised, governmental life “for space and time”, for a pure and direct confrontation with these primeval forces. Indeed, in one of his many conversations with Finley, he tells us how

Time slows down when I’m here. Time becomes blind. I feel the landscape more than see it. I never know what day it is. I never know whether a minute has passed or an hour. I don’t get old here.

This passage reflects Elster’s broader effort to delineate and separate different sorts of time: he rejects urban time as “dimwit time, inferior time, people checking watches” and argues that “cities were built to measure time, to remove time from nature.” Instead, he favours the time of the desert, “deep time, epochal time. Our lives receding into the long past.”

Yet though it might seem that Elster is welcoming obliteration, the fear of death, as in most of DeLillo’s works, lurks in the background. Elster’s temporal theorisations are ultimately undercut by his own imaginings of death and the void. A terror underwrites them, an ambiguity generated by a man ineluctably confronting “pure mystery”. It is this sense of mystery that shapes and sustains the novel in the absence of a fully articulated plot. This force of negation, indeed, seems to be used by DeLillo to confront and undermine our ideas of narrative itself. What sort of narrative can exist in the face of obliteration? Point Omega is a brave attempt to try to examine what remains, what can survive.

Ed Sugden is reading for a DPhil in English Literature at Linacre College, Oxford.