In Search of the Real
Where is Don DeLillo's quest taking him?
Don DeLillo's characters feel slightly more generic with every novel. This is held against them. As detached yet filled with pungent apercus as graduate students warding off depression, these creatures of the novelist's late phase carom numbly around their synthetic environments. Rather than root his inventions in the soil of human particularity, DeLillo thins them into holograms. They become personifications of impersonal processes, and long to return to the same. They develop an irresistible urge to subsume what little they have by way of distinct identity into something purer and less subjective: financial data streams ( Cosmopolis), theories of probability ( Falling Man), the supernatural ( The Body Artist).
Yet we can't accuse his attenuated figures of being entirely unlifelike. They are like more and more people we know. In our lifetime we are witnessing the dematerialization of the human personality, as people withdraw their attention from their bodies and surroundings and give it over to cyberspace. A recent study from the Kaiser Family Foundation, for instance, found that children aged 8-18 use electronic devices for average of 7.5 hours a day, and adults surely aren't any less plugged in. It can't enhance the development of solidly grounded, psychologically rich literary characters to have their real-world counterparts umbilically connected to the ethereal ichor of global media.
As if he had decided to do something about all this abstraction, DeLillo has made the sickness unto death from information overload the subject of his latest novel, Point Omega. The hero, Richard Elster, takes refuge from the toxic unreality in a ramshackle house far into the California desert. He wants "to feel the deep heat beating into his body, feel the body itself, reclaim the body from what he called the nausea of News and Traffic." Elster is a type familiar to anyone who has read DeLillo's great novels of conspiracy, Underworld and Libra: a disillusioned defense intellectual. A brilliant conservative professor of something or other—maybe philosophy, maybe geography—Elster did a stint at the Pentagon advising the planners of the Iraq war and found the strategists so trapped inside "acronyms, projections, contingences, methodologies" they couldn't perceive the reality they were preparing to shatter: "They think they're sending an army into a place on the map."
In the desert, he thinks he can rediscover space and time. The desert has both extension and duration, "the distances that enfolded every feature of the landscape" and "the force of geologic time, out there somewhere." It's a place that will let him establish the true scale of things. The grandeur of the landscape inspires thoughts of extinction. These are comforting thoughts to Elster, who is 73 and Lear-like, and who holds forth with a "liturgical gloom" and may well feel guilty over his part in the war. Deep time, epochal time, like the vast dimensions of the desert, holds us in its safe embrace. In cities, by contrast, time is petty and fungible and terrifyingly fleeting. It's "all embedded, the hours and minutes, words and numbers … [on] train stations, bus routes, taxi meters, surveillance cameras … people checking watches and other devices, other reminders. This is time draining out of our lives."
As foils to Elster and his craving for what is "out there somewhere," DeLillo gives us two characters who are very much caught up in the machinery of cultural production. One is a filmmaker, the other a film spectator. The filmmaker is the genial Jim Finley, who has the idea of standing Elster against a wall and filming him as he talks, no tricks, no cutaways, just one continuous take. (We are meant to think of Errol Morris interviewing Robert McNamara in Fog of War.) Elster, who has given up on movies along with all other forms of "background noise," says no, but invites Finley to visit him in the desert anyway. It is Finley who elicits Elster's observations.
The film spectator, on the other hand, is a mysterious, solitary, disembodied figure, about far on the spectrum toward creepy depersonalization as DeLillo characters get. He is an unnamed museumgoer standing in a dark room watching a video installation called "24-Hour Psycho" (a work that DeLillo actually saw in 2006 at the Museum of Modern Art). In this piece, Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho has been slowed to an intolerable crawl. The man is determined to tolerate the crawl. His thoughts while engaged in this tedious occupation take up an entirely separate narrative in the novel, one that bookends the rest of it.
Judith Shulevitz is a former culture editor of Slate and the author of The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time.