Not a movie but a conceptual art piece…like watching the universe die over a period of about seven billion years…I stayed awhile. Because even when something happens, you’re waiting for it to happen.
-Richard Elster on 24 Hour Psycho
Don DeLillo’s latest novel, Point Omega, like his (perhaps) greatest novel, Underworld, opens by restaging a significant, late-modern, American cultural event. The Prologue to Underworld (which has been published separately), explored the events surrounding Bobby Thomson’s “shot heard ’round the world.” Point Omega, on the other hand, opens with Jim Finley viewing 24 Hour Psycho, a 2006 MoMA exhibit by Douglas Gordon, who slowed Hitchcock’s classic movie down such that it takes 24 hours to play. Finley can be safely viewed as an extension of DeLillo himself, who has confessed to having become obsessively mesmerized with the MoMA installation.
This is where the comparison between the two books ends. Point Omega lacks the depth and cultural significance of Underworld, and it lacks the sustained engagement, adventure and humor of his earlier, encyclopedic works (White Noise, Libra, Underworld, Mao II). Like his more recent, shorter works, Point Omega focuses throughout on a narrowly defined situation involving a small cast of characters (in this case, three people). From the specifics of the situation, we as the reader then have to work through descriptive and efficient prose to derive a larger meaning, as opposed to the encyclopedic works in which the larger themes, issues and consequences come first and from which individual and focused meaning eventually emerges.
The narrower focus is not an inherent negative and suggests an artistic attempt to begin from the concrete rather than the abstract. However, DeLillo struggles to develop the abstract from the initial, inspired cinematic event. Psycho qua art film affords promising raw material for DeLillo, and he seems his most inspired during the two chapters that bookend the novel, “Anonymity” and “Anonymity 2”, which are set within the MoMA screening room.
Unlike the opening to Underworld, the Psycho screening takes place on a much quieter stage on which DeLillo first addresses the dynamics of becoming imperceptible. The movie, reduced to a hyper version of Brechtian gestic cinema, makes the most ubiquitous cultural references of late modernism new again, returning the film and viewer to a realm of preindividuated thought. DeLillo writes, “This was the real movie. He was seeing everything here for the first time” (107). For Deleuze, following Brecht, gestic cinema moves from the realm of attitudes and postures into gests, which are irreducible to plot or subject (Cinema 2: The Time-Image 192). After Finley encounters a stranger during his final screening of the film, DeLillo writes:
She told him she was standing a million miles outside the fact of whatever’s happening on the screen. She liked that. She told him she liked the idea of slowness in general. So many things go so fast, she said. We need time to lose interest in things (107).
Detached from narrative, these gests become loci of intensities, a dynamic version of Muybridge and Maret’s photographic experiments. New strategies of viewing also emerge. The double-sided translucent screen allows spectators to watch the reverse image of the film and even question on which side is the original. This Psycho is not merely a simulacra or representation of Hitchcock’s.
The heightened level of required concentration makes the familiar unfamiliar and draws attention to the act of looking, to strategies of selection, attention and perception. The film flattens and decontextualizes all objects and events. “It takes close attention to see what is happening in front of you,” the narrator tells us. Finley singles out the individual shower curtain rings during one viewing of a scene that, despite its legendary status, was less than a minute long in the original.
All the other relations in the film and its viewing become untied as well. The film decenters humans from a point of privilege, refusing to care about our need for sleep, food, or our attention span; it takes 24 hours of continuous time to complete, whether or not someone is watching.
The bulk of the novel extends this theme of becoming imperceptible to a much larger scale as Finley travels to the (very) remote and hostile California desert, a place of extreme psychological and physical intensities where he hopes to convince Richard Elster, an aging strategist and “conceptualist” of the Iraq War, to participate in a documentary, the treatment of which seems a lot like Errol Morris’ Fog of War, only set outside and completed in one unedited take: “Just a man and a wall” (21). The setting further distinguishes Finley, who seems more focused on the task at hand, from Elster, who seems much more in touch with his long duration.
Elster’s house is “a sad hybrid” (18), which reflects his personal duality and conflict. While turning in one direction toward the larger world of open space and time in order “to feel the deep heat beating into his body, feel the body itself, reclaim the body from what he called the nausea of News and Traffic” (17-18), in the other direction, he turns inward toward a smaller-scale, intimate Cartesian space. Elster repeats that “The true life takes place when we’re alone, thinking feeling, lost in memory, dreamingly self-aware, the submicroscopic moments” (17).
Elster desires a synthesis of these dualisms, which he seems convinced the desert can provide. The difference between the screening room and the desert is a difference between a world of visualization and images, on the one hand, and a world of time and affect, on the other. Elster wants to feel the world, rather than see it. He says:
It’s different here, time is enormous, that’s what I feel here, palpably. Time that precedes us and survives us […] This is time draining out of our lives, Cities were built to measure time, to remove time from nature (44-45).
Point Omega suggests that no mediation between these outer and inner worlds, between urban and rural, between the utilitarian, political world of destruction and the aesthetic, emotional world of creation is possible.
The irony is that the Elster who participated in the Iraq war was the only Elster who was truly creative. “There were times,” he says, “when no map existed to match the reality we were trying to create.” And he seems to understand this level of creation, likening it to Haiku in which words exist outside of representation. “Haiku means nothing beyond what it is” (29). Yet as the narrator tells us:
He’d exchange all that [the reality of his work with the Pentagon] for space and time. These were things he seemed to absorb through his pores. There were the distances that enfolded every feature of the landscape and there was the force of geologic time, out there somewhere, the string grids of excavators searching for weathered bone (19).
But for DeLillo, this exchange apparently comes at the price of hope, which is lost by detaching from our modern world. The world of the museum exhibition, cinematic space and time, as well as Elster’s idealized (though never realized) desert existence, cannot be extended in any meaningful way into the real world without a violent collision into all that which prevents us from thinking differently or acting with any semblance of autonomy.
The title of the novel is taken from Teilhard de Chardin, whom Elster had studied, and for whom the omega point signifies “Paroxysm. Either a sublime transformation of mind and soul or some worldly convulsion” (72). Point Omega also signifies a rather destitute end:
The omega point has narrowed, here and now, to the point of a knife as it enters a body. All the man’s grand themes funneled down to local grief, one body, out there somewhere, or not (98).
The sense of playfulness, irony and humor found in Gordon’s slow Psycho (as well as DeLillo’s earlier works) is missing from Point Omega. Our encounter with duration and imperceptibility seems rather dire as it is explored here. DeLillo provides no strategies and no vocabulary for productively reconceptualizing or moving beyond this depressing point.
We realize that Elster has already reached his omega point. His daughter, Jessie, who “was sylphlike, her element was air” (49) reaches hers when, after arriving with the sole ostensible purpose of revealing Finley as a rather creepy voyeur, she literally disappears in the desert, never to be found.
Finally, Finley reaches his point omega during a final screening of Psycho. After a promising but failed encounter with a strange woman, he departs the cinema space, revealed as meaningful but unreal, into the real but meaningless space in which the most pressing issue is what to buy in the museum gift shop.