Review: Point Omega by Don DeLillo
(Pan Macmillan, £18.50)
It's strange, and interesting, the evolution of the great American novelist Don DeLillo's career since his most famous work was published. In fact, it's been more revolution than evolution.
Underworld (1997) was a 900-page epic that drew together all the themes and obsessions which had informed DeLillo's writing for the bones of four decades: the use and misuse of power, the hidden currents of history, the existential strangeness of modern life, how symbol and reality have become entwined in a self-fulfilling prophecy of symbiotic action. DeLillo -- for my money, the finest writer of his age -- drew broad strokes then, crafting grand, almost sprawling narratives.
These were "big novels", literally and metaphorically. Since Underworld, however, he seems to have turned his piercing gaze inwards. The follow-up novels were shorter, simpler, more intimate, concerned with the personal rather than the sociopolitical: ageing, loneliness, dislocation from others and alienation from the self.
Falling Man (2007) addressed the September 11, 2001, terror attacks, yet that, too, was (relatively) short, and felt more like a personal meditation than an all-encompassing macro-analysis (unsurprising, I suppose, for this New York native).
His latest book, Point Omega, although extremely short -- less than 120 pages -- initially seems to fall somewhere between the two; on a superficial reading the storyline concerns many quintessential DeLillo themes.
Richard Elster, an intellectual now wallowing in splendid isolation in the California desert, had been brought in by the Pentagon to provide a thematic framework for its war plans: to give a veneer of academic respectability, really, to the brutish horrors of shock and awe. He is joined in his seclusion by young filmmaker Jim Finley, who wants to make a picture that features Elster, against a wall, talking.
Jim wants to cut through the gauzy facade of presumed reality and see things as they really are, using Elster to do so: Elster who will, presumably, expose the machinations and hypocrisies of the people who run our world. They hang out in the desert -- they talk, they drink and stare at the big sky.
Elster's daughter joins them and a three-pointed star is formed, an oddly functional family unit of sorts. And slowly but irreversibly, they become immersed in the hugeness of the landscape, the slowing of time to an almost geological crawl.
They start to forget, or not care, about who they are. They start to join the desert, like a rock slowly being covered with sand (Elster maintains, at one point, that this is the ultimate dream of self-aware man -- to return to the status of stone.)
For me, the references to Iraq and warfare are mere plot devices. Point Omega is what might be called "new DeLillo": moving from a fascination with crowds and mass culture, towards an exploration of the individual, struggling to place themselves within the world and within their own selves. There are some familiar DeLillo motifs at work: the sense of a person somehow drifting outside time, like a willed withdrawal from it, into a kind of self-created ghost-world.
Point Omega has received mixed reviews. I liked it very much, but I love this writer's work. One common criticism has been the dialogue -- it's not people talking, the reviewers have shrieked, it's the author's voice.
Not true: DeLillo's ear for the cadences and rhythms of speech is as true as ever.
Besides which, I can think of worse things than listening to the voice of any author this brilliant, profound and unique.