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Book Review: Point Omega by Don DeLillo

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Yes, the great authors are different. In the case of this book, we learn that a writer of note can produce a novella of little more than one hundred pages and convince his publisher to release it as a $24.00 hardcover. In this economy, that news is either reassuring or troubling, depending on your perspective. Measured by the word, the price tag may seem a bit exorbitant, but when the author is Don DeLillo, the reader is advised to splurge.

Let us revisit Mr. DeLillo’s resume, for those unfamiliar with it. He is a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction, and in a fairer universe would be a strong candidate for the Nobel Prize in literature. DeLillo’s magnum opus Underworld was selected as one of the three best novels of the preceding 25 years by the New York Times in a 2006 survey of writers and critics. His 1988 novel Libra, a fictionalized account of the life of Lee Harvey Oswald, also garnered votes in the same poll, while DeLillo’s 1985 work White Noise may be the pick of the litter, a wry novel about an academic who has pioneered the new field of “Hitler Studies,” but needs to hide the fact that he can hardly understand German.

Point Omega captures many of the trademark strengths of this author. DeLillo may be the finest writer of dialogue among contemporary authors, and is especially acute at capturing interlocutors who talk at cross purposes, an effect that can be either comic or disturbing depending on the setting. In his thematic choices, DeLillo is the anti-Norman Rockwell, the master of Americana stripped of the nostalgic or endearing, and laid forth, like a patient etherized on a table, in all its banality and self-serving deceptions. Sometimes the dice are loaded — this author often constructs characters who seem to have targets painted on their back, begging for a deflating jibe — but DeLillo never collapses into the preachiness and badgering that torpedoes too many novels that aim for social relevancy.

DeLillo gradually circles into his story in Point Omega. At first, the novel appears to be about avant-garde cinema, setting up two contrasting plots that both deal with motion pictures. In the first section of the book, DeLillo presents readers with an unnamed character who is obsessed with a museum screening of a doctored version of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, in which the original 109 minute film is slowed down to transpire over a period of 24 hours. This opening gambit is followed by a longer narrative describing a different filmmaker’s attempt to convince a former Pentagon consultant to participate in a documentary project.

Both of these stories will lull the reader into a false sense of the unfolding drama, which eventually emerges from actions that take place when no camera is watching. The tone of the novel adjusts accordingly. DeLillo often situates his stories at an intersection in which a turn one way takes the story into a dark humor, but a slight turn in the other direction leads into the merely dark, where the comic has been replaced by the horrific. His last novel, Falling Man, took this latter turn, presenting DeLillo’s somber reenactment of events surrounding 9/11, some of them seen through the eyes of a suicide bomber. Point Omega continues in this vein, taking a few feints at a comedy of manners before opting for tragedy.

The plot seems fragmented at first, and this too is a familiar DeLillo device. Even his 800 page novel Underworld is really a quilt comprised of juxtaposed sections that resist integration into a linear narrative. But the fragmentation of Point Omega is a true fake-out. The separate plot lines actually coalesce, snapping together with the rightness of a piece of IKEA furniture. And I am sure that I am not only reader who needed to stop and put down the book at that moment when the linkage between the various plot lines emerges from the mist.

The result is book that may surprise some of this author’s longtime fans. I count myself as an admirer, but I must admit that I haven’t considered tight and intricate plotting as one of DeLillo’s great strengths. Yet here he has pulled the old switcheroo, and introduces us to another facet of his evolving work, delivering a work whose conclusion will force you to reconsider most of what has come before. So when you size up the thinness of the volume and calculate the price paid per word — yes, despite what you may have heard to the contrary, people do put a price tag on art — factor in the possibility that Point Omega is one of those rare books you may feel compelled to read again.

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About Ted Gioia