Saturday, March 06, 2010

Point Omega by Don DeLillo

Is there an artist, or any sort of craftsperson, who doesn't suspect that the real work is being done in a medium not their own? I know a cabinet maker who wishes he were more adept at metals or plastics. Unfortunately for him, wood is what gets him the awards — and money. Actors want to be directors. T Bone Burnett envies painters, while Ry Cooder's admiration for novelists is such that, last I heard, he let Michael Ondaatje talk him into quitting his day job and picking up the fountain pen. As for me, I doubt anyone's come closer to the Platonic Ideal than Hank Williams or Donald Fagen.

Don DeLillo has a jones for anyone in the visual arts. His male protagonists get the hots for sculptors (Americana), photographers (Mao II) and painters (Underworld). In Point Omega (A) a filmmaker tries to woo a “defense intellectual,” a blowhard tangentially responsible for Iraq, to submit to the camera. This time the would-be suitors are both male, while the intellectual's daughter shows up to provide the merest frisson of heterosexual tension.

But if the bulk of PO's text is any indication, the central tension in the narrative originates in an actual “film installation” by Douglas Gordon entitled 24 Hour Psycho. The installation involves projecting Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho slowed down to the point where it can only be seen in its entirety over a course of 24 hours. The characters in this short novel react a great deal to this installation, but — po-mo irony at work here — no-one so much as DeLillo himself.

“I talked to them one day about war. Iraq is a whisper, I told them. These nuclear flirtations we've been having with this or that government. Little whispers,” he said. “I'm telling you, this will change. Something's coming. But isn't this what we want? Isn't this the burden of consciousness? We're all played out. Matter wants to lose its self-consciousness. We're the mind and heart that matter has become. Time to close it all down. This is what drives us now.”

PO's central concern, then, is this business of the best and worst that human consciousness can achieve, and what happens when it finally gets obliterated. Any craftsperson will tell you many of the most precious stretches of life are when self-consciousness dissipates, those times when a person gets so preoccupied with the task at hand — with craft — that she forgets herself.

When I picked up the book I thought 100 pages of this sort of “pushing at the fabric” was probably about right. By page 75 it felt too long. I had fewest difficulties with the central third of the book, where the filmmaker hangs out with the intellectual and his daughter in a desert retreat. The three exist as an unholy po-mo Trinity, hoping to cook up and project something as they stew in each other's proximity. When the daughter disappears, I found it a truly haunting moment that quite properly shocked the two surviving posers. But when the entire enterprise swung exclusively to 24 Hour Psycho, I switched gears and sped-read to the conclusion.

I am an admirer of DeLillo — as dry and remote as his prose can seem, I can't help but see his fiction as being almost embarrassingly personal in concern, and nowhere moreso than in Mao II. The author's duty is to enthrall, and DeLillo has done that for me by exploring what abstractions like “forces of history” (A) mean in their most personal sense. When DeLillo himself became an abstraction — “internationally feted novelist” — he wrote this passage, which I read as DeLillo's own Point Omega.

Camus said, “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” Most days I can snicker and say, “Only if you don't have to shop for bananas.” Those are the days I'll tell you DeLillo's most recommended work is Pafko At The Wall, his magnum opus Underworld, his most harrowing work Mao II. The days when I can't snicker are the days when I am simply grateful that DeLillo has attended to self-argument, internal dissent — the democratic shout. The Novel.

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