- The Lady Vanishes: Don DeLillo’s Point Omega
Many have anatomized the disquiet experienced by Americans in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, but few have done so with as much subtlety and intellectual brio as Don DeLillo. In nuanced, stylistically distinctive, often funny meditations on all that has happened to us and all that we dread, DeLillo captures something that everyone feels and no one fully understands. Frank Lentricchia perceptively characterizes DeLillo’s novels as “montages of tones, styles, and voices that have the effect of yoking together terror and wild humor as the essential tone of contemporary America” (2). Lentricchia’s terms—“montages,” “yoking”—signal the qualities in DeLillo’s writing that link it to other modern and contemporary art: cinema, collage, even verse influenced by the metaphysical poets (given to “heterogeneous ideas . . . yoked by violence together,” as Samuel Johnson famously observed ). Derived at least in part from the modernist aesthetic that married a high standard of economy to new representational challenges, DeLillo’s prose strikes readers as elliptical yet replete, brimming with intimation. Supercharging predication in sentence after sentence, he performs something of a stylistic highwire act: if the reader ever suspects the least element of rhetorical fakery, down comes the house of pregnant prose. Such whiffs from the sewer of pretension in fact undermine the gnomic pronouncements of Richard Elster, the central figure in DeLillo’s 2010 novel Point Omega.As Ezra Pound, or T. S. Eliot, or James Joyce creates a flawed version [End Page 31] of himself as Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, or J. Alfred Prufrock, or Stephen Dedalus, so does DeLillo, in Elster, imagine his own secret sharer.
Properly to read and analyze any DeLillo work, one needs to avoid the premature pronouncement, the facile assessment that belies this author’s true originality as thinker and maker. I would like to offer a reading of Point Omega attentive to the rich suggestiveness of the DeLillo style. To that end, I beg the reader’s patience if my remarks about meaning in this novel give way only gradually to actual assertions. That is, I propose to approach my subject—at least initially—in what Jacques Derrida, commenting on Sigmund Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle, characterizes as a “speculative” or “athetic” mode, the better to remain open to meanings that a more thesis-driven analysis might throttle in the hermeneutic crib.1 I do not mean to be mysterious. My argument will emerge in two parts, the first focused on cinematic ekphrasis in this novel, the second on the perennially vexed question of just how an artist can, without didacticism, incorporate political perceptions into work that they might render tendentious. Ultimately, I will argue for a kind of astute ascesis in DeLillo’s engagement with political themes. Though he foregrounds the spiritual crisis of an apologist for the Second Gulf War, DeLillo deflects problems of immediate political legitimacy toward larger, less topical questions of a civilization’s decline. He perpends the prospect of an omega point for the American empire.
One thinks of the DeLillo oeuvre as a rich weave of thematic or semic elements that include language, terror, film, deserts, American identities, and, with increasing urgency, eccentric and unusual artworks. As early as Americana, readers encounter considerable emphasis on the extraliterary artistic enterprise—whether [End Page 32] the film that David Bell is making or the strange sculptures of his friend Sullivan. But toward the latter part of his career, DeLillo begins to carry ekphrasis and allusion to new heights—thus Andy Warhol (and Warhol pastiche) figures in Mao II, Pieter Bruegel at the Polo Grounds and B–52s in the desert in Underworld, and the performance art of Lauren Hartke in The Body Artist. The story “Baader-Meinhof” centers on a suite of Gerhard Richter paintings, Falling Man on the guerrilla theater of David Janiak. Characters in Cosmopolis participate in a Spencer Tunick–like project, and Alex Macklin, the moribund artist in Love-Lies-Bleeding, embraces “land art” (25) and imagines painting “every square inch” of “[a] chamber, a cubical room. Fashioned out of solid rock” (59). One can often—perhaps always— discern in such material...