- Fictions of the Visual Cortex
Don DeLillo's fifteenth novel presents the reader with a fractured narrative landscape where traditional novelistic elements are replaced by a quiet art of suggestive juxtaposition. What passes for the plot is hazy and insubstantial. In a tale that brackets the novel, an unnamed narrator watches Douglas Gordon's 24 Hour Psycho (1993) in a video installation at the Museum of Modern Art. The videowork slows the movie down to the point where it lasts a full day, and the narrator is hypnotized by the silent succession of images: "Every action was…so distinct…that the watcher found himself isolated from every expectation." His concentration is broken when two men enter the installation, and then, shortly after, leave. Following an inconclusive end to this prologue, the heart of the book is composed of four short chapters that shift the novel's focus to the Southwest and "the Sonoran Desert or maybe it was the Mojave." Here, DeLillo concentrates upon exchanges between the two men who briefly entered in the prologue—Jim Finley, an obscure filmmaker, and his older colleague, Richard Elster, a conservative academic who took part in conferences with strategic planners and military analysts during the Iraq War. Finley is trying to persuade a reluctant Elster to take part in a film about his time in government, but the ruminative exchanges between the two men are broken when Elster's daughter, Jessica, arrives and then abruptly disappears. Finley and Elster search unsuccessfully for Jessica, and then leave the desert. The novel concludes by returning to the unnamed narrator who, twenty-four hours after we last saw him, is still watching 24 Hour Psycho. He talks to an unidentified girl in the installation, follows her, gets her phone number, and then returns to the exhibition. At this point, the novel abruptly ends.
With such a slender plot, most mainstream reviewers have compared Point Omega to The Body Artist (2001), connecting both works' brevity and focus upon time. The new novel's genealogy is, however, somewhat more complicated than such comparisons suggest. DeLillo's notebooks indicate, in fact, that he considered Point Omega as a title for four earlier books: Mao II (1991), Underworld (1997), The Body Artist, and Cosmopolis (2003). Textual echoes within Point Omega also recall a number of DeLillo's earlier works—from End Zone (1972) to "In the Ruins of the Future" (2001)—and this cluster of backward glances would seem to indicate an artist entering his last phase of creativity, recalling "the stern biblical observation" that Edward Said quotes in On Late Style (2006), where as death approaches "there is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his own works." More specifically, in fact, the novel's "apparent disregard for its own continuity" and DeLillo's willful decision to "leave the work…incomplete" in important ways recalls the formal disjunctions that Said considers characteristic of artistic lateness. There have been many recent reviewers who have been eager to attribute the skeletal, abstract texture of DeLillo's late works to diminished artistic energy, but approaching Point Omega from a neuroscientific perspective reveals deeper continuities within his oeuvre, and charts not a departure, but the latest stage in DeLillo's consistent neural investigations.
DeLillo's fascination with cognition extends back to the early seventies, but Point Omega refines this general interest by directing attention toward the eye as a site of selective input into what he called, in Ratner's Star (1976), "the layered brain." Point Omega's first sentence ends with the word "visible," and this word introduces the drama of sight that makes up most of the novel. In place of the escalations and conflicts that fill most fictions, DeLillo builds his book around a series of static set-pieces designed less to reveal a particular scene than to illustrate structures of second- and third-order observation. Such structures are introduced in the video installation, where the narrator watches himself as "[h]e was watching the two men…watching the screen, Anthony Perkins at his peephole…watching Janet Leigh undress." Elsewhere...