Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Ruptures in time: Point Omega

The new novel begins and ends with brief passages titled ‘Anonymity.’ Set in 2006, their anonymous protagonist keeps returning to the Museum of Modern Art to contemplate
24 Hour Psycho, Douglas Gordon’s projection of the well-known Alfred Hitchcock film, slowed down to the point where it takes a full day to reach completion. The protagonist is arguably the artist’s dream audience—certainly the dream reader for author Don DeLillo—alert to nuance, patient, subject to reverie, willing to take on the promise of ambitious, puzzling, or ostensibly difficult work. “To see what’s there, 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 protagonist knows the work he’s witnessing is incomplete without an engaged audience there to grapple with it, willing to participate in a silent dialogue about the tingle of inevitability, and how our perception of time’s passage defines our place in the world. “…things barely happening, cause and effect so drastically drawn apart that it seemed real to him…” I saw 24 Hour Psycho myself some years ago in Mexico City, and found I related utterly, rapturously to DeLillo’s essay-like meditation on Gordon’s unforgettable piece. So, you know, be warned.

The bulk of
Point Omega (Scribner, $29.99) however does not involve the protagonist of these bookend passages. That protagonist would appear to be DeLillo himself in fact, his sighting of a peculiar pair of strange men at the Gordon installation, as well as the installation itself, being the apparent prompt for this novel, which is far more concerned with investigating Gordon’s implied questions about time than it is with spinning out a fully realized narrative. (Another warning.) The men are Richard Elster, a 73-year-old scholar—he’s the same age as DeLillo is now—who was summoned by the Pentagon to help plan the Iraq War, and Jim Finley, our narrator, a young filmmaker hoping to convince Elster to the be the sole subject of a sort of minimalist documentary, something akin to The Fog of War or Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary, but more formally rigorous, and probably more foolish. Elster invites Finley to his home deep in the desert, never really conceding to do the project but seducing Finley in an odd way with his often cryptic, sometimes funny, sometimes quite profound thoughts on time and the elusiveness of self. “The true life takes place when we’re alone, thinking, feeling, lost in memory, dreamingly self-aware… This is how we live and think whether we know it or not. These are the unsorted thoughts we have looking out of the train window, small dull smears of meditative panic.”

Of course these abstractions may simply be Elster’s way of avoiding culpability. “War creates a closed world,” he tells Finley. “We have a living history and I thought I would be in the middle of it. But in those rooms, with those men, it was all priorities, statistics, evaluations, rationalizations.” Maybe he was just flattered by the attention. Maybe that’s also the reason why he allowed Finley to come out to the desert to subvert his solitude. But then a third party joins them, Elster’s daughter, who Finley is clearly attracted to though it takes him a bit to realize it. And then, in the midst of the trio’s odd cohabitation, she’s gone. Out here, in this place of expansive, primordial stillness, where time and space hold the promise of slowing down and evaporating us, in this place where the men come with cell phones and GPS to secure a connection to the outside world which they can utilize at will, the daughter just disappears, and the bond between these men gets denser, and weirder. It could seem like Elster’s musings on the omega point inadvertently delivered his own progeny to that place of non-being or emergence with the infinite. Maybe this is the result of some bafflingly complicated karma. Maybe, like
Psycho’s Marion Crane, Elster’s daughter simply never realized she’d exited one private trap only to find herself in another, more dreadful trap in the lonesome desert heat.

Point Omega shouldn’t be read for the purpose of becoming gripped by a rousing mystery tale, or provoked by a work of political interrogation, something DeLillo is surprisingly only half-interested in. Rather, I would suggest reading this as a way of immersing oneself in a state of observation, careful questioning, heightened sensual awareness of the world, and unnerving uncertainty. For this reason, Point Omega is much closer in spirit to DeLillo’s 2001 novel The Body Artist than to his more famous novels, such as White Noise or Underworld. The Body Artist is, like Point Omega, a very slim book. It also deals with a sort of disappearance, also concerns the limits of language, and also functions as a sort of essay on the power of audacious art to capture essences of being. It’s about a woman named Lauren, the body artist of the title, who loses a husband and soon after discovers a strange, mentally handicapped man hiding in her home who seems to be channeling conversations she’d recently had with her husband, almost replaying them like a recording device. Her encounters with this man, as well as with strangers spied on the street, lays the groundwork for a hypnotic new performance piece in which she adopts several personas through a physical discipline so rigorous it threatens to exhaust her beyond repair while helping her discover a way of mourning.

I’d read
The Body Artist a few times already, and when I decided to revisit it as a way of thinking about Point Omega, I found myself coming at it from two different angles. I’m in Vancouver just now and, what with the weather being uncharacteristically sunny, I’ve been walking for hours every day through the city, so I decided to have as my aural accompaniment on these walks an audiobook of The Body Artist read by musician and performance artist Laurie Anderson. I read a bit of the book, then listen to a portion of the audiobook. I can’t recommend Anderson’s rendition enough—it helped me to rediscover the compelling strangeness and wit and insight of DeLillo’s highly stylized novel. And Anderson’s so good with vocal modulations that Lauren’s gradual absorption of other voices comes off as eerily plausible. Of course to enjoy this I’ve had to steer clear of Olympic mania, which is about as far from engendering states of contemplation as anything I’ve ever seen in my life.