It’s tempting to read Don DeLillo’s most recent novel, Point Omega—so slim, so staid, so quiet—as a radical departure from the author’s more characteristically boisterous romps like Ratner’s Star (1976), White Noise (1985), and the encyclopedic Underworld (1997), crowded as they are by absurd yet eerily familiar characters (human, machine, and otherwise), and all of them chatting; or at least to view it as a culmination of a millennial fining of method that begins with The Body Artist (2001) and proceeds via distilled storyline and structure into this book. And yet, his archive reveals that DeLillo considered Point Omega as a title for numerous books as far back as 1982’s The Names (previous critics have noted four others between 1991 and 2003). And any close reader of DeLillo’s over forty years of fiction will also recognize the title as an outgrowth of one of the novelist’s signature lines: “This is the point.” The point in Omega, then, is one toward which DeLillo has been working his way for decades, and yet also a departure, in that never before has the point of his point been so painfully real and sharp.
The book opens and closes with a meditation on time and being, watching and seeing, and the dangerous blur between real and image that occurs when self becomes what self perceives. In the two “Anonymity” sections that bookend the novel, a man named Dennis ponders and psychologically enters an art installation that slows Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) into a twenty-four-hour-long film (DeLillo based this piece on the videowork 24 Hour Psycho screened by Douglas Gordon at New York’s MOMA in 2006). What seems at first to be a Taoist lesson in being and presence (“This was the point. To see what’s here, finally to look and to know you’re looking, to feel time passing, to be alive to what is happening in the smallest registers of motion”) quickly becomes—for the critical reader, but not for our possibly psychotic watcher—a warning about the dangers of constituting the self purely externally, through image and representation: “The film made him feel like someone watching a film.” Similarly, the second-order simulacrum of the installation distances him further from reality by replacing the real world with the simulation: “The film had the same relationship to the original movie that the original movie had to real lived experience…. The original movie was fiction, this was real.”
Connecting this by now standard postmodern threat of the simulacrum to the center of the novel and bringing it to its newly moving point of human suffering is the woman who enters the museum as the man watches. She enters his thinking as Janet Leigh (conflated with her character by Dennis) enters Norman Bates’s: Dennis first conjures his desire for the woman in his mind, so that her arrival in the room seems from the beginning to submit her to all the ways he might dominate her and make her what he imagines for himself. This meditation on the very real dangers that assertive and needy (male) selves pose to (female) others whom they make over in their desired images becomes the unarticulated theme of the novel that murmurs menacingly beneath all the pompous meaning-of-life talk narcissistically vomited up by the main (male) characters in the center of the book.
Richard Elster, 73, former “fantasist in the Pentagon,” has retreated from his conceptual orchestration of a “haiku war” to the desert, hoping to escape time and the jagged edges of human interaction. Jim Finley, roughly half Elster’s age, and a filmmaker whose only film comprises an hour of uncontextualized footage of Jerry Lewis “talking, singing, weeping,” and recently (and seemingly rightfully) accused of trenchant narcissism by his departing wife, follows Richard there, hoping to make a similarly uncontextualized film about Elster’s participation in Iraq: “just a man and a wall” (in a remarkably self-aware...