In September 2006, in the thick of the United States’ war in Iraq, a man stands day after day in the shadows of a room at the Museum of Modern Art, watching an installation of Hitchcock’s Psycho slowed down and stretched to a 24-hour videowork. When the book opens, it is the second to last day of the screening, and he is watching the infamous shower scene with a devotional, and yet dispassionate, engrossment. He has spent five days immersed in this altered reality. We don’t encounter this man again until the epilogue, when weeks have passed in the lives of our protagonists, but he is still there, in decelerated time. It is the sixth and final day of the installation and when he leaves this room, his reality isn’t the only one that will be permanently lacerated.
At just under 120 pages, Don DeLillo’s Point Omega has the effect of a small, slick razor – the cut itself is brief, the sting far more lasting. A disturbing yet remarkably accessible novel, it leads to ponderings about human consciousness and conscience, heavy and even dark subjects, without resorting to labored rhetoric. The “war intellectual” Richard Elster has retreated into the desert upon retirement, which is where an experimental filmmaker named Jim Finley seeks him out. Finley wants to make a single-take documentary featuring an unscripted monologue by Elster, who in spite of his reluctance has invited the filmmaker to visit. The visit runs into weeks of dialogue and Scotch, and Finley stops counting the days, until Elster’s daughter Jessie also comes to stay, and an inexplicable event throws things into disarray.
Slim in pages and sparse in its prose, for a story largely about the distortion of time and space, Point Omega zips by rapidly. This makes it all the more successful; unlike the prolonged Psycho of its prologue and epilogue, it saturates the mind far quicker – densely packed as it is with ideas that might be described as almost post-apocalyptic. Having left his work under the Bush regime disillusioned (“They think they’re sending an army into a place on a map”), Elster’s mind turns increasingly toward concepts of reality and how it is experienced. Once a scholar who wanted the profound simplicity of a “haiku war”, and who traced the etymology of conflict jargon, he has begun to believe that language itself has lost its purpose, and that humanity seeks to devolve into a point of lower consciousness. Out in the desert, he aspires to a sort of disappearance into the landscape – a wish that proves to be ironic.
What this novel owes to cinema is reflected not only in elements of plot detail, but in its entire mood and pacing. It is not so much the gothic horror of Hitchcock that DeLillo takes as influence here, but modern films with a dystopian sense of foreboding, evoking, among others, the surreal desert landscapes of Bruno Dumont’s 29 Palms, or the unnerving noir of a David Lynch work.
Point Omega is a formidable novel, and deceptively enjoyable. Absorbed by the concepts of modern existence it presents, one forgets that the realities and probabilities it describes are neither fictional nor of a time other than ours. Like Elster, who believes that cities are built to keep out “the terror” (even as they are the arenas on which terror, as we know it today, plays out in the world), and yet is utterly unprepared to see it magnified and manifested in the desert, one emerges from this book disoriented by its power.
An edited version appeared in today’s The New Sunday Express.