Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Book review: DeLillo's 'Omega' not worth the trouble

By Chauncey Mabe

So many unkind ways to begin a discussion of Don DeLillo’s new novel present themselves, I can hardly bring myself to choose.

First and easiest: This should be called “Pointless Omega” (ba-bum!). Or how about: If you think $24 is a lot to spend for a 117-page novel, don’t worry, you’ll get your money’s worth -- because it reads like a thousand!

But I suppose I should behave like a grown-up, despite bitterness at having wasted several nights of my life struggling through this little monstrosity, and say that Point Omega will once again revive the literary dispute incited most famously by Ernest Hemingway.

Readers of Hemingway’s story Big Two-Hearted River divide into two camps. One finds in it a young man recovering from the horrors of World War I. Another finds a precisely described solo fly-fishing expedition.

The story is the most perfect example of Hemingway’s “iceberg” principle, by which a writer, once he has a deep understanding of a subject, strengthens a piece of fiction by leaving most of the information out. Hemingway knew the horrors of World War I, having served as an ambulance driving and gotten wounded for his trouble, and so Big Two-Hearted River is about a man recovering from shell shock, if the reader cares to see it.

Point Omega by contrast is supposed to be about the Iraq War and the imbecilities of self-deception by which intelligent and sophisticated high-ranking American officials led us into its particular variety of horror. DeLillo is certainly knowledgeable about such things. For going on 40 years he’s been one of our top novelists, with such modern classics to his credit as White Noise (1985), Mao II (1991), Underworld (1997), and my favorite, Libra, his 1988 fictional speculation on what Lee Harvey Oswald was really up to in the Texas School Book Depository.

Yet for all the deep knowledge DeLillo may have left out of Point Omega, it is mainly a story about two men talking. With a nonsensical subplot about a missing woman. And portentous reference, fore and aft, to an art installation presenting Hitchcock’s Psycho slowed down to a runtime of 24 hours, start to finish.

An older man named Richard Elster, a professional smart guy –what’s lately come to be termed a “public intellectual” – has retreated to the Southwestern desert after taking part in the planning for the Iraq War. He’s followed by Jim Finley, a slightly addled aspiring filmmaker who wants Elster to star in his one-take documentary about the war. Elster can’t make up his mind, but he seems to like the attention.

DeLillo, a terrific writer, wrings suspense out of the very minor question: Will Elster participate in the movie or not? Most of the action, such as it is, consists of two men sitting in the desert talking (and also drinking, quite a lot). And even though this talk – whether about the war, or about filmmaking, or poetry, or whatever – amounts to almost nothing, DeLillo still manages it make it interesting.

And that’s despite preposterous exchanges like this one, when Elster asks Finley why he’s so skinny, even though he eats. ‘”I seem to eat. I do eat. But all the energy, all the nourishment gets sucked up by the film,’ I tell him. ‘The body gets nothing.’” That’s the kind of line that gets a book thrown across the room. But this is DeLillo, so have patience.

But patience is not rewarded. After awhile – perhaps even DeLillo grew bored – Elster’s troubled daughter, Jessie, shows up, sent to the desert by her mother to get her away from an unsuitable man in New York. The shy and sensitive Finley becomes sexually obsessed with her, although she’s entirely indifferent to him. And then one day she disappears.

The will-he/won’t-he dance between Elster and Finley is swept away in the search for Jessie. As days go by with no sign of her in the desert, Elster crumbles into old age, decrepitude, senility. Finley thinks Jessie may have come to the desert to commit suicide. She certainly acted depressed.

Don’t expect any resolution to Jessie’s disappearance though. That would be for a very different book, one actually concerned with people, rather than the big-headed concept of the Omega Point, cooked up by the French Jesuit and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin as the key transitional state in the evolution of consciousness. Or something.

In other words, Point Omega is a novel of ideas, not story, not character, despite the illusion of story and the simulacrum of character. It opens and closes with some poor wretch obsessed with an art installation called 24 Hour Psycho (which actually exists).

Yeah, yeah, I realize 24 Hour Psycho is supposed to serve as a kind of chorus, commenting on the “action” of the novel. I know that Elster’s solipsism, which ruins Jessie, also influences the awful war. I know that Point Omega is an apocalyptic novel, examining the point at which human mind fades into exhausted insensibility, or explodes into God consciousness.

But who cares? Not me. This game is not worth the candle.

Chauncey Mabe is the former books editor of the Sun-Sentinel. He can be reached at Visit him on Facebook.

Point Omega. Don DeLillo. Scribner. $24. 117 pp.

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