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.

10 thoughts on “DeLillo in Slow Motion

  1. I’ve been puzzled by the critical reaction. Yours is the first positive review I’ve seen. I think it’s an extraordinary novel for the mood it creates, his best work since Underworld. I detected a lot of impatience from the reviewers — why would they be impatient with a 117-page novel? Maybe they want the mysteries answered? Maybe they should read some other book then.

    It may help that I’ve seen the 24-Hour Psycho exhibit. (Not all 24 hours worth of course, maybe 20 minutes.)

  2. Thanks, and a fine review.

    Cosmopolis, some years back, didn’t get good reviews either. Yet look at what DeLillo captured and anticipated, the self-destructive tendencies of investors, of the financial scene itself. All of his short novels since Underworld have been remarkable in what they have accomplished, and accomplished so briefly. Many reviewers, I suspect, want big books. I wish there were more promotion for this form.

    John Aldridge has written some miserable criticism about recent writers, but he made a point about DeLillo in “The New Assembly-Line Fiction” (1992) that is dead on and still applies. He talks about DeLillo and Gaddis novels:

    “in which the primary interest lies not in a realistic depiction of the social scene but in the intricate choreography of fictional motifs, the interplay of thematic forces within the narrative ecology, which become in effect an esthetic replacement for, and a considerable improvement upon, the social scene.”

    “Improvement” is the word I want to highlight. Aldridge’s basic regret is that many other recent writers:

    “have not so far created new circuits in the public imagination or provided the charged symbols for a new vision of the human condition in our time, nor has their language enlarged the vocabulary with which we describe the most urgent problems and preoccupations that concern us.”

    One reason we keep getting into messes is because we don’t have adequate ways to look at what we’re doing. Novels can help us see ourselves and our world in ways the other disciplines cannot. But I wonder if we — readers, the publishing world, and reviewers — appreciate fiction or even understand what it can do.

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