by Don Delillo
117 pages, Scribner
Review by Marc Nash
Delillo is my favourite living author. I even pre-ordered this in hardback, just like back in the day when I used to rush to the record shop on the day of release for a new album by whichever hot band I slavishly followed that year. Delillo and I have been together now for two decades or so.
117 pages. Like Roth, Delillo's late-career works seem to be getting shorter and shorter. Both men have written epic American novels, "American Pastoral" and "Underworld", and having come through the other side now seem so in control of their craft and language itself, that they require fewer words to convey their message.
With Delillo, it's all about the central metaphors and the sculpted words he plants as little word cluster bomblets that detonate in your reading mind as you progress, and stop you up short. "She wasn't a child who needed imaginary friends. She was imaginary to herself". You don't need to say anything else to have a full picture of this person in your mind's eye.
Not much happens in recent Delillo novels. The main characters always seem to be waiting around; stuck in a traffic jam in a limo "Cosmopolis"; a couple waiting to see which one will die before the other in "White Noise"; characters either fully stuck, or taking tentative steps to move on after 9/11 in "Falling Man".
This too is a book about waiting. A civilian specialist adviser to the US military has retired to the most isolated place he can find in order to consider the meaning of his work. A film maker accompanies him, wanting to make a single-take movie of the man addressing the camera about his findings. In the name of research, as pre-production of a scriptless movie, they hang out together in the desert.
So there's your plot. But what lifts this into a whole mind-bending joy, are the ideas casually shucked straight into your consciousness. The book opens with a description of the effect of an art installation, in which Hitchcock's "Psycho" is slowed down to 2 frames a second. A viewer, as creepy as Norman Bates himself, goes in for each of the six days of the exhibit being open. There he obsessively studies every gesture, every muscular motion slowed down, and believes it to offer a new way of seeing things. A new reality. For mankind for the first time to genuinely see itself reflected (one is reminded of Eadweard Muybridge's studies anatomising motion in the early days of photography, which must have appeared revolutionary, or at least offered new paradigms of reflexive understanding).
24 frames per second is the speed the human eye normally processes visual information at; which the brain then compares to its pre-set templates and archetypes, linguistically captioned to be named and made sense of. So language is one prong the military adviser muses on. The word "Rendition" is dissected from its artistic and constructive origins, to the snatching away of a human body that it has become within modern warfare. Other linguistically forged images are as bleak as the desert setting itself, particularly the landscape when the film-maker goes off in search of a missing person it appears to have swallowed up.
The military advisor had been charged with providing new analytics and predictives for modern warfare. But he bemoans that his work is swallowed up in distancing jargon, words to bamboozle a public that is hostile to the war in the first place. His work sought to provide a new reality for warfare, but its discoveries are hijacked by the media and bureaucratised for new ways to sell a brand; brand interdiction, collateral damage and the like. This was not the new reality he had imagined. The plug is seemingly pulled on the whole enterprise, when he suffers a local and personal body blow, which I won't reveal as a spoiler. But suffice it to say, it opens up a whole new seam of what reality could actually entail. He was looking to merge with the stone of the desert rocks, to slow down human existence to a deeper, archeological time (two or less frames a second of perception?) The personal tragedy catapults him rapidly back into the human timescale of helter skelter and mortality. The opportunity for him to replant humanity on a different path of reflexive sensibility is lost, as is the film-maker’s opportunity to capture it on celluloid.
"Point Omega" challenges the reader to consider his way of seeing (and reading too, given its inquiry into language). It asks the question of just what is the point, of everything and anything, through the guise of a man coming towards the end of his life, but who has been at the cutting edge of power and seen the manipulations of human flesh in the ultimate form of war and conflict. At 200 pages, this might have been seen as indulgent. At only 117 it is a masterpiece of layered, dense economy. Each sentence is a carefully conceived chisel into the grain of a fine marble sculpture. Delillo delivers yet again.