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Mind’s Matter

by Sven Birkerts


The critical reception of Don DeLillo’s latest novel, the strikingly slender Point Omega, strikes me as one of those flashbulb moments—they come every so often—that throws a stark, fast illumination on how it is with the novel, or at least with that part of the literary culture to which the novel still matters. With a few welcome exceptions, the media response has been consistent—and, I would say, predictable. Reviewers have remarked on the brevity of the text, invoking the compendious Underworld as a counterpoint (i.e., the author is not living up to his former ambition); then most have zoomed in on the bare-bones plot, the flat characterizations, the pared-back and enigmatic dialogue, the preoccupation with concepts as opposed to rendered conflicts, and so on. Writes Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times: “[T]here is something suffocating and airless about this production. Unlike the people in his most memorable novels, the three characters here do not live in a recognizable America or recognizable reality—rather, they feel like roles written for a stylized and highly contrived theater piece…They are roles desperately in need of actors to flesh them out and give them life.” Meanwhile, Richard Eder, writing for The Boston Globe, asserts that “the characters are translucent wraiths, and the story a bare sketch. . . .”   

The critics—again, not all of them—are reading the work through the grid of familiar novelistic conventions and finding it wanting. More specifically: they are reading through the grid of familiar American novelistic conventions. Which gets me to my first assertion, which is that even in our globally polymorphous age, the literary conversation on this side of the Atlantic remains severely boxed in by a set of narrow assumptions about what a novel can and ought to do. These are enforced repeatedly through the verdicts of our critics of record.   

Long before the critics get their chance to weigh in, the agents, editors, and marketing people have their say. Peering through their own mesh, which of course has far less to do with aesthetics than with their idea of what will sell, they envision a reading audience and then work with marketing and bookstore intermediaries to make that audience real. This institutional second-guessing of the reading public creates a great vicious cycle, or—better—a vicious spinning wheel, which has enough centrifugal thrust to fling most any experimentally inclined writer back into his or her original oblivion. Except, say, Don DeLillo and those few others who have acquired enough career cachet to be viewed as exceptions—but who at the same time cannot escape the conventional critiques.

There is, yes, something distinctively American about this arrangement—which is not to say that publishing in other countries is not driven by profit margin and the savvy calculation of needs and wants of the marketplace. But in Europe anyway— I’ll confine the reach of my assertions—there is a tolerance, if not indeed a reverence, for the idea that the novel is an evolving artistic medium as well as a marketable entertainment, that it exists to explore human reality as much as to document and embroider upon it. This idea of the novel as possibility is what Milan Kundera and Italo Calvino wrote about years ago in elegant and wittily serious manifestoes like The Art of the Novel and Six Memos for the Millennium. Both insisted that fictional constructions can be used for unique phenomenological and epistemological and who-knows-what-other-kind-of-logical ends, that the genre is ideally suited to the deeper human investigations occasioned by the profound premise that is let us suppose. Nor have Kundera and Calvino been alone in their advocacy. Behind them stand, among others, Broch, Musil, Handke, Sarraute, Beckett, Duras, Robbe-Grillet, Bernhard, Frisch, Sebald, Saramago, Marias, Tournier, Butor—and I’m just citing the first names that come to mind.  

These more metaphysical approaches often tilt against the traditional props of verisimilitude—plot, character, and dialogue—because those serve a conservative convention, one that is essentially opposed to experiment and exploration. It is not impossible, of course, to produce a plotted, character-driven novel that interrogates existence with complex moral acuity. But it is very difficult, I think, to create a work driven by original or difficult ideas—conceptions—that nevertheless embodies character in a satisfyingly realistic way. Why is this? Is it because ideas are in some fundamental way transpersonal—an impression becomes an idea when it is in some way universalized, when it leaves the orbit of subjective immediacy? The more a premium is put on the individuated character, the less chance there is for ideas to acquire their own independent novelistic viability. This issue came up recently in James Wood’s New Yorker review of Generosity, Richard Powers’s most recent novel (which I have not yet read). Here was a classic instance of a novelist who is most animated by working out intellectual premises encountering a critic who is convinced that it is the novel’s central mission to honor the nuanced specificity of character and situation. For Wood, Powers’s suppositional idea-play could not compensate for the central weakness of character presentation—his philosophical contest of ideas was scarcely taken up.

Don DeLillo’s Point Omega is not only a cannily scripted meditation on a set of linked themes (time, modernity, collective illusionism, hierarchies of mattering, moral complicity in history), but it is also, more elusively, a deliberated modeling of the difficulty of assimilating our late-modern world to the available strategies of the novel. Point Omega’s gnomic slightness, its intentionally sketchy character presentation, rather than declaring some impoverishment of the author’s ambition or abilities, can be seen as DeLillo’s latest probe of our radically dissociated realities, one undertaken more at the level of premonition in earlier works like White Noise, Mao II, Underworld, to name salient instances, but now overtly staged—the how become inseparable from the what.  

The key phrase above is the difficulty of assimilating the world as it has become. This in itself is cud enough for a herd of cows—or critics. DeLillo, it seems to me, has chosen as his focus, his crisis, our growing collective estrangement from our ancient primary locating coordinates: space and time. When I say “our,” I’m talking about that vast and influential Western population that now lives irradiated by digital media of all descriptions, that has so wrapped itself in the technogauze of its own devising that the old natural constraints appear to have become all but irrelevant. Think: 24/7, news crawls, internet, GPS, Sensurround, climate control, home delivery, call-waiting, multi-tasking, direct deposit, Google Earth, Facebook, first-person shooter, Twitter, iPad, avatar, drone attack  . . . You get the idea. If the point of the serious artistic novel is to tell us how it is with us in the world we live in now, then capturing this irradiated condition might well be the challenge of our time. DeLillo clearly thinks so.

Such a theme raises the vexing question of representation, of treatment. Given that we are talking about the nature and substance of identity—how it might be morphing under these complex pressures—how would a novelist address the issue using the traditional realist kit-bag? DeLillo, for his part, has opted not to. He has instead made the changed state of things his given, his foreground, then deployed various narrative strategies to make the nature of the difference vivid. This is not a revolutionary turn for him, of course. The writer has worked for decades with suggestively spare characters, postmodern subjects and situations (conspiracy, media saturation, technology webs, etc.), and has kept his eye steadily on the big questions. But insofar as he has conceded to certain novelistic conventions, his more essayistic—or conceptual— impulses have been kept in check.  

This raises what I’m thinking is the DeLillo-question—and it might be the Powers-question as well—namely: why conduct these most vital investigations in novel form? Why not explore them more systematically in essay form, or as philosophy (as their kindred spirit Walker Percy sometimes did, in his Message in the Bottle and Lost in the Cosmos: A Self-Help Book)? Why use fiction?

The answer—and I think this brings us a good way toward grasping the reason-for-being of Point Omega—has to do with the nature of the writer’s philosophical imagination. DeLillo needs to process his inquiries in the form of “what if?” and “let us suppose,” and to study the modifications of the human in situational process, held against the light of the historical moment. While this does not put on him the demand of creating fully fleshed, idiosyncratic characters, it does ask that he furnish his world with premise-types. Thus we have the retired professor, one-time Iraq war strategist Elster, who has left his busy public life for the scouring isolation of the Western desert; Finley, the documentary filmmaker who wants to persuade the recluse to address himself to the camera; and, briefly, Jessie, Elster’s daughter, who is less a type than a plot agent suggestively penciled in. We also meet the unnamed cine-philosopher who at novel’s beginning and conclusion stares himself into the projection of Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho, a performance piece in which Hitchcock’s film has been slowed down to unfold in a 24-hour period.

It’s not enough, I believe, for DeLillo to address space and time—or, rather, our changing experience of those categories—in merely abstracted form. DeLillo requires conceptual dramatization, filtering his readings of our experience through characters—consciousnesses—not his own. Who can say why? Maybe it’s the opportunity extended by even slight characterization and impersonation: the character’s ideas and insights need to jostle against the received wisdom of their (in this case our) historical moment; they need to resonate fictionally with the period assumptions and mores.

~

Time, that grandest and airiest and most enfolding of all nouns, is DeLillo’s deep preoccupation— more than space, which sometimes seems for the writer just another way to help us conceive of time. Time is front and center in Point Omega—as if the novel had been constructed to enable the meditation and give the inchoate at least a vestige of dramatic tangibility. Why time—and why now? After all, the metaphysical construct—the Kantian category—has been with us since . . . well, since the dawn of time, and writers scratching on papyri were already grappling with it. “Why now?” is the better question.

DeLillo is bent on finding shape for his core intuition of postmodern transformation. He has had little truck with the model of history as accretion. His imagination is that of a catastrophist; he believes that in our period the old givens have been put under such unprecedented pressure—from technology and globally ravenous ideologies, from the convergent energies of electronic media—that some Yeatsian hour is come around at last. Small surprise that he should have focused on 9/11 to write Falling Man. But before that were other novels—The Names, White Noise, Mao II, and Underworld. Point Omega—as the title testifies—theorizes a culmination.  

~

Elster and Finley are alone in the desert, philosophizing. Elster talks to Finley about this “omega point,” which he—following the philosophy of Teilard de Chardin—sees as the apotheosis of the evolution of matter, its leap into consciousness, and its sudden thrust-reversing aspiration to return to the unconsciousness of matter. This idea figures as the underlying agon of the novel: the utter inassimilability of our new digitally neural awareness and the brute muteness of the matter that we have built it from—and upon. Point Omega looks to express this in dramatized situational terms.

Point Omega. The idea is too abstruse for any real synthesis or summation—novelistically it can only be handled by way of suggestive, scenic juxtapositions. The point of access for DeLillo is our subjective experience of time. This is where the contrast is made most stark—where the irreality of the urban now, internalized as a kind of pulsing collective clock, collides with the ur-reality of the largely banished natural world. DeLillo enacts his spare human contest right at the interface.

There are two major time themes in Point Omega. They are separate—we can think of them as “micro” and “macro.” The first, expressed as a kind of set-piece that begins and ends the novel, recounts the viewing by an unnamed character of Gordon’s slowed Psycho. Both of these sections are riveting close-focus meditations, enforcing the idea of our access via artifice, via technology, to a deeper phenomenology, and a revision of hierarchies of inflection. “Curtain rings,” writes DeLillo of his unnamed watcher-figure, “that’s what he recalled most clearly, the rings on the shower curtain spinning on the rod when the curtain is torn loose, a moment lost at normal speed, four rings spinning slowly over the fallen figure of Janet Leigh, a stray poem above the hellish death, and then the bloody water curling and cresting at the shower drain, minute by minute, and eventually swirling down.” As if to slow the time stream even this much is to disclose the transpersonal necessity of events, to slip free of the customary emotional contouring—never mind that the original film was a deliberate heightening of that very thing.

The Hitchcock viewings are set apart from the main (short) body of the novel, which takes place deep in the California desert and centers on Elster, Finley, and Jessie. But as we read literature both sequentially and cumulatively, the Psycho perceptions are necessarily present throughout, playing against and filtering through the “macro” desert perspective, its annihilatingly indifferent elemental force that reduces all human presence to near-nothingness. “It was too vast,” Finley observes when he is out in the desert, “it was not real, the symmetry of furrows and juts, it crushed me, the indifference of it. . . .” The two vantages—one seemingly hyper-real, the other felt as unreal—are held together only in the mind of the reader, not to be synthesized. On the one hand, we have the mind-opening re-distribution of focus, and on the other, the understanding that when the stage is, like the desert, quasi-eternal, no surface disturbance can possibly matter.  

But there is also the human-scaled part of the narration. Elster, pressured by Finley to be the talking head in a movie he wants to make (a kind of Fog of War quasi-confessional), seeks to compensate for his refusal by talking. He explains himself to Finley, rationalizes his role as adviser/strategist in George W. Bush’s Iraq war. He speaks elliptically—always. “There were times when no map existed to match the reality we were trying to create,” he asserts at one point. When Finley asks, “What reality?” Elster replies: “Human perception is a saga of created reality. . . .We tried to create new realities overnight, careful sets of words that resembled advertising slogans in memorability and repeatability.” The notion of moral accountability itself has here been atomized into an unreality as haunting as that of the Hitchcock images.  

But that extraordinary distance then implodes. Not long after this conversation, Elster’s daughter Jessie arrives to visit, possibly to get away from a potentially “stalker” boyfriend. She moves about the house like a wraith for some days. But then—abruptly—she disappears. No word, no traces; she is a haunting, vibrating absence. And Elster, architect and rationalizer of grand, conceptual—which is to say removed and morally dissociated—initiatives, freefalls into a grief-shattered fugue. Here is an almost schematic reverse of vantages, but the point carries, intellectually if not at the visceral character level.

The impact has to do with DeLillo’s way of deploying his component elements. Though they are few, they combine for the reader into figures of genuine moral and philosophical complexity. Consider the collisions, the various implicit tensions. First, there is the ground perspective in which all human initiative is seen to unfold against the elemental, be it registered in frames-per-second or geological millennia. Then there is the stress of the strategic thinker’s calculating abstractness—the logic of “action-at-a-distance”—weighed against the individual human damage we  know it causes. Finally, lest we fail in registering the reality of the unique person, DeLillo presents, through the responses of both Elster and Finley, the searing immediacy of loss. Jessie’s disappearance activates in us the imagery of violence (Psycho) that we have stored, speeding the grainy pulse of things back to dramatic life, and instantly nullifying all thinking that proceeds by statistics, categories, and dissociated atomizing.

Orchestrating the work in this way, DeLillo is not working toward some philosophical conclusion or synthesis—what could he possibly conclude? Rather, he is using the form of the novel as a vessel, a kind of chemist’s retort, to test what reactions are created in the reader by the forces interacting. Crucially, if the characters were rendered more specific, more individually plausible, the burden of this—the sorting and the drawing of moral conclusions—would necessarily fall upon them. But this is not what drives DeLillo. Kakutani’s complaint about the novel was that the characters “feel like roles written for a stylized and highly contrived theater piece.” The critic’s dismissal suggests to me her unwillingness to grant that there might be other paths for the contemporary novel, ambitions that put character in the service of ideas rather than vice-versa. What DeLillo has done is contrived a work that invests the engaged reader in its unapologetically philosophical enterprise—which is, per Socrates, first and foremost about questioning.   

 

Sven Birkerts is the editor of AGNI. (5/2010)


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