White Noise

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Over the last ten years, Don DeLillo has become determined to solve one of the great riddles of the ancient art of storytelling: What is the slowest speed at which a plot can move before it stops moving altogether, thereby ceasing to function as a plot? And what kind of quantum transformations might take place at that moment of absolute-zero narrative momentum? This obsession is not exactly new. DeLillo has never been celebrated for his rippin’ yarns. But his recent stretch of post-Underworld metaphysical anti-thrillers—The Body Artist, Cosmopolis, Falling Man—has reached a whole new level of inertia; they make his early talky masterpieces (White Noise, The Names) look like Jean-Claude Van Damme movies. Stasis, paradoxically, has become the animating force of his plots. Recent characters include a billionaire who gets stuck in traffic for 200 pages; a highbrow Zen contortionist who spends long stretches pretending to check her watch in slow motion; and a man who appears to be falling out of buildings but ends up hanging, frozen, in midair.

Point Omega, DeLillo’s new novel, fits right into this glacial aesthetic. You could even say it’s something of a breakthrough: It brings us, in just over 100 pages, as close to pure stasis as we’re ever likely to get.

The book begins and ends with an object lesson in the power of plot-slowing: An anonymous man stands in the Museum of Modern Art, six days in a row, for hours at a time, watching an installation called 24 HourPsycho—Hitchcock’s 109-minute thriller stretched to a running-time of exactly 24 hours. (This is an actual work by the Scottish artist Douglas Gordon; one suspects that DeLillo haunted it much like his nameless character does.) In super-slow motion, all of the hyperefficient building blocks of Hitchcock’s suspense—the quick cuts, the gestures, the landscape shots—drag on interminably, forcing viewers to focus on what DeLillo calls the “submicroscopic moments”: the geometry of Norman Bates swiveling his head, the shower-curtain rings spinning on the rod in the wake of the famous murder. “Suspense is trying to build,” DeLillo writes, “but the silence and stillness outlive it.” Slowness rescues, and then somehow blesses, even the most mundane details: “The dull parts of the original movie were not dull anymore. They were like everything else, outside all categories, open to entry.”

Point Omega, like 24 Hour Psycho, offers many uncategorizable points of entry—which is to say that nothing much happens, and it happens very, very slowly. The book is narrated by Jim Finley, an unsuccessful thirtysomething director of conceptual documentary films. (His first movie consists of 57 minutes of old Jerry Lewis footage spliced together to a soundtrack of random sounds.) Finley has chosen as the subject of his next film the 73-year-old Richard Elster, an intellectual who has just finished helping the U.S. government plan the war in Iraq—although he’s done so in the most abstract and DeLillo-y way possible, as a kind of guru responsible for giving long oracular speeches that sound something like this:

“Haiku means nothing beyond what it is. A pond in summer, a leaf in the wind. It’s human consciousness located in nature. It’s the answer to everything in a set number of lines, a prescribed syllable count. I wanted a haiku war. I wanted a war in three lines. This was not a matter of force levels or logistics. What I wanted was a set of ideas linked to transient things. This is the soul of haiku. Bare everything to plain sight. See what’s there.”

Elster has retired from the war effort to take a “spiritual retreat” in the middle of the California desert, where he fills his days with poetry, sunsets, and even more oracular speeches. Finley visits him there, hoping to persuade Elster to participate in the documentary. Speechifying ensues, much of it about Elster’s obsession with an idea he calls “omega point”: humanity’s secret collective desire to wipe out the burden of human consciousness forever with some kind of cataclysmic event.

The closest the book comes to real action is when Elster’s daughter shows up—although “shows up” is a strong phrase to use for a character who hardly seems to exist at all. “She was sylphlike,” Finley tells us, “her element was air.” Or, as her father puts it: “She was imaginary to herself.” When she disappears, mysteriously—the only major event of the novel—it seems like a formality.

Reading late-phase DeLillo tends to make me feel like a late-phase DeLillo character: distant, confused, catatonic, drifting into dream worlds, missing dentist appointments, forgetting the meanings of basic words, and staring at everyday objects as if they were holy relics. (My favorite late-DeLillo epiphany, from The Body Artist: “How completely strange it suddenly seemed that major corporations mass-produced bread crumbs and packaged and sold them everywhere in the world and she looked at the bread-crumb carton for the first true time, really seeing it and understanding what was in it, and it was bread crumbs.” It was bread crumbs!)

This disorientation might explain why I can’t quite make up my mind about Point Omega. DeLillo is, after Beckett and Robbe-Grillet, the indisputable master of grinding a plot to the brink of stasis and then recording its every last movement. Point Omega seems like a logical endpoint of that quest. How much further into the desert of plotlessness is DeLillo willing to go, and how far are we willing to follow? Where else can he possibly take the novel?

It strikes me as odd that DeLillo, whose analytical and stylistic powers have always exceeded his powers of plot and characterization, has still written fiction almost exclusively. The strongest material in Point Omega is only tangentially related to the book’s main story, and is essentially just art criticism: DeLillo’s deeply engaged description of what it’s like to stand and watch 24 Hour Psycho. His books lately are full of calls for mindfulness. “This was the point,” he writes in Point Omega. “To see what’s here, finally to look and to know you’re looking, to feel time passing, to be alive to what is happening in the smallest registers of motion.” I get the sense that he wants his oeuvre to culminate in a pure act of attention, and I’m not convinced that the novel is the best medium in which to do that. As a raging DeLillo fan, I’d be more excited to see him branch out to another genre—an experimental autobiography, or essayistic micro-observations of his favorite art and literature—than write another short novel about detached and largely interchangeable characters.

Point Omega
By Don Delillo.

White Noise