For more than a decade, Don DeLillo's novels have moved away from dense complexity and brilliantly reimagined history, epitomized by Underworld in 1997, toward a fiercely pared-down vision of the world.
Point Omega is the most austere yet, a slim book as bald and mysterious as a skeleton.
It has only four characters, spans only 117 pages, and it could be argued nothing much happens in it — most of the book consists of conversations and interior monologues. DeLillo is a playwright as well as a novelist, and Point Omega sometimes reads like a play. But it is a powerful novel, filled with dread, suspense and strangeness.
One of its central characters is Richard Elster, a 73-year-old scholar who has retired to an isolated house "somewhere south of nowhere in the Sonoran Desert or maybe it was the Mohave Desert or another desert altogether." Elster has withdrawn in despair after a stint as a White House adviser for the Iraq war, "a defense intellectual. . . . occupying an empty seat."
From that seat, he watched helplessly as those actually running the war "become paralyzed by the systems at their disposal. Their war is abstract. They think they're sending an army into a place on a map."
The novel's main narrator is Jim Finley, a youngish documentary filmmaker intent on persuading Elster to make a movie about his experience. A single take, no off-screen questioner, no war footage. "No plush armchair with warm lighting and books on a shelf in the background. Just a man and a wall."
Finley is so passionate about the project he assumes that, now that he has wangled an invitation to Elster's home, getting him to agree to the film will be a snap. But what Finley finds is a man so shattered he can't bother to change out of his pajamas. All Elster wants to do is talk, drink and wait for sunset as if it were a sacrament.
The novel's title comes from the idea of the omega point, first delineated by the Jesuit priest and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. The omega point is a transcendent level of complexity and consciousness toward which the universe is always moving, drawn by some supreme presence toward transformation outside space and time.
The omega point is an attractive concept for Elster, probably the reason he moved to his remote home, where the enormous, indifferent desert seems to exist outside human understanding of space and time. But Elster may not have convinced himself the omega point means transcendence; it could just as well be the point at which the universe, or at least human consciousness, collapses into exhaustion. And Elster's concern about the fate of the universe may simply be a way of thinking about his own death.
As Finley settles into the role of Elster's audience, he loses count of how many days he has stayed. At times their conversations sound like philosophy seminars, at others like a 21st century rewrite of Waiting for Godot:
" 'Look at us today. We keep inventing folk tales of the end. Animal diseases spreading, transmittable cancers. What else?'
'The climate,' I said.
'The asteroid,' I said.
'The asteroid, the meteorite. What else?'
'Famine,' he said. 'What else?'
'Give me a minute.'
'Never mind. Because this isn't interesting to me. I have no use for this. We need to think beyond this.' "
Then a third party arrives: Elster's daughter Jessie, an "otherworldly" young woman in her 20s. She has been sent from New York by Elster's ex-wife because the mother is concerned about a man Jessie has been seeing. Elster dotes upon her, Finley notes, with an "eager glow . . . but it seemed to have the effect of smothering a response, or maybe she wasn't interested in making one."
Jessie drifts through the house like a ghost as Elster dotes and Finley tries to figure out whether she is introverted, cold or something else altogether. And then a shocking event destroys their precariously balanced emotional triangle.
The story of Elster, Finley and Jessie is framed by two interior monologues by an unnamed narrator who is watching an art installation called 24 Hour Psycho in New York's Museum of Modern Art (where the installation indeed was exhibited in 2006).
It consists of the Alfred Hitchcock film Psycho, slowed down so that it takes 24 hours to run. Projected on a large screen in a dark gallery, with no sound, it obsesses the narrator: "In the time it took Anthony Perkins to turn his head, there seemed to flow an array of ideas involving science and philosophy and nameless other things, or maybe he was seeing too much."
Does that slowing down of time, that focus on every least gesture and tic, increase our understanding of an experience or dilute it? Does it make everything important, or nothing? And what do the narrator and the film have to do with what happens in the desert a continent away?
With the shimmer of violence, the bitter tang of regret, the seductive darkness of the unknown, Point Omega tells its enigmatic and compelling tale.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. She blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.