“He wanted pure mystery” a main character conjectures of another in Don DeLillo’s eerie and disorienting Point Omega. “Maybe it was easier for him, something beyond the damp reach of human motive ... Mystery had its truth, all the deeper for being shapeless, an elusive meaning that might spare him whatever explicit details would otherwise come to mind.”
Indeed, the kind of mystery, trepidation, and paranoia that pervades DeLillo’s earlier novels, when he wrote about conspiracy theories, the Cold War, and global terrorism, can be seen as prophetic about twenty-first-century America — are reflected in Point Omega by the character of a defense official, one of the men involved in the management of the country's war machine. Symbolism from the 9/11-based Falling Man (2007) makes its impact too.
First thing to hit you, though – besides the cinematic-themed section "Anonymity" depicting a viewing of a Hitchcockian art piece "24 Hour Psycho" – is the blast-furnace heat and landscape "somewhere south of nowhere" that is San Diego's Anza-Borrego Desert. Proud owner of a half-corrugated rustic hideaway is 73-year old retiree Richard Elster, who has retreated into a time and space limbo, following his departure from a team of planners for the Iraq War. Elster was an academic when he had been recruited, asked to apply ideas and principles to such matters as troop deployment and counterinsurgency. In a conceptual approach to war strategy, the eccentric Elster intended to “give them new words and meanings, words they hadn’t used, new ways of thinking and seeing,” but he left in disillusionment after his plans for a “haiku war” bogged down.
After giving in to the persistence of writer and photographer Jim Finley, Elster has invited the forty-something free-lancer to his desert home so he can talk to him about documenting his experience. Finley wants to persuade Elster to make a minimalist, one-take film, with Elster as its single subject — just one man in front of a Brooklyn wall speaking in one continuous take. But finding Elster a tough nut to crack, Jim sees days growing into weeks. That’s okay – as long as Jim thinks his patience and persuasion skills are doing the eventual cinematic trick. As his ex-wife said to him once, “Film, film, film. If you were any more intense, you be a black hole. A singularity.”
Turns out the desert “landscape unravels and reveals” for Elster, too, to the point that the retiree finds he doesn’t crave the solitary life as much as he thought he would. And so he expounds more intensely and with singular purpose on his pet theories, as Jim hears him out. Especially hard-hitting is Elster’s contention that the world's closing in on the omega point, a concept proposing an eventual “leap out of our biology,” as Elster puts it, a “sublime transformation of mind and soul or some worldly convulsion.”
Do we have to be human forever? Elbert asks. “Consciousness is exhausted. Back now to inorganic matter. This is what we want. We want to be stones in a field.”
By now, a new member has joined the household and the discourse — Elster’s mid-twenties daughter from New York, Jessie. Intelligent, otherworldly, “She was sylphlike, her element was air.” The three focus their binoculars on the backdrop and the bighorn sheep, and build a tender informality, something like a family. But soon enough a retreat from reality and an odd kind of inertia settles in – unfortunately, for the reader, too.
But it could be that we’re being set up for a fall. A sudden, didn’t-see-it-coming incident occurs, devastating and mystifying, one that alters the direction and dynamics of the narrative and characterizations.
In truth, the wayward turn in Point Omega — and we're not necessarily referring to surprise endings, or plot twists — seems at first like DeLillo’s impulsive ploy to reorient a storyline going stale for a novel that, even for such a short 128-pager, is seeing episodes recapitulating and narration meandering. Now with a seismic zig in the zag zone, you read on becoming increasingly aware that each section has a bearing on the other, and there may be a disquieting disturbance to the universe daring to take place.
In fact, far from being disjointed and lacking continuity, the enigmatic Point Omega ultimately comes away as skillfully interconnected and coherent. Indeed, whether the book clicks in right away or continues to be an open-ended works in progress, it really is, in the end, the most thought-provoking of novels: the finely-honed kind that sticks with you like a harrowing memory; whose particulars you'll be mulling over with insistent preoccupation; or reviewing to see if you got this fact or that figure right; to see if each mental and metaphoric puzzle piece you placed fits.
It's all a part of trying to crack a “pure mystery" of distinction.