For nearly four decades, New York’s Don DeLillo has served as a kind of watchdog for the English language, keeping tabs on how it gets twisted and abused by marketers, academics, and governments alike. He likes to single out phrases that are in particular danger of becoming political decoys—smoke screens to be deployed against an easily confused public, their literal meanings scoured clean away.
Along the way, this has had a curious effect on DeLillo’s own work. His novels have been getting shorter and sparer. He’s turned to writing plays. It’s as if DeLillo has grown so wary of the written word’s power that he no longer trusts even himself to get the job done right.
His new novel, Point Omega, continues this pattern. It clocks in at just over 100 pages, and is consumed on every level with silence. Its protagonist is Richard Elster, an elderly academic who’s retreated to a shack in the desert after helping U.S. military officials plan the Iraq War. He was recruited “to give them words and meanings. Words they hadn’t used, new ways of thinking and seeing.” Now he sits on his porch, far from the din of civilization, a bitter, burnt-out generator of language.
Elster’s daughter, who comes to visit him in the desert, is similarly quiet. So, too, is the unnamed figure in the second narrative that bookends Elster’s story—a man who spends entire days in New York’s Museum of Modern Art, watching an installation that stretches Alfred Hitchcock’s film Psycho out to a full 24 hours. The installation is muted; the man approves.
Enter Jim Finley, a chatty young filmmaker who wants to make his own movie, this one a documentary of nothing but Elster talking straight into the camera. More words. Naturally, Elster doesn’t want to do it, and Finley never quite understands how drastically he’s misread the situation until the man’s daughter suddenly goes missing. It’s yet another kind of silence, and it brings both men’s priorities into sharp, urgent focus.
Treated as a novel, Point Omega doesn’t work. The pace is much too slow, the tone overly cryptic and muted. And the characters are flat—even by DeLillo standards. Approaching the text this way would be like flooring the gas pedal of a car stuck in second gear.
Better to ease up and let the book’s powers quietly wash over you. Treat it like a short story. Read it in one sitting, if you can. You’ll be rewarded. DeLillo has fashioned a tricky and surprising little gem here: as sharp as a cactus, as unsettling as radio static.
Scribner, 128 pp, $29.99, hardcover
(review originally published in The Georgia Straight, March 11, 2010)Mar 18, 2010