Ursula K. Le Guin vs. the Shock of the New

The Oregonian recently profiled Ursula K. Le Guin, who at 80 is still writing (albeit more poetry than fiction) and has taken on a prominent role in protesting the Google book settlement. Her age keeps her from teaching like she used to, but she adds that her health isn’t the only thing that holds her back from leading a classroom:

“[T]here is also that gap between the young student and the old teacher, which all teachers, if they’re honest, worry about,” she says. “The language has begun to change, literally. You may be going along saying things that are perfectly clear to you and they don’t know what you’re saying, and vice versa.”

Given her concern about copyright, stories like “The Free-Appropriation Artist” in the New York Times may justify her wariness; she’s concerned about the sanctity of the author at a time when more attention is drawn toward people who are actively trying to undo it. The Times story revisits the much-discussed recent cases of German novelist Helene Hegemann and novelist-essayist David Shields, both of whom are getting attention for testing the boundaries of fair use and freely borrowing from other texts. Shields’ book, Reality Hunger, lobbies hard for a literary culture that does more heavy borrowing and mash-ups, and I’m a little skeptical about how pioneering or promising that idea is. (Though to be fair, Shields isn’t arguing he’s doing something brand-new—just that writers ought to be doing a lot more experimenting in this space then they have.)

Le Guin has reasons to resist; in recent years she’s expressed disappointment that she didn’t get enough credit as an influence on the Harry Potter series. But she may not be as far removed from the new enthusiasm for heavy borrowing as her complaints about J.K. Rowling suggest. In a 1982 interview with the Missouri Review, she discussed her 1971 novel The Lathe of Heaven in the context of how science fiction thrives on such mixing and matching:

You could almost call it, “Homage a Dick.” I was openly, I trust, acknowledging the influence. My approach was like saying, “This is one great way to write a novel, invented by Philip K. Dick.” That’s one thing about science fiction: writers in the genres are less uptight about imitation and emulation than “mainstream” people. Writing should really be more like music, with its healthy spirit of borrowing—as in the period of Bach, as in all healthy artistic periods. Everybody borrowing from each others’ tunes and ideas like crazy and nobody worrying. There’s plenty of music to go around.

But that quote is easily accessible on Google Books, so perhaps Le Guin might have a problem with it?

Links: Good Enough for Government Work

I recently finished Adam Haslett‘s novel on financial malfeasance and the definition of good citizenship, Union Atlantic. More soon, but for now suffice to say it’s a rare case of a novel I wished were longer. Turns out Haslett cut out plenty.

Parents of students at a high school in Santa Rosa, California, recently attempted to pull T.C. Boyle‘s The Tortilla Curtain from its reading list. Boyle’s response: “I do take it as a badge of honor…. It’s preposterous. Look at what kids are exposed to daily in the pure crap on TV or at the movies or rock and roll—it’s a free country. This is art. How many rape scenes do you suppose the average child has seen watching TV in his life?”

A Harvard Crimson columnist reads the first section of Philip Roth‘s American Pastoral and detects a “heavy fog of exhausted and demoralized irony,” whatever that is. Failing to complete the novel doesn’t prevent the writer from drawing comparisons to The Road. Now, committing acts of comparative literature can be great fun, but it works a lot better when you’ve actually finished both books. I had assumed this was taught at Harvard.

Joyce Carol Oates recalls growing up in Lockport, New York—a hometown that, she notes, she shares with Timothy McVeigh. Her interest in creepy violence in both fiction and nonfiction being well-documented, it makes a certain sense that she’d be tapped as a source for a story on Amy Bishop.

Tobias Wolff inspires a tattoo.

Ole Miss is trying to come up with a new mascot. Why not William Faulkner?

A documentary on David Goodis is now available on DVD. The trailer:

Radio Day

At a little after 10 a.m. EST today, I’ll be a guest on the Minnesota Public Radio program Midmorning, talking about the pleasures of rereading. As I’ve mentioned last week, rereading is something I don’t do as much as I’d like, though I swear my call for comments last week wasn’t an attempt to crowdsource my on-air patter. I imagine I may have a thing or two to say about Studs Terkel, Roger Ebert, Ward Just, and Nelson Algren, which may only mean I reread whenever I miss Chicago. Happily, I’ll be backstopped again by Janice Harayda, the segment’s other guest, creator of One-Minute Book Reviews. The MPR site appears to have a live stream, so please tune in if you’re able.

Update: The segment is now available for listening online.

G-Rated Reviewing

Daniel Green at the Reading Experience has taken notice of my blog post on Don DeLillo‘s new novel, Point Omega—a post that was intended as a sort of supplement to the DeLillo review I wrote for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. Green is politely approving of the newspaper review, but he’s much kinder toward the blog post, concluding that “blog-published reviews and criticism in general are more satisfying in this way than what can be found in print publications, especially newspapers.”

Before going on, I want to say that I’m grateful for Green’s compliments—he doesn’t dispense them casually—and that I’d sooner shuck out my eyeballs with a rusty fork than revisit old squabbles about the virtues of bloggers versus newspaper book reviewers. But it might be useful to say a little bit about the “perceived ‘general’ audience” of a newspaper book review, and why it’s worth respecting.

As with most daily newspapers, the circulation of the Star-Tribune has been declining in recent years—the Sunday edition (where most of the book reviews run) has around half a million readers. This blog’s readership is smaller than that, to put it mildly; indeed, few Web outlets could compete with those single-day readership numbers. (The Canadian Newspaper Association launched a clever advertising campaign last year that stressed the disparity in audience size.) That doesn’t mean that litblogs are proportionally less important than newspapers—it certainly doesn’t mean they’re more poorly written—but it does mean that writing for a newspaper involves a different set of obligations toward an audience that’s still worth respecting.

For one thing, I can’t assume that the reader of a newspaper review is somebody like Daniel Green, who has a strong interest in books and the critical conversations that surround them. I can’t even responsibly assume that the reader is especially interested in books, let alone books written by Don DeLillo. The person flipping through the Sunday paper generally has little idea what he or she is interested in; it could be healthcare, or last night’s game, or Hi and Lois. The best I can hope for is a reader who’s perhaps heard of DeLillo, and who might know that he’s a much-decorated novelist concerned with contemporary American life. Assuming anything else is assuming way too much. After all, any journalist who covers healthcare reform can’t even assume that Americans know how many senators it takes to break a filibuster.

Writing in the face of such ignorance is, understandably, an unappealing prospect for a lot of people, particularly book reviewers. But ignorance is not the same thing as stupidity. If I can’t assume much baseline knowledge in a newspaper’s readership, I can at least assume a degree of interest in being told about something they haven’t heard about before. Which is why I think of compressing a statement about Point Omega into 450 words is an interesting challenge and not an exercise in futility; how can I convince somebody to find DeLillo as interesting as I do? If newspaper book reviews often fall into the category of lazy “lifestyle reporting,” as Green puts it, I can at least do my own bit to avoid the most egregious problems with daily newspaper reviews. Those are legion, but the majority could be avoided by simply policing for cliches like “stunning,” “dazzling,” and the like. And I can’t think of a circumstance where I’d write a newspaper book review in the first person. As a journalism professor once put it, “A good story doesn’t need you in it,” and I think asking a reader to care about both a book they haven’t read and a person they haven’t met is outright idiocy. Some people are clever enough to pull off that trick. I don’t believe I am.

All that said, writing shorter and shorter reviews is damned frustrating. When I began reviewing regularly for the Chicago Sun-Times in 2003, my average assignment was 1,200 words. Now 500 words is a luxury. Newspaper reviewers now typically toil at what George Orwell considered pointless labor: “Short notes of a line or two on forthcoming books can be useful,” he once wrote, “but the usual middle-length review of about 600 words is bound to be worthless even if the reviewer genuinely wants to write it.” I genuinely want to write it, but I’m genuinely frustrated with it, which is why I’ve started getting into the habit of writing supplementary posts to my reviews. That’s something I’ve done before with Joshua FerrisThe Unnamed and hope to do more of in the future. They’re fun to write, and they help me write down a few thoughts that I couldn’t squeeze into the review proper. But I don’t write off the value of the original review versus the blog post, even if I disregard which article got me a paycheck and which one didn’t.


For reasons that’ll be clear in a few days, I’ve been spending some time thinking about my rereading habits—or lack thereof. If I’m not reading something I’m reviewing (which is how I spend about half my reading time), I tend to reach for something brand-new to me. Seems like the responsible thing to do. Better I consume the mediocre-but-buzzed-about new novel I’m plodding through now than take another pass at, oh, Light in August. At least the new novel is teaching me something, even if what it’s mostly teaching me is what sort of things get buzz these days; going back to William Faulkner means actively closing myself off from something new, and (worse) it also means I run the risk of coming away from the book less impressed than I was with it at 25.

I’m not alone in feeling this particular low-level anxiety. David Gates summed up the rereader’s mindset pretty well last year in Newsweek. But his enthusiasm for rereading largely involves an eagerness to experience particular characters again, an attitude I find a little baffling—it sounds a little too much like you’re all excited about hanging out with your imaginary friend. Rereading mainly seems appealing to me if it offers some kind of window into a writer’s process. About a year and a half ago I spent some time reading or rereading George Pelecanos‘ novels with the intention of locating some of his tics when it comes to writing about Washington, D.C.. The piece is a little tongue-in-cheek, and it’s probably not the way he’d prefer his books be read, but it didn’t make me any less of a fan of his; he’s not a worse writer for having a few habits, and I wasn’t worse off for discovering a few of them.

I don’t tend to throw questions directly to readers—I don’t have the “online community manager” gene, and I fear that such appeals come off as a little needy and manipulative. But there’s a first time for everything, and seeing as I’m not sure when I’ll have another opportunity to post at length, now is as good a time as any to invite the commentariat to weigh in. What prompts you to reread, and what do you tend to reach for when you do?

The Sway of Forward Progress

David ShieldsReality Hunger: A Manifesto is an inspirational book, the kind of extended piece of criticism that is so passionate about its argument and so clever in its execution that it’s hard to resist letting your feelings rise up to match his. Yes, yes, up with mashups! Down with traditional novelistic structures! Away with the notion that fiction can create a reality that substantially differs from the reality of the author who created the fiction in the first place! “The real overwhelms the fictional, is incomparably more compelling than an invented drama,” Shields writes in one of the 600-odd paragraphs that is in fact his and not repurposed from another source*. His argument is that the clearest, most intriguing literary works foreground the author and the things from which he stole—and that the author is now compelled to do this foregrounding thanks to the upheavals in other forms of culture. There’s no better proof that the strategy can succeed than the existence of Reality Hunger itself. After all that talk about the death of the author, it’s nice to see somebody argue for the life of it.

But—and there’s always a but, because if history teaches us anything it’s that it’s best not to reflexively embrace everything with the word “manifesto” in the title—one problem with Reality Hunger is that Shields is better at venting his exasperation with traditional narrative structures than he is at showing why, exactly, they fail. “If I’m reading a book and it seems truly interesting,” he writes, “I tend to start reading back to front in order not to be too deeply under the sway of forward progress.” Even if I resist my instinct to write this behavior as poseurish nonsense, Shields doesn’t address what benefits he might derive from such a backwards reading. And though twice he voices his enthusiasm for Renata Adler’s 1976 novel Speedboat as an example of the kind of anti-narrative, anti-“realistic” novel he aches for, he dwells little on what in its structure (or lack of it) inspires him so.

Of course, spending time discussing rules for successful anti-fiction would be programmatic and thus run counter to his intentions—it’s going to have to be enough to say that what works is anything that helps the reader avoid that “sway of forward progress.” Shields knows that this kind of writing is nothing new—his inspirations go back to Borges and encompasses Spalding Gray, Art Spiegelman, Lydia Davis, and more. Wherever memoir and fiction merge is where he wants to be, and whatever rejects the traditional satisfactions of storytelling is where the author can truly be found. “You don’t need a story,” he writes. “The question is How long do you not need a story?

Well, apparently you can’t go on too long before a story is what you want. Speedboat (which I haven’t read) is less than 200 pages long. Davis’ “French Lesson I: La Meurtre,” to pick one of many great stories of hers that dismantle narrative expectations, would wear out its welcome at more than seven pages. Gilbert Sorrentino’s beguiling A Strange Commonplace, works primarily because it bounces brief chapter against brief chapter—were it longer, the reader would be less compelled to do follow that bouncing. Chicago: City on the Make, Nelson Algren’s slim prose poem on his native city is an impressionistic, personalized, mashed-up snapshot that captures a lot of the city but gets in and out quickly—certainly much faster than Mike Royko’s Boss (untrustworthy reportage by Sheilds’ thinking) or, say, Adam Langer’s Crossing California (unlikable formal novelistic narrative that’s chock-full of forward progress.)

The mash-up, the collage, the remix—this is the stuff of the future, and this is the stuff that Shields’ great fiction of the future must embrace. More Davis and Sorrentino, less Langer and Franzen. It will be brief, it won’t pretend to hide the author, and in its formal invention it will resist all efforts to assimiliate it. Yesterday, thinking of a good shorthand for Shields’ preferences, I thought, “Anything that repels parody,” because something needs to have a structure, or at least some obvious working parts, to be parodied. But then last night I was watching America’s Funniest Home Videos**, and one of the segments featured a series of “mash-ups”—embarrassing moments over which the same footage of wailing wedding attendees is superimposed. Somebody trips and falls, here come the wailing ladies; a minor picnic mishap, and the wailing ladies return again. If a cultural movement has grown so powerful that the least intellectually challenging show on network television can make something simple of it, it may not be an especially powerful method of experimentation.

That’s not to say that Shields is wrong—better there be more interesting fiction experiments than more hackneyed novels with stale plots. Just that people have a powerful capacity to turn yesterday’s innovations into today’s bad habits, which is something Shields never quite addresses. And as more artists break “larger and larger chunks of ‘reality’ into their work,” producing more and more of the kind of fiction Shields is agitating for, that kind of fiction might very well become its own cliche.***

* I think he wrote this. An appendix to the book lists all the cases where Shields repurposed text from other sources, but the footnotes seem slightly out of order. At any rate, because one of the tentpoles of the book’s structure is that somebody else’s statements can stand in for your own, it’s not really a problem if I make an attribution error, at least by Shields’ way of thinking.

** Look, my home Internet access is down, OK?

*** The process may be hastening. In April essayist Ander Monson will publish Vanishing Point: Not a Memoir, an entertaining essay collection that uses strategies similar to Reality Hunger to study memoir at a time when the genre’s factual integrity is increasingly called into question. “Maybe what memoirs offer us is another fiction: that of understanding,” he writes. “By reading memoir we can pretend to comprehend a life.” To show how closely the narrative tools of memoir and fiction merge, Monson fills the book with sections called “assembloirs,” mini-narratives built out of snippets of a few dozen memoirs. In showing how alleged “truth” has an artifice behind it, he ends up constructing small stories that hold together, albeit in oblique ways. Monson and Shields are both skeptical of the Great American Novel (or Memoir), but I don’t think that either would disagree that whatever replaces it is going to have to work very hard to figure out how much or how little it wants to address storytelling’s familiar satisfactions.

Technical Difficulties

Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to entirely escape the ill effects of the winter weather that has been punishing the Washington, D.C., region for most of the past week. My home phone and Internet connections are currently down, and the prognosis for when they might return is somewhere between a few days and few weeks. I’ll likely be able to post on occasion until my Internet access is restored—if, for instance, I can plant myself for a little while at a Wi-Fi-enabled cafe like the one where I’m writing this. But whatever it is you come here expecting, expect less of it for a bit. Thanks.

The BBC’s American Archive

Starting tomorrow, BBC’s Radio 4 will broadcast Capturing America, a series hosted by Mark Lawson on “how American writing became the literary superpower of the 20th century.” Interviews with the usual suspects—Updike, Roth, Vonnegut, Oates—provide the backbone of the series, with Dave Eggers and Patricia Cornwell being the closest things to surprise choices. But Lawson is less interested in finding outliers than in performing a summing-up of popular literary tastes after the war, to figure out why Updike mattered so much to readers in the 70s and 80s that landed on the cover of Time twice. More personally, he was also interested in meeting the writers he got a charge out of decades ago. As he writes in a stemwinder in the Guardian on his experience working on the series:

One of the major pleasures of my long investigation of American writing was meeting writers who have been heroes since I read as a teenager the Penguins and Picadors which – now yellowed and buckled – became research material 30 years later. Time and again, the jacket photographs miraculously came to life.

Norman Mailer, standing in greeting at the top of his tall house in Brooklyn Heights, with its view to the Statue of Liberty, and growling, in a perfect parody of his reputation for obsession with masculinity: “You’re a big man. Do you box? You should box.” Philip Roth skittish and wickedly jokey as the technical preparations were made, sombre and professorial as soon as the interviews began. Joyce Carol Oates, one of the most vociferous writers in literary history (around 150 publications, including all pseudonyms and genres), so softly spoken in a Princeton University office that she could hardly be heard over the purr of the heating. Toni Morrison, giving a magisterial reading and analysis of America on the brink of electing Obama. John Updike, arriving at a snowy Boston hotel, wearing a black knitted cap and clutching a Dunkin Donuts cup of decaf coffee.

All the interviews Lawson conducted are available on the Radio 4 Web site. Most are at least a few years old, but some were conducted just months ago, including a conversation with Joyce Carol Oates about how she “more or less collapsed” after the death of her husband in 2008, and how her writing habits have changed since then:

I have only a fraction of my energy. I’m not really the same person anymore. I don’t write under a pseudonym any longer because it’s all I can do to write under my own name. I had so much energy in those days that I could write another novel in, like, three months, and then write my own novel under my own name. Now, I haven’t planned a novel since Little Bird of Heaven. I don’t have the psychological strength or concentration. But I do work.

Book Reviewers—Who Needs ‘Em?

Publishers Weekly‘s report from a panel last week on the future of book reviews includes a couple of interesting data points. According to panelist Peter Hildick-Smith of the Codex Group, a survey his firm conducted reveals that only five percent of readers heard about the last book they bought through a review in a print publication. Your likelihood to use such reviews as a consumer guide is a function of age: 9.2 percent of shoppers over age 65 were guided to their last book purchase by a review, while only 0.9 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds were.

Lacking any detailed information on the survey’s methodology, it’s hard to speak to its authority; for instance, though the survey argues that young book buyers today are more influenced by “online reviews” than print reviews, it’s not clear how “online review” was defined. Also, it’s worth noting that the Codex Group is in the business of helping publishers and authors promote their books through avenues that don’t involve print reviews. But let’s assume that the Codex Group’s data provide an accurate snapshot of book-buying habits. Time to panic?

Only, I suppose, if you figure this is something new—or if you figure that getting readers to buy books is the reviewer’s job. Googling doesn’t immediately pull up many examples of other surveys on the influence of print reviews; nearly half of those surveyed for a 2008 Zogby poll say that a book review makes them want to buy a book, but when asked to name the most important factor in their last book purchase, “book review” doesn’t even make the list. A Canadian survey conducted in the mid-’90s (arguably before “online reviews” had any real influence), in which buyers were interviewed as they were leaving the store, suggests that only about 10 percent of shoppers were guided to their purchase by a book review.

And even in 1947, when print reviews were the dominant medium for information on new books, publishers weren’t waiting on Edmund Wilson to drive readers to the booksellers’ doors. An article in Kiplinger’s Magazine titled “Books Are Business: And Business Ain’t What It Used to Be” notes that the industry was in a tailspin but pointed two ways to reverse course: book clubs and paperbacks. The article closes this way:

For if there is one lesson book publishers have learned from the post-war drop-off in book sales, it is this: the overwhelming majority of us will take to books more readily by being “exposed” to them than by getting a hundred sermons on the mental and moral values of reading.

So, no, book reviews can’t really sell a book, and perhaps never really could. That’s not what attracts book reviewers to the gig. That lack of power has a consequence, and you can see it in the vocal disconnect between those reviewers and bloggers who prize their role as recommenders, doing a version of handselling online. Consider the comment thread on a post at Life in the Thumb that addresses last week’s panel. The post’s author took the panel’s organizers to task for not including any bloggers on it, and the commenters weighed in on what makes for a good reviewer:

[P]eople find reviewers of their like mind in the blogosphere and stick with them. They don’t rely on professional reviews anymore because the reviewers seem out of touch with what most of the consumers actually like.

those “real” reviewers… I never get any of the answers I am looking for when I wanna know if the book is for me

a lot of assumption that “professionals” always give “reliable and consistent” reviews, which is questionable also. Ah well, I think they just feel threatened.

Professional reviewers tend to focus on literary merit. I’m more interested in enjoyment.

I want true reviews and through the blogging community I feel I get them.

A blogger with similiar tastes is much more reliable than a pro who spouts off about literary merit and influences of the 21st century!

If book bloggers are so unreliable, then why do authors and publishers/publicists still contact us to read and review their books?

Why indeed? It probably has something to do with the power of the “online review” that the Codex Group survey discusses.

I’m not sure how the gap gets bridged here, or even if it’s worth bridging. I’m pretty much incompetent at selling things, and though I’d like it if you liked the things I like, it’s fine by me if you don’t. And if lots of book bloggers reject the standard practices of book reviewers and find large, enthusiastic audiences in the process, who’s to say they should start behaving otherwise? Enthusiasm for books is always a virtue. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a distinction between discussing books and selling them.

DeLillo in Slow Motion

My review of Don DeLillo‘s new short novel, Point Omega, is in today’s Minneapolis Star-Tribune. Here’s the kicker:

Like much of DeLillo’s work, “Point Omega” is concerned with how much we’re doing to do ourselves in. But unlike the jagged existentialism of “Falling Man,” there’s an elegance to De-Lillo’s considerations here, an artfulness to the prose that softens the mood of despair without sugar-coating it. Nobody would call this bleached-out landscape a happy place to visit. But this slim, strong novel evokes the kind of patient, haiku-like quietude we ache for in the post-9/11 world.

If you’ve paid any attention to coverage of the novel, you know that many reviewers see the book as yet another well-intentioned failure by a major author whose best work is behind him. In Bookforum, an exasperated Aleksandar Hemon writes that “whenever the reader reaches some level of understanding [of the novel], and meaning appears to be within grasp, the narrative slips away to a new level of intricacy.” In the National, Giles Harvey argues that “What’s missing from DeLillo’s presentation of human beings…is emotional depth.” Plenty of people have pretty much had it with DeLillo delivering another slim novel full of ghostly characters and abstracted musings on geopolitics. “While I’ll always admire DeLillo, I don’t think I’ve enjoyed reading him since the rightly famous opening of 1997’s Underworld,” Benjamin Alsup writes in Esquire, summarizing the prevailing sentiment.

I’ve counted myself among that number: “Who needs Don DeLillo?” I wrote in the opening of my review of 2007’s Falling Man. But I tried to meet Point Omega on its own terms, and I think it’s rewarding for that. In fact, part of me believes that if Point Omega were the novel that DeLillo delivered immediately after Underworld, the critical response would be very different—instead of voicing frustration with his knotty abstractions, he’d be praised for expressing concerns about war, loss, and time with such concision.

Yes, Point Omega could not exist without 9/11 and the second Iraq war, but its concerns aren’t exclusively present-day. War, loss, and time are immortal themes, after all, and I’m not the first to notice that the novel’s central character, a retired war strategist named Richard Elster, echoes Robert McNamara. To that end, the passage describing Elster’s role in the war complex has a timelessness to it that could’ve appeared in a DeLillo novel from 1997 or 1987 or 1977:

News and Traffic. Sports and Weather. These were his acid terms for the life he’d left behind, more than two years of living with the tight minds that made the war…. He was there to conceptualize, his word, in quotes, to apply overarching ideas and principles to such matters as troop deployment and counterinsurgency. He was cleared to read classified cables and restricted transcripts, he said, and he listened to the chatter of the resident experts, the metaphysicians in the intelligence agencies, the fantasists in the Pentagon.

The third floor of the E ring at the Pentagon. Bulk and swagger, he said.

But Point Omega doesn’t succeed simply because DeLillo still has a command of the kind of language of authority and control that surrounded the Airborne Toxic Event in White Noise; DeLillo’s tone and pacing are similarly assured. Good novels have a way of signaling early on how they ought to be consumed, which is why the opening and closing chapters, featuring the video art piece 24 Hour Psycho, are so effective; evoking the slowed-down version of Alfred Hitchcock‘s film sets the book’s metronome, and what follows will direct the reader toward Elster’s idea of time (he can wait forever), or that of the filmmaker who’s arrived to shoot him (he’s in a hurry to make his documentary).

And in a way, the novel’s central tension isn’t between war and peace or American empire and the rapidly approaching apocalypse (though DeLillo hasn’t neglected those concerns), but between differing notions of what it means to be patient. How soon do you perceive somebody’s disappearance as a loss? How long does it take to come around to somebody else’s way of thinking? How much time is required to shift from being concerned about humanity to being concerned about a single human being? DeLillo shows how those questions rattle the impatient filmmaker in simple, rhythmic language:

I looked out into blinding tides of light and sky and down toward the folded copper hills that I took to be the badlands, a series of pristine ridges rising from the desert floor in patterned alignment. Could someone be dead in there? I could not imagine this. It was too vast, it was not real, the symmetry of furrows and juts, it crushed me, the heartbreaking beauty of it, the indifference of it, and the longer I stood and looked the more certain I was that we would never have an answer.

“Conceptualize” is a useless term for Elster, and it is for DeLillo as well. That’s an unusual thing to say about a novelist whose chief skill is an ability to look at the big picture, but he’s found a way to gracefully study individual emotion without letting larger themes make too much noise. Point Omega is the first time when his exchanging big ambitions to study interior lives seems like a fair trade. If we still prefer bulk and swagger, that’s our problem, not his.