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.
This inner monologue is half Zen film criticism, half psychotic rambling—it's what DeLillo's Oswald, in Libra, and the Texas Highway Killer, in Underworld, would have sounded like if they had apprenticed themselves to a Chi-master who sidelined in film theory. Like those characters, the spectator appears to have no inkling of a boundary between himself and the fantasy he longs to dissolve into. To cure his sickness unto death, he needs to "feel time passing," although unlike Elster, he wants to dig it up at the bottom of this fictitious universe, rather than go looking for it in what he calls the "life-beyond, world-beyond, the strange bright fact that breathes and eats out there, the thing that's not the movies." He wants to live inside Psycho, to be "alive to what is happening in the smallest registers of motion"—to experience for the first time the realness, the quiddity, of the filmed event: "Anthony Perkins turns his head in five incremental movements rather than one continuous motion. It was like bricks in a wall, clearly countable, not like the flight of an arrow or bird. Then again it was not like or unlike anything. Anthony Perkins' head swiveling over time on his long thin neck."
For most of the novel, the connection between these two parts seems whimsically formal. Screening room and desert exist in dialectical tension: nature vs. culture, space and time vs. existence outside dimensions; the quest for the real outside civilization vs. the quest for the real in civilization's most claustrophobia-inducing womb. The deeper relationship between the two stories will not become apparent—to our horror—until the end.
Meanwhile, back in the desert, a story unfolds, as much of one as DeLillo is willing to give us. Jessie, Elster's daughter, arrives, sent to the desert by her mother, who worries that the girl's new boyfriend may be a stalker. A vague post-adolescent in T-shirts and rolled-up jeans, Jessie is sweet and slow-moving and idiosyncratic, a caretaker of the elderly, a lighter-up of life for her parents, an inspirer of fantasies in Jim. Given her simplicity and goodness and sexual appeal, a certain sort of film-noir logic dictates that she meet a violent end. Given that it's Psycho playing in the background like a message audible only at slow speed, it seems inevitable that she will vanish into the desert as decisively as Janet Leigh.
Can DeLillo pull all these wildly disparate narrative elements and big ideas into a coherent novel? On the level of the plot, he does, ingeniously. On the larger literary level, it's questionable that much happens here other than a transposition of characters and themes we've encountered many times before in DeLillo novels, the characters signaled rather than fleshed out, the themes reduced to professorial pontification. There's the quest for the real in the desert (also undertaken, in the same place and in similar fashion by Matt Shay in Underworld); the fascination with secret individual worlds, which DeLillo has called the inner life of the culture (a dominant theme in Underworld and Libra); and so on. Elster's disquisitions have a knocked-off quality here; it's like buying DeLillo from an unlicensed street vendor.
But let's be charitable. Let's say that DeLillo wanted to write a novel about encountering the Real. There's no question that Elster's anguish in the face of his daughter's unsolved disappearance feels unusually real, at least for DeLillo. It shrivels Elster into a dotage in which he is incapable of shaving or putting on his own seatbelt. It stops the flow of talk. Shortly before the two men came home to find Jessie gone, Elster had been explaining to Finley the ideas of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, according to whom material evolves toward spirit, or at least toward complexity and consciousness. The omega point is reached when matter attains consciousness, when there is, as Elster puts it, "a leap out of our biology." At which moment, Elster suggests—adding his own dark twist—the process inverts itself. Consciousness begins to hanker to revert to matter. Omega point becomes Point Omega. "Do we have to be human forever?" Elster asks. "Consciousness is exhausted. Back now to inorganic matter. This is what we want. We want to be stones in a field."
Jessie's disappearance, however, makes it perfectly clear that Elster would not have wanted to be a stone in a field had he known what was about to happen that would reduce him to something very much like one. Like so much else he has had to say, his Point Omega theories are so much romantic, or maybe post-romantic, nonsense. He, like the rest of us, wants to stay alive and conscious and protect his child from a scary, collapsing world. Given the unforgivable war he was implicated in, Elster's silence seems almost blessed; but his punishment seems Jobian. And given how many preoccupations he shares with DeLillo, his tormented lapse into silence can't help but resound with a painful note of authorial self-doubt.
Judith Shulevitz is a former culture editor of Slate and the author of The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time.