Saturday, March 13, 2010

Slim Book, Weighty Point

A slightly abridged version of this appeared in today's The Indian Express


In Don DeLillo’s 2007 Falling Man, one of the characters watches a performance artist suspend himself from various locations in Manhattan, mirroring the reality captured in a photograph of a man falling from the Twin Towers on 9/11. Art plays a role in DeLillo’s new work, too, this time as a museum installation that doesn’t reflect reality but a version of art itself. This is an exhibit titled“24 Hour Psycho" that was installed at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 2006: an actual conceptual piece by Douglas Gordon showing the Hitchcock film in extreme slow motion, taking twenty-four hours to screen. It is, in DeLillo’s words, “the strange, bright fact that breathes and eats out there, the thing that’s not the movies”.

Scenes of characters watching this exhibit bracket the slender Point Omega which, like DeLillo’s last few novels, is written in a condensed, elliptical style. It is, however, carefully and intriguingly structured, almost in an answers-first-questions later manner.

The plot begins with Jim Finley, a young film-maker, travelling to a California desert to meet the 73-year-old Richard Elster. The latter was formerly employed by the Pentagon to conceptualise their Iraq war efforts and provide intellectual ballast to their martial leanings. Finley plans a short trip with the intention of persuading Elster to participate in a proposed film project, but when he gets there he finds himself staying on for days, listening to Elster’s theories on matter and mind. Waters are muddied when the passive Jessica, Elster’s daughter, joins them, sent by her mother to spend time away from a suitor’s advances. A sudden disappearance follows, throwing equations off-kilter.

Elster, has retreated from the chaos of cities to “reclaim the body from the nausea of News and Traffic”, and is fond of gnomic utterances such as “matter wants to lose its self-consciousness”. The omega point of the title, a concept that occupies most of his waking hours, refers to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s concept of the acme of awareness towards which the universe is progressing. In Elster’s words, “Ask yourself this question. Do we have to be human forever? Consciousness is exhausted. Back now to inorganic matter. This is what we want. We want to be stones in a field.”

As ought to be clear by now, all of this doesn’t exactly make for light bedside reading. Some of it puts one in mind of the brooding landscapes of Cormac McCarthy; at other times, there is Pinteresque menace and silence. What DeLillo seems to be trying to do is contrast “man's grand themes” with “local grief, one body” – and to make the whole palatable, there’s a long, studied build-up, after which the mechanics of the plot kick in. This imparts to Point Omega a strange unity, half in slow motion, the other in something resembling normal speed.

Though the characters often come across as mouthpieces and the book’s gravitas veers close to self-importance, the austere Point Omega does possess a compelling incantatory rhythm. Stripped down without losing vitality, its gravitational pull is that of a star collapsing inwards upon itself to a point of singularity.

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